Tag Archives: Swope Memorial

Top 50 HQ Faces Further Layoffs

It has been a quiet summer at Catch Basin. The Top 50 staff — those who were not furloughed last spring — spend most of their time in the company cafeteria, sipping tea and reading technical journals. The place typically empties out by 3 p.m., the techies going to their second jobs in the fast-food industry, the golfers bussing out to 30th-ranked Hillcrest Country Club for a few hours of unsupervised recreation. The basement level of the Michael F. Bamberger Computer Center is a sorry sight; the Bomar Brain sits idle, surrounded by stacks of recycled fan-fold paper.

Pennsylvania Run GC

This demanding Kentucky course is mired at T51 in the Top 50 ranking. (John Garrity)

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” I told a local TV crew last night. “If we don’t get some meaningful data by the weekend, we’re probably gonna lose the whole season.”

Why sugar-coat it? It’s nigh on two months since Louisville’s Big Spring Country Club, site of the 1952 PGA Championship and the 2008 Rolex Writers Cup, crept into the Top 50. Since then, there has been absolutely no movement in the rankings. Every one of the thousands of courses we rate, right down to last-place Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course, is right where it was on June 24, when Big Springs replaced Pennsylvania Run Golf Course, Kentucky’s best clover-fairways layout, at No. 50.

“No change — is that even possible?” I asked one of our Cal Sci consultants, Prof. Amazon V. Hachette.

“It’s not just possible,” he texted back. “It’s very possible. You’re too young to remember, but there were whole decades when the course rankings didn’t budge. The Old Course at St. Andrews, for example, was number one for more than three centuries, and there was a week in the 1920s when everybody, for some reason, stopped playing golf.”

Comforting words. But as I told the good professor, quoting John Maynard Keynes, “In the long run we are all dead.”

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs are underway at 51st-ranked Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.

Meanwhile, our crack staff of second-raters continues to file reports, even if those reports don’t move the ranking. Our Heart-of-America man, Dr. Gary Abrams, performed an exhausting review of Hillcrest [Donald Ross] and 51st-ranked Swope Memorial Golf Club [A.W. Tillinghast] of Kansas City, Mo. “They’re featuring your Sports Illustrated story at Hillcrest,” Gary begins ….

I was pleased that the condition of the course was better than last year, and it’s still a classic and fun. Swope was amazing. Having not played there for many years, I was blown away by its immaculate condition — as good as any country club.  Uniform rough, great bunkers, greens were tiptop.  Wow.  Can’t wait to go back …. [Fourth-ranked] Prairie Dunes tomorrow …. Love to take you out to Shirkey Golf Club in Richmond, Mo. Think you’ll find it a “primitive” masterpiece.

Shirkey, designed by Golf Course Superintendents Association of America co-founder

Chet Mendenhall, received a 4-1/2-star rating from Golf Digest and is currently ranked No. 304 on our list.

Bruce Selcraig

Journalist/investigator Bruce Selcraig is a giant among links experts. (John Garrity)

And then there’s this from investigative reporter Bruce Selcraig of Austin, Texas, our chief links correspondent, widely-published writer and former staffer for the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations  …

Hey, John: Just played Narin & Portnoo Golf Club in County Donegal. Liked it a lot, never noticed that it was just 6,000 yds from the middle tees, only 6,200 from the tips. Lots of gorgeous holes, a huge beach the equal of Portsalon Golf Club’s. An unfortunate caravan park marring #17 and the first tee, but, you know, Loretta Lynn’s got to live somewhere. Fun, challenging.

Bruce adds, “Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age and declining stickhood, but I now think designers who put everything on mountainsides and don’t let you see a natural place for the ball to go are bozos, while designers who want their courses to please people for the next 200 years — Eddie Hackett! — are to be revered. Ahem.”

And this last bit from Bruce:

I walked onto the Old Tom Morris course at Rosapenna Golf Resort at 8 p.m. for some evening golf and had giant fun. Very traditional old links, flat mostly, surrounded by large dunes. The evening light made it memorable.

If you’re keeping score, Narin & Portnoo, Portsalon and Rosapenna’s Old Tom Morris course and Pat Ruddy-designed Sandy Hills links are currently ranked — some would say stuck —  at T117.


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Florida Aqua-Range Gets Late Nod

Gary Van Sickle is fashionably late with his vote for best aqua-range, but the Top 50 never closes. So now … a man who needs no introduction … except, of course, to say that he’s a veteran senior writer at Sports Illustrated, the top print golf analyst east of the Rio Grande, and father of first-year tour pro Mike Van Sickle.

“Don’t recall the aqua-range question,” Gary writes. “Can’t be an age thing. What’s your name again, young feller? Only one I can recall is Imperial Lakewoods (formerly Imperial Lakes)* in Palmetto, Fla., just outside Bradenton.”

*Coincidentally, the scientists at Catch Basin are putting together a ranking of golf courses that have changed names, whether due to bankruptcy, renovation, change of ownership or an understandable lapse of memory, given the owner’s age. For example, A. W. Tillinghast’s Swope Memorial Golf Course, No. 45, is the golf course formerly known as Swope No. 1, while its cross-park 9-hole counterpart, currently called the Heart of America Golf Course (but billed as the Blue River Golf Course in my soon-to-be-revived classic, America’s Worst Golf Courses), was Swope No. 2. Other famous courses, although they try to hide the fact, have not always gone by their current names — e.g., Seminole Golf Club (formerly Barracuda Dunes Resort), Pebble Beach Golf Links (briefly known as Otter Play Golf Club) and The Country Club at Brookline (aka Boston Blackie’s Suburban Pitch ‘n’ Putt).

“Imperial Lakes was the first course Mike Van Sickle was on,” Gary continues. “He traversed the course as a baby in a snuggy, carried by Betsy, while I played with my folks. Mike actually has a photo of himself as a 3- or 4-year old hitting balls into the water on the Imperial Lakes range. I’m suitably attired in pink shirt, light blue shorts and a St. Andrews Hogan-style cap.”*

*The Top 50 is making every effort to obtain this photograph.

“So I’d rate Imperial Lakes No. 1,” Gary concludes. “I can’t think of any others I’ve played.”

(Mike’s father adds this gratuitous post script: “Your website needs traffic. I make wisecracks, and nothing. No replies. It’s deader than a thing that’s not alive.”)

Chantilly Aqua Range

Dolce Chantilly is still No. 1 (John Garrity)

Van Sickle’s endorsement is no threat to the current No. 1 aqua-range, the tree-lined stunner at the Dolce Chantilly Golf Club and Hotel in Chantilly, France. But I’m slipping Imperial Woodlakes Golf Club (or whatever it’s called) into the third spot, behind Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club of Guangdong Province, China.

Addendum: Some readers have detected a certain volatility in our recent rankings, which — along with a handful of minor errors, which we have promptly corrected and apologized for — have led some to question the scientific underpinnings of the the Top 50. “You no longer mention Professor Eppes and the Cal Sci algorithm,” writes one worried technophile. “Are you flying solo?”

Answer: No! The Top 50 is still the leader in empirically-derived golf course evaluation, and nothing that happens in some musty California classroom is going to change that. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I am more or less obliged to report that Professor Charles Eppes recently eloped with some raven-haired bimbo and fled to England. Charlie is currently teaching at Foxent College, Oxford, not far from Wentworth Golf Club, No. 84. In his absence, the Cal Sci algorithm is being steered by a total math geek who knows absolutely nothing about golf.

This is, I am told, a temporary situation. But until the Cal Sci Board of Regents can find a qualified replacement, we at Catch Basin will have to soldier on with our nimble minds, flexible fingers and one very overworked Bomar Brain. In the meantime, we sincerely regret any inconvenience.

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Fighting Words Over Brookline Ranking

“I have to disagree with Swope Memorial,” Dan B writes. “This is a decent local municipal course, but it does not belong in any national discussion, regardless of who designed it or what tournament it may have hosted.”

Dan’s spirited rebuke is music to my ears! The whole point of the Top 50 is to get students of great golf design to come out of their shells and start squabbling like litigants on Judge Judy. If you were to visit us here at Catch Basin, you’d find Top 50 staffers shouting in hallways, hurling logoed caps at each other and throwing the occasional punch over the most arcane disagreements. Tempers flare because most of these disputes are, at their core, matters of individual taste. Are the greens at North Dakota’s Medicine Hole, No. 38, better than the greens at Augusta National, No. 7? I would say no — particularly during Masters week. But my assistant with the frayed knuckles asks: Better for whom? The average Badlands golfer will take four or five putts on Augusta’s 9th green — which, Omar will argue, is proof of faulty design.

17th at Ballybunion

Ballybunion Old: Better than TPC Scottsdale? (John Garrity)

Similarly, there are those who, like Dan B, wonder how a midwestern muni like Swope Memorial, No. 45, can topple a legendary layout like The Country Club. We are all prey to this “we know who or what is best” attitude. It’s the same conventional wisdom that told us that a 20-year-old American street urchin named Francis Ouimet couldn’t possibly outplay the British golf titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray for the 1913 U.S. Open title.

The Top 50 algorithm, I’m proud to say, does not look down its nose at underdogs. When you take a closer look at a mutt like Swope Memorial — give it a flea bath, say, and a good brushing — you may find that it has a pedigree to compare with that of any Brookline Pomeranian. Did you know, for instance, that the legendary newsman O.B. Keeler, Bobby Jones’s mentor and Boswell, was a regular at Swope Park during his brief tenure at  the Kansas City Star? Keeler wrote about the parkland gem in its 9-hole, pre-Tillinghast iteration, circa 1910, but you could easily apply his words to today’s 6,274-yard championship layout:

It was as simple and straightforward a golf course as nature could devise, uncomplicated by fancy architectural notions. An intermittent sort of stream with trees guarded the first green, and another stream in a steep-walled valley, with a spread of swamp to the right, had to be crossed on the one-shotter, No. 4. … The fairways were good enough, and the rough wasn’t particularly rough, though the putting surfaces never seemed adequate and we were forever complaining about them. Withal, they were not to be despised as excuses. ‘You know how those greens are,’ you could tell your friends.

That sounds a lot like the Swope Memorial I play on my senior-discount, weekdays-and-weekend-afternoons annual pass — particularly that passage about a “steep-walled valley with a spread of swamp,” a spot I seem to find with some regularity. The greens, of course, have improved greatly since Keeler’s time, though they may not be as “sophisticated” as those at The Country Club.

As I recall it [Keeler continues], the original public course at Swope Park ought to have been about as easy a nine holes as the most gingerly neophyte could have asked on which to start cutting down his medal average of 7 strokes to the hole. Yet the shameful confession may as well be made, that not only did I fail to achieve the average of 4 that originally was established as my Ultima Thule*, but also that I cannot recall ever playing a single round of nine holes at an average of 5 — certainly not the full round of 18 holes — in the three years I fought, bled and courted apoplexy about that course.**

*The Latin words Ultima Thule, in medieval geographies, denoted any distant place beyond the boundaries of the known world. The term was later appropriated by the Swedish Viking-rock band, Ultima Thule, which sold one certified platinum and three gold albums in the 1990s.

**From O.B. Keeler’s The Autobiography of an Average Golfer, Greenberg, 1925.

I could go on quoting Keeler to my advantage, but the proof is in the playing, so to speak. I happily invite any Country Club member out to Swope Memorial as my guest, on the understanding that I get a round at The Country Club in return. Who knows? If it impresses me, Brookline might find its way back to the Top 50.*

*Golfweek’s latest course ranking (3-12-10) has The Country Club at No. 20 on its list of so-called Classic Courses. That sounds impressive until you notice that Golfweek excludes all courses built since 1960 — they have a Top 100 of their own! — and totally ignores golf courses outside the U. S. If I were The Country Club, I’d find a second and challenge Golfweek to a duel.

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Oops! Swope In, Brookline Out

No one has found fault, so far, with our recently-updated Top 50. The only quibbles come from the tree-hugging community — effectively dismissed in my last posting — and from an anonymous correspondent who claims he has trouble distinguishing between the late Robert Trent Jones (designer of Valderrama, No. 17, and renovator of Kansas City C.C., No. 50) and his son, Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Poipu Bay, No. 15). Which brings to mind the Joan Rivers acquaintance who didn’t understand the concept of Roman numerals. (“She thought we just fought World War Eleven.”)

Perfect, however, is something we have never claimed to be. Decimal points can be misplaced. Fours can fail to be carried. Checks can — and do — get lost in the mail.* That’s why we constantly re-examine our data, looking for niggling errors, and why we subscribe to a sophisticated “spell-checking program” that makes us look up words that it doesn’t recognize. (See “Valderrama.”) It is Top 50 policy to correct even minor mistakes, there being no better way to preserve confidence in the published ranking.

*Sometimes twice in a row, against all odds.

In that spirit, we submit this clarification of the most recent ranking: No. 45 is Swope Memorial Golf Course, Kansas City, Mo. — not The Country Club of Brookline, Mass., as originally announced.

The elevation of Swope Memorial marks the first time that two A. W. Tillinghast courses from Kansas City have achieved simultaneous rankings. Elegant Kansas City Country Club, the third-oldest country club west of the Mississippi and home course of five-time British Open champion Tom Watson, is better known than its crosstown cousin, but both tracks have pedigrees. KCCC has hosted numerous state, regional and national tournaments, including the inaugural Trans-Mississippi Amateur (1901), won by John Stuart. Hilly Swope Memorial, a municipal course, hosted the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship and was the PGA’s venue for the 1949 Kansas City Open, won by Jim Ferrier.

The adjustment leaves the highly-regarded Country Club, currently ranked 18th in the U.S. by an anonymous Golf Digest panel, with no ranking at all. To mollify its New England supporters, who relentlessly lobby the Top 50 on behalf of their allegedly underrated courses, we have temporarily moved the Donald Ross-designed 9-hole Tatnuck Country Club course of Worcester, Mass., to No. 68, three rungs above its previous station

We regret, but don’t admit to, the error.


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