Tag Archives: Whistling Straits

Monkeying with the Top 50 Algorithm

A reader from Pine Valley, N.J., asks how much of a course’s rating is based upon conditioning. “You’ve got Augusta National at No. 6 and Prairie Dunes at No. 4,” she writes, “and those courses are immaculately groomed. But you’ve got a bunch of links courses on your list that are downright shaggy and have greens rolling at 5 on the stimpmeter. Can you explain?”

The Country Club

When mowed, The Country Club cracks the Top 5 (John Garrity)

I can. The Top 50 algorithm — perfected more than a decade ago by a CalSci team under the direction of applied mathematics professor Charles Edward Eppes — awards plus-or-minus points for dozens of pertinent variables, e.g., average green size, proximity of sand bunkers to overhanging tree limbs, horsepower of beverage carts, horsepower of beverage-cart girls, etc. But no points are awarded for conditioning.

That’s what makes the Top 50 great. Other ratings systems award top-100 status to glorified turf farms that spend hundreds of dollars per year on fertilizer, pesticides and sprinkler systems. These well-known courses subscribe to the Hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn theory of greenkeeping, which elevates agronomy above price, playability and scenery — or, as I call them, “The Big 3.”

Trouble is, conditioning is not only superficial; it’s temporary. Augusta National looked great in April, when it was on TV, but how does it look now, in August? Ditto for the Ft. Meade City Mobile Home Park Golf Course in Ft. Meade, Fla. Ft. Meade’s packed-clay greens are perfectly round in January, at the peak of the tourist season, but by June its greens — if that’s the word — have rough edges, and its fairways — if that’s the word — are covered with fire-ant hills. But those are merely cosmetic changes, and it would be unjust to demote either course because of its appearance.

Just for fun, though, I asked the CalSci team to crank out some ratings with turf quality added to the mix. Guess what? It totally scrambles the results.

  1. Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. (Alister Mackenzie, Bobby Jones), 10.25
  2. Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin, Ohio (Jack Nicklaus, Desmond Muirhead), 10.27
  3. Sunset Hills Golf Course and Driving Range, Sheboygan Falls, Wisc. (Ed Kirchenwitz) 9.75
  4. Kansas City Country Club, Kansas City, Mo. (A.W. Tillinghast, Robert Trent Jones) 9.72
  5. The Country Club, Brookline, Mass. (Willie Campbell, Rees Jones) 10.31

The fastidious National, at No. 1, is no surprise. Neither is No. 2 Muirfield Village, where the turf is so carpet-like that Dan Jenkins, covering the 1977 Memorial Tournament, wrote that spectators “would sooner have dropped cigarettes on their babies’ tummies” than flick a butt onto the fairway.

Sunset Hills, at No. 3, is the shocker — but only if you’re a stranger to southeastern Wisconsin. Situated a few miles from No. 72 Whistling Straits Golf Club, Sunset Hills is a nine-hole par-3 course serving the heavily-traveled Highway 23 corridor connecting Sheboygan with Greater Fond du Lac/Oshkosh. Its designer, Ed Kirchenwitz, was superintendent at Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run before working his magic on the Sheboygan River flood plain.

Yes, magic. You know it’s magic the instant you step onto Sunset Hills’ first tee, which is as posh as a lawn bowls green and roughly the size of Delaware. The fairways and greens follow suit, punctuated by exotic trees, sensational shrubbery, and a meandering river. And that’s not even counting Sunset Hills’ spacious and densely-turfed practice range, which has the added merit of facing away from the titular sunset, rendering balls visible against the evening sky.

Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle, who played Sunset Hills on Wednesday evening, said, “When you walk onto a par-3 course between the corn fields, you have low expectations. You aren’t expecting Whistling Straits-type turf.” Neither are you expecting a ten-dollar weekend green fee and a cart fee of five bucks per person — or, as I call them, “The Big 2.”

Anyway, that’s how the rankings look when you give points for checkerboard mowing patterns and topiary. Next time we’ll see how things shake out when I juice the algorithm with parking lot quality.

Top 50 on TV: The PGA Championship has returned to the above-mentioned Whistling Straits, a clifftop design by the legendary duo of Pete and Alice Dye. Renowned for its thousand-plus bunkers and slippery dune grasses, the Straits is scheduled to host the 2020 Ryder Cup “subject to sufficient guaranteed quality hotel rooms.” (Written from the Oshkosh Fairfield Inn & Suites, which provides free fresh-baked cookies on a daily basis.)


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Castle Stuart Passes Latest Test

A reader from “Lake Wobegon” — a transparent alias for Lake Michigan, which provided the backdrop and fog for last week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, No. 18 — asks for my definition of the word overrated. “If I can figure out what dictionary you’re using,” he writes, “I can maybe understand your omission of Pine Valley, Pinehurst No. 2, Medinah No. 3, Cherry Hills, The Country Club, Riviera, Inverness, Oakland Hills, Firestone South, Winged Foot, Congressional and Baltusrol from your ridiculous rankings.”

Simply by perusing Wobegon’s list of “slighted” courses I can tell a lot about the man. (There can be no doubt he is a man.) He lives on the far side of fifty, plays to a single-digit handicap, drives a Cadillac Escalade, walks about with a sweater around his neck, drinks Johnny Walker Black, has a home library with more than 200 golf books and a wing chair, votes Republican, has a trophy wife, and files an amended tax return two years out of five. He is, in other words, a man very much like myself.*

*I drive a Honda Insight hybrid, never touch alcohol and vote Democratic, but I roughly conform to the stereotype.

So I can understand Wobegon’s reluctance to accept that Time has passed him — and his beloved Canon of Great Golf Courses — by. (“It strikes! one, two,”  declaims Ben Jonson. “Three, four, five, six. Enough, enough, dear watch, Thy pulse hath beat enough.” ) All the courses he names have resided for a while in the Top 50, only to flow down and off the list like water going over a falls. As for my definition of overrated, I go with American Heritage: “to rate or appraise too highly.”

Which brings me back to the Castle Stuart Golf Links of Inverness, Scotland. Castle Stuart, open only a few months when it debuted last year at No. 10, has since risen to ninth, raising suspicions that insiders with personal agendas might have influenced the rating.*

*Specifically, critics have pointed to my middle name, which happens to be Stuart, and to my most recent book, Ancestral Links: A Golf Obsession Spanning Generations, which has three chapters on the golfing history of the Royal Stuart family, ending with a thwarted visit to the Castle Stuart construction site in the autumn of 2007. My critics, of course, are complete asses.

Castle Stuart

Whitecaps on the Firth? The 11th at Castle Stuart (John Garrity)

As mentioned in an earlier post, Dave Henson and I played only five holes at Castle Stuart on the Fourth of July, due to winds of up to 70 mph and precipitation in the form of horizontal rain, sleet, snow, hail and frozen desserts. Returning three days later at mid-morning, we were happy to see the sky cleared of clouds and the sun spreading its warmth; the only hangup was the wind, which was inexplicably stronger, gusting to 75. Dave was dubious about playing, but I assured him that Mark Parsinen and Gil Hanse had taken wind into account when they designed Castle Stuart. “Just remember to keep one foot on your trolley when you’re hitting a shot,” I told him. “And don’t hit your driver into the wind.”

Dave, whose former post in the Labor Department had him giving advice rather than taking it, apparently thought I was joking. He spent most of the round picking up his  toppled bag, chasing his trolley as it rolled toward cliffs, and watching his drives get swatted down by the gale. I, on the other hand, played most of my shots with a hybrid-4,  employing a hinge-and-hold technique that produced a steady tattoo of 130- to 150-yard wormburners. “It’s golf as it was meant to be played,” I told my frazzled friend, mentally pocketing skin after skin.

Despite the extreme conditions, Castle Stuart was playable. The ball rolled on its own accord on just one green, the twelfth, which clings to a promontory above the beach. The broad fairways, meanwhile, were receptive to smartly-struck drives, and the green complexes tended to collect and contain wayward shots rather than repel them. Aesthetically, Castle Stuart most resembles Top 50 evergreens Pebble Beach and Whistling Straits. The first three holes on each side run low along the water but in opposite directions, bringing the wind into play in contrary fashion. Subsequent holes ride the higher ground, and it’s only when you walk over to cliff’s edge that you see the holes below. The views, needless to say, are spectacular, and there are so many memorable holes that it’s hard to pick out a favorite. The postcard hole is probably the par-3 11th, played from a cliff-wall tee to a hanging-over-the-water green guarded by a nasty pot bunker.

Anyway, having played the course twice now — once last summer in a modest breeze and more recently in wind-tunnel conditions — I can confidently say that Castle Stuart, at No. 9, is not overrated. If anything, it is underrated. (“To rate or evaluate too low; underestimate.”) Personally, I put it right up there with Askernish Old and Carne, my two favorite courses.

Top 50 Alert: Erin Hills Golf Course of Erin, Wisc., recently picked to host the 2017 U.S. Open, debuts at No. 23, the highest first-time ranking for a course since Castle Stuart debuted at No. 10.  Built on farmland outside Milwaukee, Erin Hills echoes the trend toward rural courses with links-style characteristics, a la Prairie Dunes, Sand Hills, Whistling Straits and Medicine Hole. In fact, the bag drop/caddyshack at Erin Hills is an actual barn. (Note to USGA: Provide paved parking for Escalades.)


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Rain Man Tackles Nairn Golf Club

The second stop on our tour of suspected-of-being-overrated Scottish links courses was Nairn, a bustling village just up the road from Castle Stuart, outside Inverness. The Nairn Golf Club will host the 2012 Curtis Cup, so Dave Henson and I were not surprised to find a course groomed to tournament standards. The greens were suspiciously smooth, providing none of the mystifying bumps and bobbles that make small-town golf satisfying, but several of my putts found the hole, leaving me in a forgiving mood. There were a few too many steep-faced bunkers to suit Dave, and I could have done without the 20-inch fescue roughs, but difficulty does not disqualify a course from mention in the Top 50.

My colleague and I did have a piffling disagreement over what constitutes a links course. Midway through our late-afternoon round the holes turned away from the shore and climbed a tree-lined hill, putting us on farmable soil that scarcely resembled the thumpable, sandy underpinning of a true links. The closing holes presented a similar confusion: out-in-the-open, linksy greens requiring long, backward hikes into the woods to new tees that might have been transplanted from Alabama. I argued for a surgical trimming of trees to restore the openness of the closing holes, while Dave — pointing out that it was raining buckets and he was practically coughing up blood, due to his bronchitis — simply shook his head and walked off the course.

That left me to play the last three holes in total isolation, the club members having fled at the first sight of a dark cloud. (So much for the myth of Scottish golfers braving the elements!) As I holed my last putt in a drizzle on the 18th green, Dave came out to greet me, knocking ashes from his pipe, while perhaps a dozen diners cast me admiring glances from the glassed-in warmth of the club dining room.

“So how would you rate Nairn?” Dave asked on the drive back to Inverness.

“Fifty,” I said. “Maybe higher, if they chop down the trees.”

Next Up: Our Fourth of July round having been disrupted by seventy-mile-an-hour winds, we return to Castle Stuart to play a make-up round in seventy-five-mile-an-hour winds.

Whistling Straits Golf Course

Whistling Straits: Are 1,000 bunkers enough? (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: The PGA Championship, the fourth and final major of the season, is being played at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisc., currently ranked No. 18. (The course, not the state.) Already famous for his island greens and railroad-tie bulkheads, architect Pete Dye gave developer Herb Kohler something no other golf course has: a thousand sand bunkers. Other ideas for Whistling Straits, considered but ultimately rejected, included reversible greens, asphalt tee boxes and torch-lined fairways for night golf.

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