Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ballybunion and Lahinch - Golfing in Ireland



My first trip to play golf in Europe was to Ireland about ten years ago. A friend who was born and raised in Northern Ireland arranged the trip and we went in late September. He is an aggressive type 'A' personality and we played about 12 times in 7 days. Ireland has 32 counties (26 in the Republic and 6 in the North). During our brief stay on the Island we drove through 20 of them while making a complete circuit of the country.

We started in Dublin, traveled South, then West, then North, then East before traveling south to Dublin again. We played five courses on the top 100 list (Royal County Down, Royal Portrush, The European Club, Lahinch and Ballybunion) and several others that are not (Ballyliffin in County Donegal, The K Club and Druids Glen).

I credit this trip for infecting me with the golf bug. I've been addicted ever since.

I have returned to Ireland many times on golf trips and played throughout the country including at Tralee, Waterville, Old Head, Portmarnock and Killarney. Irish weather in late September can be hit or miss. On this trip it was a miss. Wind like you cannot believe; rain; cold; damp. We usually played 36 holes each day and would then drive between 2 and 6 hours to the next course. Luckily, we had a driver to take us around. He was a farmer whose crops were awaiting harvest and he was doing this for spare income.

Having grown up in America I have a certain perception of what a hotel room is supposed to be like and what constitutes a meal. These were all shattered on my first trip. The first thing you grasp is that Ireland is basically still a third world country outside of Dublin. I in no way mean that in a derogatory or negative sense, but they have limited infrastructure. Things have certainly changed in the last 10 years as Ireland has joined the EU and become a massive beneficiary of roads and other projects, but the Irish countryside is still based on a centuries old agrarian economy.

Almost all the roads we traveled on were two lane roads with barely enough room for two small cars to pass. On a map, two locations appear to be 60 miles apart. In the States it would more or less take an hour to travel between them. In Ireland it would probably take the better part of three hours. I found it astonishing that most people we met on the trip had never left the county they lived in. Even with a driver and a map it was very difficult to get around. The road signs in each town only point the way to the next town. If you are looking for a town that is 15 miles ahead and pull into a gas station or a pub to ask for directions, you may as well be asking for directions to Des Moines.

There is also no such thing as a hotel chain or a recognizable brand name in Ireland. We stayed at B & B's or small country hotels throughout the country, most of the time in small villages where we were playing golf. In the United States you can stay at a Hyatt or Hilton or some other known brand. Not in Ireland -- everything is local, and it is great. What a refreshing break from the bland sameness that America has become. They may not be luxurious, but they have personality. The rooms are miniature, the showers alternate between ice water and scalding hot, there are no hair dryers and if you are lucky there are three channels on the TV. We have stayed at our fair share of "Marine" hotels that saw their best days in the 30s or 40s. Paper thin walls and no room service.

Although they lack amenities they make up for it in charm -- like a night porter making you toast and coffee at 5 am so you could have something to eat before a long drive. Or the owner fixing you sandwiches upon a late arrival.

On our first morning in Ireland we were introduced to something that has become a beloved part of our trips to the British Isles - the full fry. You have to understand we did not stay at 4 star hotels -- No Adare Manors or K Clubs for us. The first time you get the eggs, sausage, bacon, blood pudding, tomato, mushrooms, hash browns and toast you think to yourself, wow! This is not a country where you have a bowl of cereal with skim milk or a bagel.

I had been warned to bring plenty of wind breakers, turtle necks, sweaters, rains suits, many gloves and two pairs of golf shoes -- one to wear while the other was drying out. I used them all on that first trip, often times multiple times each day. It is not uncommon to experience all four seasons in a day in Ireland.



I fell in love with Ireland immediately. There is an understated simplicity to the place that I really liked. The countryside is spectacularly beautiful throughout. It is not uncommon to see a rainbow every day. There are rolling hills everywhere: more shades of green that you can describe; old stone walls that mark the farmers fields. Rounding the bend on a curved road we were once startled to see a farmer walking his cows down the middle of the road on their way to an alternate field. It is a timeless scene.


Ballybunion's lovely 12th hole

Although normally a Scotch drinker, while in Ireland I only drink only Guinness. Under U.S.D.A. regulations the Guinness that is imported into the U.S. must be pasteurized. The Guinness here is unaltered and it tastes different -- and better. One of life's simple pleasure is enjoying a pint of Guinness in Ireland served at the correct temperature after it has been properly poured.

I was also very surprised at how knowledgeable the Irish people were of the U.S., in particular U.S. politics. Even in remote villages you can engage in a discussion on a variety of topics.

Lahinch (ranked #73 in the world), in some ways is a cow pasture. One of the things you hear over and over that makes Pine Valley such a great golf course is that you can't see the other holes when you are playing the hole you are on. In fact you can on several holes, but the point is that you do feel a sense of isolation throughout the round.

The adventure at Lahinch begins on the first hole, which has a plateau green. Try stepping up to this first tee after flying all night with no sleep. Where do you aim again?

Welcome to Lahinch. The tricky first hole.

If there is a polar opposite to Pine Valley, it is Lahinch. My advice to you at Lahinch is be ready to duck at any time. It is wide open. The fourth, fifth and eighteenth fairways literally criss-cross, I kid you not. Talk about hazards in front of the green? How about the fourth hole named "Klondyke". It has a fifty foot sand dune in front of the green, making it a blind approach on a 400+ yard hole! The narrow fairway snakes through the dunes as seen below.

The tough fourth hole at Lahinch, "Klondyke"

The completely blind par three fifth, the "Dell" hole, pictured below, is reportedly the site of many a hole in one, sometimes with the minor assist of a caddie who gets a much enhanced tip.

The fabulous blind Dell hole at Lahinch

Look at the comments of those that have completed playing the top 100 golf courses in the world. Coincidentally or not, almost all had poor weather when they played Lahinch. Bottom line, Lahinch has bad weather. Having been there twice I can attest to rain and wind both times. The second and third holes, which are not really shielded by the dunes, play impossibly difficult in windy, rainy conditions. Wind in Ireland is different than where I live. It is not an exaggeration to say that you can play in a four-club wind at Lahinch.

Why is Lahinch on the top 100 list? It's hard to articulate, but it should be there. Like the Old Course at St. Andrews, Lahinch takes time to appreciate. It was designed by Old Tom Morris and Alister Mackenzie revised the layout in the 1920s. Despite all its shortcomings, Lahinch has an intangible quality that is unmistakably Irish. It is a cult course in the same vein as a Cruden Bay, North Berwick or Prestwick. Love it or hate it, but play Lahinch once and you will always remember it.



Listen to what some of golf's most knowledgeable writers have said about Ballybunion Golf Club (ranked #13 in the world). James Finegan calls it, "the greatest links I have ever played." Herbert Warren Wind said, "it is nothing less than the finest seaside course I have ever seen," and "like a Gaelic version of Pebble Beach." Tom Watson says, "I am now of the opinion it is one of the best and most beautiful tests of links golf anywhere in the world."

I am a fan of Ballybunion and agree that it is a pure links course. The first hole is a good starting hole, with an unusual hazard down the right hand side - a cemetery. The last time I played Ballybunion was two years ago and we had a 7:00AM tee time, the first group out. It was a brilliantly sunny, warm day and the round was very pleasant. My only criticism of the layout is that the 4th, 5th and 6th holes are all routed in the same direction, and all into the prevailing wind. This makes a total of 1,400 yards into the wind that can wear you down early in the round. I'm a bigger fan of routings such as Caroustie and Royal Portrush that have more change in direction. Despite this shortcoming, Ballybunion is a worthy entrant in the top fifteen courses in the world.


The serene dunes landscape of Ballybunion

I am also a fan of the second course at Ballybunion - the Cashen. It is a new course designed by Robert Trent Jones but looks like its been there a long time and is a fun and imaginative routing. Ballybunion has a new American style clubhouse that doesn't really fit the course or the surroundings. Despite these shortcoming, golf in Ireland can hold its own with golf in any region of the world.



Saturday, March 18, 2006

The World's Top 100 Golf Courses in 1939

We recently came across a post on Golf Club Atlas by Tom MacWood where he recently uncovered a golf magazine from 1939 where they asked a panel of leading writers and players to rate the top 100 courses in the world in 1939. It seems like rankings are not just a modern obsession. Below is the list as published and we have indicated the current world ranking next to it.

1. St.Andrews, Scotland...............currently ranked #6
2. Cypress Point, California........ ....currently ranked #2
3. Pine Valley, N.J..........................currently ranked #1
4. Pebble Beach, California.............currently ranked #7
5. Sandwich, England..................currently ranked #32
6. National Links, N.Y................currently ranked #20
7. Hirono, Japan............................currently ranked #35
8. Banff Springs, Canada.................not ranked
9. Royal Melbourne, Australia.........currently ranked #8
10. Foulpointe, Madagascar.............not ranked, course is gone
11. Augusta National, Georgia .........currently ranked #5
12. Timber Point, N.Y. ....................not ranked
13. Oakmont, Penn..........................currently ranked #15
14. Hoylake, England....................currently ranked #72
15. Newcastle, County Down..........currently ranked #10
16. Westward Ho!, England..............not ranked
17. Merion, Penn...........................currently ranked #14
18. Riviera, California...................currently ranked #36
19. Sunningdale, England............currently ranked #44
20. Bel-Air, California......................not ranked
21. Shinnecock Hills, N.Y............currently ranked #4
22. Portrush, Ireland....................currently ranked #12
23. Laksers, Illinois..........................not ranked, course is gone
24. CC of Havana, Cuba....................not ranked
25. Humewood, S.Africa..................not ranked
26. Seminole, Florida.......................currently ranked #22
27. Rye, England..............................not ranked
28. Knocke, Belgium.........................not ranked
29. Yale, Conn................................. not ranked
30. Gleneagles, Scotland...................not ranked
31. Le Touquet, France......................not ranked
32. Winged Foot, N.Y........................currently ranked #18
33. Pasatiempo, California.................not ranked
34. Muirfield, Scotland...................currently ranked #3
35. Walton Heath, England............currently ranked #82
36. Jasper Park, Canada....................not ranked
37. Portmarnock, Ireland..................currently ranked #40
38. Pinehurst No.2, N.C....................currently ranked #9
39. Prestwick, Scotland..................not ranked but should be
40. Birkdale, England.....................currently ranked #28
41. Lido, N.Y.....................................not ranked, course is gone
42. Ganton, England.......................currently ranked #62
43. Durban, S.Africa.........................currently ranked #70
44. Oyster Harbors, Mass..................not ranked
45. Ponte Vedra, Florida....................not ranked
46. North Berwick, Scotland..........not ranked, but should be
47. San Francisco, California.........currently ranked #27
48. St.Georges Hill, England..............not ranked
49. Garden City, N.Y.......................currently ranked #55
50. Deal, England..............................not ranked
51. Kawana, Japan............................currently ranked #80
52. Engineers, N.Y.............................not ranked
53. Swinley Forest, England...............not ranked
54. Brookline, Mass...........................currently ranked #33
55. Saunton, England........................not ranked
56. Bethpage, N.Y..............................currently ranked #30
57. Addington, England.....................not ranked
58. Lakeside, California.....................not ranked
59. Hollywood, N.J............................not ranked
60. Woking, England.........................not ranked
61. Wildhoeve, Holland......................not ranked
62. Royal York, Canada......................* currently ranked #95
63. Oakland Hills, Michigan...............currently ranked #25
64. Morfontaine, France.....................currently ranked #47
65. Brancaster, England.....................not ranked
66. Pulborough, England....................not ranked
67. Manor Richelieu, Canada..............not ranked
68. Royal Adelaide, Australia..............currently ranked #50
69. Hamburg-Falkenstein, Germany...not ranked
70. Olympia Fields #4, Illinois.............not ranked
71. Chiberta, France............................not ranked
72. Lawsonia, Wisconsin.....................not ranked
73. Los Angeles, California..............currently ranked #59
74. Maidstone, N.Y..........................currently ranked #60
75. East London, S.Africa....................not ranked
76. Carnoustie, Scotland.................currently ranked #26
77. Burnham, England........................not ranked
78. Scioto, Ohio..................................currently ranked #71
79. Capilano, Canada..........................not ranked
80. Hot Springs, Virginia.....................currently ranked #94
81. Nuwara Eliya, Ceylon.....................not ranked
82. Ballybunion, Ireland.................currently ranked #13
83. Porthcawl, Wales...........................not ranked
84. Liphook, England..........................not ranked
85. Knoll, N.J......................................not ranked
86. Tokyo-Asaka, Japan.......................not ranked, course destroyed in WWII
87. Maccauvlei, S.Africa......................not ranked
88. Kingston Heath, Australia..............currently ranked #21
89. Chicago, Illinois.............................currently ranked #31
90. Sea Island, Georgia........................not ranked
91. Alwoodley, England........................not ranked
92. Eastward Ho!, Mass.......................not ranked
93. Mid Ocean, Bermuda......................not ranked
94. Ville de Delat, Indo China...............not ranked
95. Zandvoort, Holland........................not ranked
96. Five Farms, Maryland....................currently ranked #91
97. Turnberry, Scotland...................currently ranked #17
98. Spa, Belgium.................................not ranked
99. Fishers Island, N.Y....................currently ranked #29
100a.Royal Worlington, England..........not ranked (9 hole course)
100b.Prairie Dunes, Kansas..............currently ranked #23

What Happened?

More than half the courses, 56, are not on the current list. Non U.S. courses took a big hit with 32 lost (Belgium lost 2, South Africa 3, Madagascar 1, Cuba 1, Canada 5, England 14, Scotland 2, Holland 2, Germany 1, Ceylon 1, Japan 1). What comes through is that technology has runied a lot of previously great courses. This is particularly true of the great courses of England and Scotland. Canadian courses also took a big hit which is a shame since they have some truly world class courses, but American courses have come to dominate.

1. The world's truly great courses stayed where they belonged:

St. Andrews (Old Course), Cypress Point, Pine Valley, Pebble Beach, The National Golf Links , Royal Melbourne , Augusta, Oakmont, Merion, Riviera, Sunningdale, Shinnecock, Royal Portrush, Seminole, Walton Heath, Portmarnock, Royal Birkdale, Ganton, Durban, Garden City, Bethpage, Kawana, Brookline, Morfontaine, Royal Adelaide, Los Angeles, Maidstone, Scioto, Baltimore (Five Farms)

2. Courses that are still great but new equipment has hurt them

Westward Ho!, England (ranked #16)
Rye, England (ranked #27)
Prestwick, Scotland (ranked #39)
North Berwick, Scotland (ranked #46)
St. George's Hill, England (ranked #48)
Deal, England (ranked #50)
Swinley Forest, England (ranked #53)
Addington, England (ranked #57)
Woking, England (ranked #60)
Burnham, England (ranked #77)
Liphook, England (ranked #84)
Alwoodley, England (ranked #91)
Royal Worlington, England (ranked #100)


3. Fell from greatness but still ranked

Hirono, Japan (fell from #7 to #35)
Sandwich, England (fell from #5 to #32) - also called Royal St. Georges
Hoylake, England (fell from #14 to #72) - also called Royal Liverpool

4. Fallen Angels - no longer on the list but many still worth playing

Banff Springs, Canada (ranked #8) - redesigned and remodelled
Bel-Air, California (ranked #20) - redesigned but still exclusive
Country Club of Havana (ranked #24)
Humewood, S. Africa (ranked #25)
Knocke, Belgium (ranked #28)
Yale, Conn (ranked #29) - a C.B. Macdonald design
Gleneagles, Kings (ranked #30) - designed by James Braid
La Touquet (ranked #31)
Pasatiempto, California (ranked #33) - A MacKenzie gem
Japser Park, Canada (ranked #36)
Oysters Harbor, Mass (ranked #44)
Ponte Vedra, Florida (ranked #45)
Engineers, New York (ranked #52)
Sauton, England (ranked #55)
Lakeside, California (ranked #58)
Hollywood, New Jersey (ranked #59)
Wildhoeve, Holland (ranked #61)
Manor Richelieu (ranked #67)
Olympia Fields, Illinois (ranked #70)
Chiberta, France (ranked #71)
Lawsonia, Wisconsin (ranked #72) - the Whistling Straits of the 1930s
East London, S. Africa (ranked #75)
Capilano, Canada (ranked #79)
Royal Portcawl, Wales (ranked #83)
Maccauvlei, S. Africa (ranked #87)
Sea Island (Seaside, ranked #90) - a Colt and Alison design
Eastward Ho, Mass (ranked #92) - still a gem today
Mid Ocean, Bermuda (ranked #93) - cape hole #5 is still one of golf's best

5. Sayonara - no longer in existence

Foulpointe, Madagascar (ranked #10)
Laksers, Illinois (ranked #23)
Lido, Long Island (ranked #41)- a C.B. MacDonald design
Tokyo-Asaka (ranked #86) - destroyed in 1941
Ville de Delat, Indo China (ranked #94)

6. Improved with Age

Shinnecock (rose from #21 to #4)
Royal Portrush (rose from #22 to #12) - redesigned by H.S. Colt in 50s
Winged Foot, West (rose from #32 to #18)
Muirfield, Scotland (rose from #34 to #3)
Pinehurst #2 (rose from #38 to #9)
San Francisco (rose from #47 to #27) - a fantastic Tillinghast course
Bethpage, New York (rose from #56 to #30)
Oakland Hills, Michigan (rose from #63 to #25) - partially redesigned
Carnoustie (rose #76 to #26) - and should go higher in my view!
Ballybunion (rose from #82 to #13) - hallelujah!
Kingston Heath (rose from #88 to #21)
Chicago (rose from #89 to #31) - another C.B. MacDonald gem
Turnberry, Scotland (rose from #97 to #17) - redesigned after WWII
Fishers Island, New York (rose from #99 to #29) - the first list got it right!
Prarie Dunes (rose from #100 to #23) - was still only a 9 hole course in 1939



* Name changed from Royal York to St. Georges's in 1946

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Golf in Northern Ireland - A Royal Flush!





Does your view of Northern Ireland still include images of IRA bombings, British Troops riding around in personnel carriers and a dangerous capital city - Belfast?

Our experience in Northern Ireland has been the opposite of the perceived image. When I tell people that I'm going on a golf trip to Northern Ireland I still get a disapproving look that says "are you mad?" When I tell them that it is a beautiful and scenic place with people that are naturally gregarious and friendly they still don't believe.

There are six top 100 golf courses in Ireland - Ballybunion and Lahinch on the West Coast, Portmarnock and The European Club on the East Coast and Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. While some courses come and go from the world top 100, the two in Northern Ireland have remained quietly in their appropriate place on the list since its inception. They are always solidly in the top 25 -- usually in the top 15.

A small minority of courses located in the (former) British Empire have a "Royal" designation in front of their name. This means a member of the Royal family bestowed it upon the club, often times, if they were a member. Both the gems in Northern Ireland have Royal patronage. County Down received its patronage in 1885 and Prince Andrew is the current Royal Patron. Portrush became Royal in 1892 when The Price of Wales bestowed his patronage. The club logos at the beginning of this post, both topped with crowns, are two of the sharpest in golf.



Although located in the same geographic location, the courses have two different personalities. Royal County Down (ranked #10 in the world) is blessed with natural beauty that ranks it among the best in the world for sure. As a backdrop, there are the impressive Mourne mountains which rise up several miles inland and frame the entire area around the course. The course is located on the Irish Sea right next to a lovely beach. Finally, the heather and gorse on the course add to the scenic beauty, but make it quite difficult. If you have the opportunity to play the course when the gorse is in bloom in the Spring, do so. The pictures above and below show the mountains by the sea at County Down.





I have written before that walking up the 9th fairway at Royal County Down is among the most satisfying experiences in golf. Not only do you have a full spectrum of color in all directions, the church steeple rising above the town of Newcastle is on the horizon; the sea is on your left; and the quaint white clubhouse sits in front of you.

The clubhouse at Royal County Down is an understated affair that appropriately befits its Royal patronage. For an American, I always find it quaint to see a picture of the Queen, hanging out of respect. At County Down it is hanging in the bar area that overlooks the course.

Royal County Down was originally designed by Old Tom Morris and was revised by Harry Vardon and still has an old world feel to it. The front nine is the better of the two nines. The back has a weak finish, especially the 17th which is completely out of character with the rest of the course. Imagine how good the rest of the course must be if it ranks this high in the world with 3-4 weak holes. There are many holes on the course where you must hit the ball straight and 200+ yards to carry either a green or a fairway. The 4th hole, a par 3 is one of the most intimidating tee shots you will ever face on a one shot hole. You must hit the ball about 200 yards over a sea of dense gorse. Being short is not an option, since gorse bushes have prickly branches that make retrieving a ball impossible.

There are a couple of blind tee shots where you have to aim over a colored stone placed on a hill. Personally, I like blind shots and for those who think they have no place in golf, I would comment that many courses on the top 100 list have blind shots - including some of the best: Pine Valley, The National Golf Links, Lahinch, Cruden Bay and Muirfield.

If you're not on your game at Royal County Down it will be painful. I have played Royal County Down twice - once in 'fine' conditions as the locals call it and the second time in windy, rainy and cold conditions (in July). Even in miserable conditions it is easy to see that it is a great golf course. I enjoyed both rounds immensely. It is one of the toughest championship links at 7,167 yards from the tips.

Located in County Antrim not far from the Bushmills distillery is The Royal Portrush Golf Club (ranked #12 in the world). The course has been changed several times since its inception, most recently by H.S. Colt. Colt is unquestionably one of the finest architects who ever lived and I personally rank this as his finest effort ahead of Muirfield, Sunningdale and Wentworth (Pine Valley excepted since he only influenced the work of Crump). Along with Carnoustie and Pine Valley it is one of the most imaginative routings in the world. It has a good variety of holes and is challenging.

Portrush hosted the 1951 Open Championship and is worth of hosting one again. Like Royal County Down it does feature a weak finish but again makes up for it on the first 16 holes. The aptly named "Calamity" hole is a demanding par 3 where a sliced ball disappears into a chasm. Look closely at the image below and you can see the green faintly in the distance to the left. The picture is from the tee.




I always advocate taking a caddie for any round of golf if they are available. I especially like caddies in Ireland and Scotland for their wit, humor, wisdom, perspective and charm.

The last time I played Royal Portrush I had a world-class caddie. On one approach shot to the green he told me to hit the ball 150 yards. I was thinking maybe play it an extra 10 yards longer and asked "what if I hit it 160?" His answer I remember to this day - "There's no flag at 160!". This perfectly sums up the best of Irish caddies. They may not be Oxford educated but they have tons of wisdom and dispense it succinctly. If I played with him all the time, I'm sure my handicap would be five points lower.

Each hole at Portrush has a name, and you can only imagine what playing the hole called "Purgatory" is like.There are several holes at Portrush that border on the Irish Sea along the famous Causeway Coastline. The coastline is dramatic and falls away quickly to the sea creating some stunning views. They are nicknamed "The White Rocks" due to their color.

I first visited Northern Ireland in September 1998, not long after the deadly Omagh bombings. Never-the-less, the country did not have a police-state feel to it. There were no border crossing checkpoints or obvious problems. The only noticeable differences to the South are better roads in the North and the police stations look like fortified bunkers with barbed wire. Today, you will still see an occasional IRA or Protestant mural painted on the side of a building. Otherwise, the reality is it's very much like the Irish Republic to the south from a golfers standpoint.

My hope is that both courses remain forever in the top 15 in the world rankings where they belong.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Message From the Creator

It was with great interest that I read George Peper's article in the March 2006 issue of Links Magazine. Peper was the editor of Golf Magazine when it launched the original top 100 world rankings. Thus, it was Peper as much as anyone who can claim to have created what is now a mania. The article is basically Peper's equivalent of going to confession.

His comments are not to be dismissed since he is a thoughtful observer of the golf world. There does seem to be an obession among developers and designers to get a course into the top 100 rankings. We agree that actively courting raters and trying to influence the outcome is wrong. It remains to be seen how the longevity of many of the new entrants onto the list will survive long term, especially some of them built to have host major championships. Peper says "Egomanicial developers now say, 'build me a top 100 course no matter what it costs." Hmmm. Sounds like a certain New York based developer we know who has bad hair and who finally bought his way into the top 100 with Trump National at #87. Luckily, we are playing the 2003 list so don't have to play it. No doubt it will be off the list in three or four years anyway.

I agree with Peper that it has gotten stupid. So you buy your way onto the list or onto a major championship. The past is littered with courses no one has heard of that hosted one major in the past: Anyone remember Champions Golf Course in Houston, host of the 1969 US Open or Pecan Valley in San Antonio, host of the 1968 PGA?

One of the other problems with having all these new made-for-major courses appear on the list is that you risk pushing off some truly world class courses. It would be a shame if some of the hidden gems on the list such as Cruden Bay, Ganton or Woodhall Spa were someday displaced by all these new designs. The history of the game is important and should be respected. There needs to be a balance between older courses and newer courses and it seems to me that the balance is shifting toward newer, which isn't necessarily a good thing.

For those who have read my write-up of the Fishers Island Club the quote from one of their spokesman is perfect (see our January 2006 archive by clicking here: Fishers Island). At the end of the article, Peper lists the 10 most over-rated courses in the world. This is his list, not mine. Although I agree with him precisely on Muirfield, Baltusrol, The K-Club and Royal Troon. I would have to disagree about Pinehurst and Pine Valley, though.

I also accept his criticism of people who are "conspicuous course collectors". Bless me father, for I have sinned!

Below is the article as published:

Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The magazine got great publicity and sold more ads and copies, and I was proud of our biennial list, the first to rank courses from one to 100. Over time, however, I came to realize I’d created a monster.

“You’ve done our club a tremendous disservice,” Pine Valley president Ernie Ransom told me after we pegged his course as No. 1 in the world. “Everyone wants to play here now, and 99 percent of the requests can’t be granted.” Indeed, clubs like Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Seminole—ultra-private enclaves that had long flown under the radar—suddenly gained rock-star status, with their exclusionary practices bared for the world to see. Some didn’t handle it well.

“We do not wish our course to be ranked, visited or for that matter, known. Please convey that message to your panelists,” said a representative of Fishers Island, the remote and remarkable Seth Raynor course accessible only by ferry from New London, Connecticut.

Others milked their status and bilked their visitors. The best example is surely Pebble Beach. In 1980 you could play there for $50. Now it costs $450, and I can’t help thinking that about $150 of that is attributable to Pebble’s position among the world’s top handful of courses.

Among today’s golf architects, getting a course into the Top 100 (on either GOLF’s “Top 100 Courses in the World” list or Golf Digest’s “America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses”) is what winning a major is to a tour pro in terms of prestige and marketability. Egomaniacal developers who once said, “Build me a great course,” now say, “Build me a Top 100 course, no matter the cost,” knowing that a sufficiently grand creation will buy a gander from the judges. As an absurd consequence, course designers have become multimillionaires and multimillionaires have become course designers.

Among golfers, we’ve seen the spawning of a new species: the conspicuous course collector, whose life mission is to play as many of the Top 100 as possible. Then there is the subspecies, the conspicuous club joiner, who collects Top 100 memberships as if they were bag tags—which essentially they are.

This wretched excess would be harmless if not for two problems. First, the lists are inherently flawed. No matter how experienced and knowledgeable, a selection panel will not—cannot—get the ratings right, simply because there is no “right.” Rankings are no more than a collective guess, an objective average of subjective opinions.

The magazines do their best to screen raters; GOLF vets candidates by asking them which courses they’ve seen from the current ballot. My recollection is that the minimum standard is 55 percent of the World list and 40 percent of the courses on the ballot. The problem, of course, is that there is no way to verify whether candidates have actually visited all the courses they claim.

The GOLF panel is small and elite—fewer than 100 people—to keep the levels of knowledge and discernment high. The risk is that they don’t see enough courses. The group includes golf course architects—among them Tom Doak (who ran the rankings until his design career presented a conflict), Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus—under the theory that they are the most perceptive judges. There is a stipulation that they may not vote for their own courses, but I’m not sure that does the whole job.

My suspicion always has been that competitive instinct compels architects to give low grades to each other’s courses, to the benefit of Donald Ross, Alister Mackenzie, et al., who are not competitors for contracts. Nicklaus once asked me why more of his courses weren’t on the list. (At the time, he didn’t realize his votes for his own courses didn’t count.) “It’s partly because we have people like you on the panel,” I replied.

The GOLF panel also includes public relations execs, resort owners, tour operators, photographers, writers and others with close links to courses. The last I knew, all these conflict-of-interest votes counted. I have little knowledge of the Golf Digest panel, except that it includes more than 800 low-handicap golfers, whose identities, unlike GOLF’s panelists, are kept anonymous. With a group that size, some raters inevitably will be more knowledgeable and responsible than others. I’m also not sure whether all low handicappers may be able to judge the capacity of a course to be enjoyed by all levels of player. But the aspect I’ve always questioned is their ultra-anal grading system. Whereas GOLF simply asks panelists to rate each course from A to F, using his or her own definition of greatness, Golf Digest requires a grade from one to 10 in eight different categories. I can assure you that giving even a single mark to several hundred courses requires a fair amount of concentration. I can’t imagine filling in several thousand boxes, at least not with any sustained diligence and accuracy. It’s no wonder the rankings are a source of constant consternation to the magazines.

Over the last two decades Golf Digest has tweaked its methodology more often than Katie Couric has changed her hairdo, and GOLF quietly began a wholesale re-evaluation of its ranking system recently.The second weakness of the rankings is more important. The magic number—100—is simply too small. There are more than 30,000 courses in the world; to celebrate only 100 is ludicrous. Hell, there are 100 great courses within a three-hour drive of Manhattan! As a consequence, countless courses have gone without the recognition they deserve.

I’d like to repair the mess I’ve made, but I don’t really see a solution. I could rank the 100 most underrated courses, but the moment that list was published, those would no longer be the 100 most underrated. All I can do is try to figure out why some deserving courses miss out, and give a kiss to a few of the fairest bridesmaids. I can think of six reasons that great courses are ignored. The first three, as in real estate, involve location.



The 10 Most Overrated Courses in the World

1. Pinehurst Resort & C.C. (No. 2), Pinehurst, N.C. Sorry, those greens are borderline Goofy Golf.

2. Royal Melbourne G.C. (Composite), Melbourne, Australia. The ranked course is a composite of two 18s that no one plays.

3. The Country Club (Composite), Brookline, Mass. Same situation—a composite used only for major tournaments.

4. Muirfield Golf Club, Gullane, Scotland. A fine, straightforward test of championship golf—
and utterly charmless.

5. Baltusrol Golf Club (Lower), Springfield, N.J.
America’s Muirfield.

6. Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. If it’s so great, why do they change it every year?

7. Pine Valley Golf Club, Pine Valley, N.J. Superb, but not No. 1—too many holes where you don’t see a tee shot land.

8. Royal Troon Golf Club, Troon, Scotland. Six dull holes—six interesting holes—six dull holes.

9. Seminole Golf Club, Juno Beach, Fla. Elite membership, world-class locker room, typical Florida golf course.

10. The K Club, Straffan, Ireland. Dublin meets Doral.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Observations of One Who Has Completed The Quest

The following was published by Golf Magazine in 2005:

100-Course Meal

One GOLF MAGAZINE reader made it his mission to play every course on our Top 100 in the World. Then we changed it on him!

By LISA TADDEO Editorial Assistant, GOLF MAGAZINE

At 3 P.M. on April 26, Leon Wentz, a 68-year-old California businessman with a 10 handicap, putted out on the final green at Augusta National for a round of 85. It wasn't his best score on a great course, but it was an achievement nonetheless -- with that round, Wentz had played all of the courses on GOLF MAGAZINE's Top 100 Courses in the World. From backtracking to faraway countries to keeping clear of falling monkeys, Wentz braved a lot to play them all. We asked about the highs and lows of his globe-trotting quest, which began at Pebble Beach in 1996.

Playing the Top 100 Courses in the World is a fantasy for most golfers.

What made you do it for real?
I was flipping through GOLF MAGAZINE, saw the Top 100 World list, and thought, "Now, here's a challenge!" I asked my wife if it would be okay if I made this my chore for the next few years, and she said to go for it. I lost 11 courses because of the list changing. For example, I had to go back to New Zealand three months ago to play one that came up on the last list. I wanted to play the current list, not an old list.


What were some of the adventures along the way?
I traveled 28,000 miles to South Africa for one course. I had to network for three years to get on some private courses in Japan. I've had monkeys fall out of trees onto my tee box, snakes cross my path on the fairway.

What was the best course?
Shinnecock Hills was pure golf. It was the best for me.

The most overrated?
El Saler in Spain, Winged Foot East, Paraparauma Beach in New Zealand.

How about the friendliest?
Ganton, in England. The people were beautiful and I had the greatest time.

Which course would you most want to join?
Shinnecock.

Which course would you never play again?
El Saler. No offense to your panel, but it's just not a world-class course. There are only two holes that justify its existence on the list, and it's not even well-conditioned.

What were your best and worst rounds?
Best was at Quaker Ridge, I shot a 74. Worst was at Pine Valley, I had a 90.

What's the toughest course?
Pine Valley, for sure.

And the most beautiful?
Cypress Point.

What's the hardest course to find without a member guiding you?
Morfontaine in France.

Which one has the best bar?
Jefferson's Bar at Shinnecock.

What was your longest journey to play a course on the list?
28,000 miles round-trip from San Francisco to Durban, South Africa.

What was the worst weather you experienced?
I used five gloves at Lahinch. Four inches of rain fell in four hours.