Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ratings & Rankings Part I

Starting a treatise on ratings and ranking, some introduction and history. There has been for some time quite the buzz about them in the US especially as there is a lot of belt-notching that goes on. Some folks, especially business types like to post the pins in their GOLF Magazine pegboards for USA and World 100’s. Others truly love the variety the game’s playing field has and indeed there is a bit of overlap on the Venn Diagram (don’t worry, no picture today) – not just a tangential blow.

I first played The Goff in 1961; from the very outset I was fascinated by the different golf courses and noted every one that I drove or flew by (and whoever was driving before I could) and then if at all possible played them at some point if they had any iota of merit apparent or accessibility. Not just notching for its own sake but variety and exposure were the prime draw. Junior High School at the softball field, anyone wanting to learn to play formally was told to bring a few balls and clubs to the Math Teacher – Mr. Hart, a rotund rumpled robust tweedy English Uncle Sort after school on a particular Wednesday. I’d already had the virus planted from some Palmer guy on TV who went on to be known as “The King”. I liked all that jazz quite a bit better than baseball and football. I showed up and the rest to nearly a thousand played is almost a blur sometimes. Here’s some stories I hope that you enjoy.

Interestingly enough, I learned to play golf and played exclusively in Florida (only Delaware is flatter) for the first few years and thus played two-dimensional courses for the most part. About 5 years ago that was brought back to me when I played Palma Ceia in Tampa and that course must have no more than 8-9 feet of elevation change. I’ve been blessed with a three-dimensional memory ability which has been very useful, in fact an architectural sort of gift that in another life might have led me to commercial if not golf architecture rather than a Viet Nam avoiding Surgical Career. I very distinctly remember holes of note and variety as if it were yesterday afternoon. If anyone has ever played the wee Lake Worth (FL) Municipal golf course on the eponymous intercoastal waterway, they’ll likely remember the 264 yard 90° dog-leg par 4 with the green set amongst and in front of the mangroves resting at the shore of the lake. Later, that sort of design of hole, was a revelation in my education; on the second nine at Medinah #3 (The number keeps changing as they repeatedly bastardize the layout in the name of the USGA) – that one you all know as the Sergio-a-leaping hole. When I turned that corner in 1978 and saw that shallow green perched on that shelf above the end of the fairway going left, I knew I was way beyond some point of return – it became religion, too, I suppose.

Medinah #3 was my first actual USGA Open course although I had previously played my first major-hosting (before the actual 1971 PGA) venue. That was in a 1967 High School match at the then PGA National (Then JDM – yes Macarthur) now Ballen Isles East course. That was a very special place in a number of ways but I also tried to break into the caddie pool for that tournament joining in with the other amateur caddies hoping to shag balls for a professional. We as a group kept shouting “Pick me Pete, pick ME!” to Pete, the caddiemaster. Neither I nor my friends I’d come with got a job that day despite enthusiasm for hours, it was for nil. That particular PGA Tournament was part of an experiment to move the Major from its Open Championship time conflict. It is well-known that Ben Hogan in 1953 was prevented from capturing a True Modern Major Grand Slam. He surely would have taken it and how golf’s history would have been changed.

There was a great irony in one JWN’s victory there literally a 10 minute drive from his family home in Lost Tree as Jack did not need the famous towel to pick up the trophy that February unlike August, 1963. The trophy was not 150°F as it was when he won his first PGA in Dallas. I think the Masters® didn’t like being upstaged and that surely was part of the move from and back again to August perhaps even dictating Golf as a hot weather sport in America (another day, another essay). Even I was not immune to the power of Television and Media as a part of anointing Golf Courses and noting them as somehow elite back then. There is a very important connection between “great” and “famous” to many American golfers. Even today on The Golf channel, it was offered that the Sony Open was to be played on “that great old course” a thought to freeze the blood of any true Raynor student! With all due respect that course is notable as a peg in your home-made “PGA Tour Stops” board only.

Another bit of irony in Medinah #3 being my first real “BIG” golf course if you will is that at this point in time is its near dismissal as a top golf course by me. I cannot place it in anything but “Top 100 hardest” or Top 100 “over-rated and tournament boosted”. There are very highly ranked courses that really don’t belong where they are or at least as high as they are. Muirfield Village and Whistling Straits are two prime examples, but at least MVGC has one solid hole.

The American obsession with ranking started with Golf Digest and their original 200 toughest in America based on stroke rating and slope which rather quickly morphed into their Top 100, proffered as the “Oldest Rankings in Golf”. It is important to look carefully at rankings historically as there is both reluctance on the part all current raters (world-wide) to over-throw the sacred cows and even more importantly to the rank and file golfer’s detriment - to favor certain architects preferentially. Rankings are always a combination of individual’s ratings with some mathematical formula. Golf Digest is in trying for transparency guilty of attempting to insert science into the formula without an inkling of scientific methodology.

With a system mathematically computing to the one-one-hundredth of a point – yet fudging very dramatically for pure difficulty and allowing a disproportional methodology for subjectivity with the indefinable “shot values” and “Tradition” respectively yielding a very biased self-perpetuating process in which is a meritocracy for a chosen set of courses nears irrelevancy for most golfers. These have kept the ever-changing Augusta National Golf Club, the most sacred of sacred cows at or actually on top of the ratings. ANGC is the only upper echelon course in America narrowing fairways and planting trees. All golfers worthy an inflated handicap groveling to attend a practice round there know now that über-green and over-conifer-ed are just so wrong, especially at YOUR course.

To be continued …

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