John Garrity's Top 50

Church Pews, Third Round, U.S. Open
Fred Vuich/SI
Oakmont's famous Church Pews.

They're probably dancing in the streets of Oakmont, Pa., at the news that their local club has finally cracked the Top 50. There it is, at No. 47 — Oakmont Country Club, home of the Church Pew bunkers, the 300-yard par 3, and the Angel Cabrera Smoke-a-thon. That's a 31-rung jump in the rankings for the venerable Henry Fownes-designed layout, which swooped up from No. 78 to knock Colorado's Cherry Hills Country Club off the leader board.

If you're new to the course-rating game, Oakmont's quick rise may strike you as improbable. Traditional course raters, after all, publish their results on paper, usually on a biennial basis, and don't bother to re-evaluate their picks until they've spent a couple of winters in the Caribbean. They live in an analog universe. This Top 50, on the other hand, is a digital conceit, fast out of the blocks and capable of turning on a dime. So when a sleepy old club like Oakmont decides to shake things up by hosting a U.S. Open, the Top 50 responds appropriately.

Another Pennsylvania gem, New Castle Country Club, debuts this week at No. 50. Laid out in 1923 by A.W. Tillinghast, the private New Castle course plays to a cozy 6,600 yards — short by modern standards — but it's no pushover, thanks to the occasional blind shot and the small, steeply sloped greens. During Open week, I played a round at New Castle with Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Mike Kern, who was effusive in his praise of the small-town layout.

"My only quibble was the second green," Mike said after our round, "and that's because I don't like cliffside bunkers where you can lose your balance and maybe plummet to your death."

The only other shift in the rankings has the New Richmond (Wisc.) Golf Club moving up a spot to No. 31. That, along with the Oakmont surge, made me wonder what variable in the Cal Sci algorithm accounted for the changes.

"Trees," said mathematics professor Charles Eppes, who moonlights for the Top 50 during lulls in the academic calendar. "Oakmont rid itself of five thousand trees — which, when you think about it, are a profound annoyance to golfers. Trees kill grass, too, and sometimes tree limbs drop on members' heads."

New Richmond, he went on, has improved by adding thousands of trees to what had once been a featureless 9-hole, sand-greens course. "Trees give a hole definition, provide strategic obstacles, and are unbeatable for carbon sequestration. And their shade is nice on a hot day."

In math circles, Charlie said, this is known as the Pinehurst Paradox. "In layman's terms, it means that golf course volatility is driven by the most readily quantifiable data, which in this case is the number of trees. Movement in either direction — by cutting trees, say, or by planting trees — improves the golf course. Inaction, on the other hand, gives us no data to work with and suggests, quite frankly, that the members don't give a damn."

Well, it's a theory. Many of the courses in the Top 50, including the top three, are proudly tree-free and a good bet to remain so. And I don't expect forest tracks like Oak Hill, Cypress Point and Augusta National to make chain saws mandatory any time soon. "The tree which moves some to tears of joy," William Blake pointed out a few rounds ago, "is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way."

Blake, by the way, ranked 38th in a recent BBC poll of the "100 Greatest Britons."

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