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Tour Confidential: Which Golf Course Is the Best in the World?

Tour Confidential: How To Distinguish Between the Greatest Golf Courses
With GOLF Magazine releasing its biennial list of the Top 100 Courses in the World, our panel discusses how the greatest golf tracks distinguish themselves.  

Every Sunday night, GOLF.com conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. GOLF Magazine released its Top 100 Courses in the World this week, a biennial list created by 100 panelists who evaluate a ballot of 493 courses. Coming in at No. 1 on the World list is Pine Valley, a private course in New Jersey that has topped the list since 1985. If you could pick one track from the Top 100 as the ultimate golf experience, what course is it?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): If you're talking golf experience as opposed to the "best" course, it's a dead heat between Pebble Beach and Augusta National. There's no substitute for ocean spray and rocky cliffs--Pebble is breathtaking even if you're just standing there and not golfing. Augusta National is golf's holiest Grail. We all know the back nine by heart and you're more likely to hit the lotto than you are to get an invite to play there. I'll say Pebble by a nosehair.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, SI Golf Group (@JeffRitter): My No. 1 is St. Andrews, which is obviously an experience that extends beyond hitting shots. It's like playing golf in a museum.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I really enjoyed playing Augusta National after this year's Masters. It was the second time I won the media lottery, but the first time, after Phil won in '06, I was too nervous to soak it all in. I know Augusta National better than I know any other Top 100 Course, and there's so much great history to the place. It's a pleasure to test my own game there and to remember the historic shots. This last time I played it, my caddie showed me exactly where Phil hit through the trees on 13. Wow.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine: (@JoshSens): I haven't come close to playing them all but for pure beauty, it's hard to imagine any place topping Cypress Point. That said, I've played quite a few great courses in the miserable company of sluggish, self-consumed whiners who plumb-bobbed over putts for double-bogey and tossed clubs after wild shots: a reminder that who you play with matters a lot more than where you play.

2. The Presidents Cup rosters were finalized, and U.S. captain Jay Haas selected his son, Bill Haas, and Phil Mickelson as his two captain's selections. Did Haas make the right choice? If not, who would you have selected?

VAN SICKLE: Phil's iron play, normally the strength of his game, has been lousy all year. I would have taken Bill Haas but not Phil. I'd go for a sharp putter, Brandt Snedeker. That said, Phil's force as a positive influence and as a sort of team mascot may make him a worthy pick in the end.

RITTER: Haas got it right. Bill was the next guy on the points list, and I don't blame Jay at all for capitalizing on the chance to captain his son. Phil isn't a chalk pick, but he brings so many intangibles to the team he was the right choice.

MORFIT: I am a Phil fan, and I see why Haas would pick Mickelson. Heck, to some extent his players' and vice-captains' lobbying efforts made the choice for him. But let's be honest: It would have made more sense to take the long view and pick a guy like Brooks Koepka, who you know is going to be part of the U.S. Presidents and Ryder Cup teams in the future, or to take a flier on a guy like Billy Horschel, whose makeup may make him a little like Ian Poulter or Patrick Reed. Haas could have not only helped himself and whoever captains the 2017 Presidents Cup team, but also 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III. Alas, that didn't happen, and the U.S. Presidents Cup effort remains woefully out of step with the U.S. Ryder Cup effort.

SENS: Sure. From the elementary schoolyard to the highest corporate reaches, decisions based on popularity and nepotism are the way of the world. It might rankle if the two of them didn't also happen to be great players, and the Presidents Cup wasn't meant to be a friendly exhibition.

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3. The never-ending flip flopping of the top spot in the World Ranking continues this week when Rory McIlroy jumps Jordan Spieth for the top spot on a week when there was no PGA Tour event. This is the fourth time it has changed hands in the last month. Which is better for the game: having the top players pass off the top spot week after week or having a dominant force atop the rankings? 

VAN SICKLE: There was nothing to discuss when Tiger was No. 1 by a mile for a few years. This is more interesting--not so much the weekly variances, such as Rory taking a week off and moving up to No. 1 or Spieth missing a cut and getting back to No. 1, but to watch and see which of this New Big Three is going to climb to the top and hold it.

RITTER: The rankings flip-flop is tiring when it stems from a math quirk and not on-course performance. But overall I'm excited to see this new Big Three battle it out and pass the ranking around in the process. Golf's in a great place right now.

MORFIT: Didn't Spieth lose the No. 1 ranking when he missed the cut at the Barclays? I can't keep track. In any event, the No. 1 ranking is one of those things that's far more important to get than to keep. It's like the Pulitzer Prize. Even if you just get it once, like Tom Lehman, it sticks with you forever and inevitably winds up somewhere in the top three paragraphs of your obituary.

SENS: The numerical rankings are a lot less interesting and a lot less important than the rivalries. When the big guns are battling it out down the home stretch of a major, we're drawn to the action for the action itself. We're not interested in the results of an algorithm. And neither are the players themselves.

4. Arnold Palmer celebrated his 86th birthday last week, and an outpouring of well wishes poured in on social media from big-time Tour players, Jack Nicklaus and Rickie Fowler to name two. Palmer's legendary status has been well-documented, but what is your favorite memory or personal interaction with The King?

VAN SICKLE: I once did a story on Bob Lendzion, a former senior tour player. When he was young years earlier, he and another assistant pro hitch-hiked and hopped trains from California to Latrobe, Pa. They were walking through a subdivision to Latrobe CC and a woman picking up a newspaper in her driveway asked the two disheveled men carrying golf clubs what they were doing. Then Winnie Palmer invited them inside--it was Arnie's house--and Arnie himself cooked breakfast (eggs) for them. You can't even make this stuff up.

RITTER: Every interaction with Arnie is special. I remember once asking him, tongue in cheek, "What do you like to drink after a long day on the course?" I expected him to respond with his eponymous tea drink. Instead he exclaimed, "Grey Goose on the rocks," which brought down the room.

MORFIT: I was at the Senior Players Championship in Dearborn, Michigan, when I asked Mr. Palmer to autograph a white visor for my grandmother. This must have been about 25 years ago, before I started covering the Tour. Anyway, he did so happily, and it was the most legible autograph I ever saw from anyone, golfer or otherwise. That's something the young guys in all sports could stand to emulate.

SENS: Watching him play his final few ceremonial rounds at his own event, not even a whisper of the golfer he once was, but still looking delighted just be out there banging the ball around. We could all learn something from that.

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5. Lydia Ko closed with an 8-under 63 to beat Lexi Thompson by six and win the Evian Championship Sunday, becoming the youngest female ever to win a major title at 18 years, 4 months and 20 days. Are you more surprised by how dominant Ko was down the stretch or how Thompson, who was tied with her at 12-under after 11 holes, failed to keep pace?

VAN SICKLE: It's always surprising when a young phenom wins a major early. Ko has the total game while Thompson seems to be spotty on and around the greens. It's good for any sport when a new face rises to the top but especially good for the LPGA, which is a true global tour.

RITTER: Lexi has one major title and will surely pick up more. But Ko's arrival was inevitable and this was the final step. She won it in style.

MORFIT: The Ko victory really just extends and enriches the dominant youth movement storyline of 2015. Spieth. Day. McIlroy. Fowler. Ko. Thompson. That old saw that youth is wasted on the young has never been so wrong. These kids are absolutely killing it.

SENS: It may be her first major, but Ko has shown us all enough of her soaring talent that no one should be surprised to see her run away with a biggie. Never mind how young she is.

6. Carnoustie caddie master Martin Roy, a Hall of Famer who looped for presidents and astronauts, died suddenly earlier this week. Who was the best caddie you ever had and what tip or message did that caddie give you that still sticks with you today?

VAN SICKLE: I played Augusta the day after the Masters in the mid-'80s and had an older gent named Jimmy, who usually carried Gene Littler's bag for the tournament. As a Northerner fresh out of the snow, I had no game but I made a bunch of putts (mostly for pars and bogeys) because of his green-reading skills. I badly over-tipped him and he gave me a big smile and said, "I hope you come back." And that's why you should always over-tip your caddie.

MORFIT: As far as enduring words of wisdom, most caddies I've ever had have stressed the importance of just having a good time. That's probably not a bad swing thought in golf and in life.  

SENS: I've played Pinehurst No. 2 a couple of times with Hall of Famer Willie McRae on my bag. He's in his 80s and has been at it since his early teens. Caddied for Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Dwight Eisenhower and on. But he kept repeating that he has always treated everyone the same, on and off the golf course. And he showed that. The man carries himself with so much grace and good humor and without a hint of bitterness about the fact that golf and the world at large have not always treated him with the same generosity that he offers everyone else.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.

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