I don't care for most of the lists that rank courses, unless you do it as my friend John Garrity does. The 50th course in his top 50 is always the one he has played most recently. But of the various lists out there, one of the most reliable is Golfweek's list of the top 100 classic courses in America.
Classic in this case means before 1960. My cutoff year for a classic American course would be built before 1940, but it's not my list. In any event, I played the Atlantic City Country Club the other day for the first time in at least 20 years. A gem. I loved it. When I came home I checked to see where it was on the Golfweek Classic List. It was M.I.A. Luckily, Golf Magazine had the good sense to include it in its Top 100 You Can Play list, which is out this week.
The problem with lists is that there are never enough slots. I know a dozen courses just in greater Philadelphia — A.C.C.C. is about 50 miles from the Liberty Bell — that should be in every top 100.
If I were starting a list, I wouldn't limit it to a number. I'd rather read a list of courses you must play before you die than a list of 100 courses you must play before you die. Maybe there would be 57 courses on the list, maybe there would be 203. Surely, over time, it would grow. The point here is that courses either get your stamp of approval as providing a wonderful, memorable golf experience, or they don't.
Consider the case of Merion West, the 6,000-yard course down the street from the East Course, which will host next year's U.S. Open. A complete delight. How does that course not show up on the lists? It's on my list. Atlantic City is, too.
I played Merion West right before the British Open with Scott Michaux, a columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. The course is hilly, but you fall off a green and find yourself on the next tee. We carried our sacks, hardly lost a ball, eye-balled our yardages, played in three hours, had a good match and a big time. Real golf. The guy who designed Merion West, Hugh Wilson, also designed Merion East, Cobbs Creek and the nine-holer in Phoenixville, Pa. I'd put all four on my To Play list. Cobbs Creek is a public course, owned by the city of Philadelphia, and it's falling apart. It's semi-unplayable. It'll break your heart. But you should still play it.
The Atlantic City course used to be super-duper private, but it has become less so over the years, and now it's a public course owned by Harrah's, the casino company. You can buy poker-chip ball markers in the pro shop. It seems so garish, just the idea of the venerable old links being owned by Harrah's, and it is, but welcome to Atlantic City. It's hard to think of a place that does contradictions much better than Atlantic City. (If you want to see a really excellent movie, and one that offers some incredible insight into Atlantic City, see Louis Malle's "Atlantic City." (SPOILER ALERT: Nothing happens in this movie. It's great.)
At A.C.C.C., looking east from the clubhouse tap room, you have the old (1897) golf course, a thousand acres of buggy marshland, a bay, the gaudy strip of downtown Atlantic City and the ocean beyond it, teeming with bluefish and striped bass and tuna. The fish in the ocean and the mosquitoes in the weeds have some sort of symbiotic relationship. The food chain and that whole thing. The relationship between the A.C. casinos and the A.C.C.C. is harder to put your finger on. When you're standing in that creaking clubhouse looking at a plaque that captures the result of a 1901 Harvard-Yale golf match, Lucky Seven seems a million miles away, not two short ones across a bay.
I heard my colleague Cameron Morfit say the other day that the guy who designed the original Mini took a car and eliminated everything you don't need. What was left became the iconic little roadster. That's where my tastes run. I cannot stand bells and whistles in anything. In fact, during the British Open, Hertz gave me this big Volvo that would not stop talking to me. The voice would say, "To cancel, say 'Cancel.'" I'd shout, "Cancel," in the New York accent of my youth. The British voice would respond with, "Say 'KAHN-sell'. I tried to say, "'KAHN-sell. '" My accent did not pass muster. I couldn't even find the volume control button.
A.C.C.C. is a course, like all good courses, that has what it needs and not more. Bunker here. Hillock there. Tree here. Waste area there. View here. Sloping green — never crazy, but good movement — there. I'm not going to bore you with that hole-by-hole thing. I can tell you that whatever Tom Doak did to the course in a 2003 renovation only helped it.
The course is rough around the edges, which I like. It is not resorty. It's not fancy. Not at all. It's not pristine. (It seems like when golf courses are praised, they are always "pristine," whatever that means.) It's buggy. It's not well marked. Recent storms had washed out the bunkers and made them extremely difficult. (Leave 'em be! I know you won't, but you should!) But the holes are just so sound, fun, interesting and beautiful. I'd put it on your list.
Did I mention that I played half-decently?