John Garrity's Top 50

John Garrity’s Top 50

Oakmont's famous Church Pews.
Fred Vuich/SI

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.”

Continue to view Garrity’s Top 50 Courses

1. Askernish OldScore: 10.19
South Uist Island, Scotland
Designer: Old Tom Morris

2. Ballybunion OldScore: 9.75
Ballybunion, Ireland
Designer: L.L. Hewson, James McKenna

3. Carne Golf LinksScore: 9.73
Belmullet, Ireland
Designer: Eddie Hackett

4. Pebble Beach Golf LinksScore: 9.72
Pebble Beach, Calif.
Designer: Jack Neville, Douglas Grant Course Finder Profile

5. Prairie Dunes Country ClubScore: 9.71
Hutchinson, Kan.
Designer: Perry Maxwell Course Finder Profile

6. Ailsa CourseScore: 10.68
Turnberry, Scotland
Designer: Mackenzie Ross

7. Augusta National Golf ClubScore: 10.70
Augusta, Ga.
Designer: Alister Mackenzie Course Finder Profile

8. Oak Hill Country Club East CourseScore: 9.48
Rochester, N.Y.
Designer: Donald Ross Course Finder Profile

9. The European ClubScore: 9.47
Brittas Bay, Ireland
Designer: Pat Ruddy

10. Jupiter Hills Club Hills CourseScore: 9.46
Tequesta, Fla.
Designer: George Fazio Course Finder Profile

11. Interlachen Country ClubScore: 10.61
Edina, Minn.
Designer: Willie Watson Course Finder Profile

12. The Links at FancourtScore: 10.63
George, South Africa
Designer: Gary Player

13. Cypress Point ClubScore: 9.20
Pebble Beach, Calif.
Designer: Alister Mackenzie Course Finder Profile

14. Seminole Golf ClubScore: 9.19
Juno Beach, Fla.
Designer: Donald Ross Course Finder Profile

15. Old Course, St. AndrewsScore: 9.18
St. Andrews, Scotland
Designer: God

16. Poipu Bay Golf CourseScore: 9.17
Kauai, Hawaii
Designer: Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Course Finder Profile

17. Valderrama Golf ClubScore: 9.15
Sotogrande, Spain
Designer: Robert Trent Jones, Sr.

18. Whistling Straits, Straits CourseScore: 9.14
Sheboygan, Wisc.
Designer: Pete Dye Course Finder Profile

19. Les Bordes Golf InternationalScore: 9.13
Saint-Laurent-Nouan, France
Designer: Robert Von Hagge

20. Sand Hills Golf ClubScore: 9.10
Mullen, Neb.
Designer: Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw Course Finder Profile

21. Prestwick Golf ClubScore: 9.09
Prestwick, Scotland
Designer: Old Tom Morris

22. Colonial Country ClubScore: 10.97
Fort Worth, Texas
Designer: John Bredemus Course Finder Profile

23. TPC at Snoqualmie RidgeScore: 9.00
Snoqualmie, Wash.
Designer: Jack Nicklaus Course Finder Profile

24. Royal Birkdale Golf ClubScore: 11.03
Southport, England
Designer: Lowe, Hawtree & Hawtree

25. Pezula Golf ClubScore: 8.91
Knysna, South Africa
Designer: Ron Fream, David Dale

26. Bandon DunesScore: 8.88
Bandon, Ore.
Designer: David Kidd Course Finder Profile

27. Golf Club at Redlands MesaScore: 8.85
Grand Junction, Colo.
Designer: Jim Engh Course Finder Profile

28. Kinghorn Municipal Golf ClubScore: 8.83
Kinghorn, Scotland
Designer: Old Tom Morris

29. Royal Melbourne Golf ClubScore: 11.20
Black Rock, Australia
Designer: Alister Mackenzie

30. Pine Needles Lodge and Golf ClubScore: 11.25
Southern Pines, N.C.
Designer: Donald Ross Course Finder Profile

31. New Richmond Golf ClubScore: 8.72
New Richmond, Wisc.
Designer: Kidd, Herfort, Goldstrand Course Finder Profile

32. Formby Ladies ClubScore: 8.74
Formby, England
Designer: Willie Park, Harry Colt

33. Castle Pines Golf ClubScore: 8.70
Castle Rock, Colo.
Designer: Jack Nicklaus Course Finder Profile

34. Plantation CourseScore: 8.69
Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii
Designer: Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw Course Finder Profile

35. Quail Hollow Golf ClubScore: 11.50
Charlotte, N.C.
Designer: George Cobb, Tom Fazio Course Finder Profile

36. Merion Golf Club East CourseScore: 11.51
Ardmore, Pa.
Designer: Hugh Wilson Course Finder Profile

37. Oak Tree Golf ClubScore: 8.42
Edmund, Okla.
Designer: Pete Dye Course Finder Profile

38. Medicine Hole Golf CourseScore: 8.40
Killdeer, N.D.
Designer: Jim Engh

39. University of Florida Golf CourseScore: 8.39
Gainesville, Fla.
Designer: Bobby Weed Course Finder Profile

40. St. Andrews BayScore: 11.65
St. Andrews, Scotland
Designer: Sam Torrance

41. Balcomie LinksScore: 8.31
Crail, Scotland
Designer: Old Tom Morris

42. National Course at Reynolds PlantationScore: 8.30
Greensboro, Ga.
Designer: Tom Fazio Course Finder Profile

43. Hallbrook Country ClubScore: 8.29
Leawood, Kan.
Designer: Tom Fazio Course Finder Profile

44. Mission Hills Tournament CourseScore: 8.28
Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Designer: Desmond Muirhead Course Finder Profile

45. The Pearl South PacificScore: 8.25
Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Designer: Robert Trent Jones Jr.

46. Milburn Country ClubScore: 8.20
Overland Park, Kan.
Designer: William Langford Course Finder Profile

47. Oakmont Country ClubScore: 8.17
Oakmont, Pa.
Designer: Henry Fownes Course Finder Profile

48. Druids Glen Golf ClubScore: 8.16
Newtownmountkennedy, Ireland
Designer: Pat Ruddy, Tom Craddock

49. Laurel Valley Golf ClubScore: 8.14
Ligonier, Pa.
Designer: Dick Wilson Course Finder Profile

50. New Castle Country ClubScore: 8.10
New Castle, Pa.
Designer: A.W. Tillinghast Course Finder Profile