For as long as there has been a Top 50 Blog — literally years — Scotland’s Askernish Old has held the No. 1 position. Laid out in 1891 by Old Tom Morris but abandoned by later generations, Askernish vaulted to the top spot upon its Brigadoon-like reappearance on a spring day in 1991. The Hebridean masterpiece maintained its No. 1 ranking despite subsequent vanishings, and in recent years its 18 dramatic holes have been rediscovered and even played by scores of die-hard links aficionados.
Meanwhile, the No. 2 spot has been held just as assiduously by Ireland’s Carne Golf Links, an Eddie Hackett-designed gem on Mayo’s Atlantic coast. Carne’s second-place ranking has long been a puzzle to links lovers, or at least to those who remember that I proclaimed it “the world’s greatest golf course” in a 2003 Sports Illustrated feature. “You must be confused,” wrote a persistent nitpicker with GolfClubAtlas stickers on his steamer trunk — as if confusion were a disqualifying attribute for a course critic.
But now the thinkable has happened. After weeks of stealthy advancement — unnoticed until recently by the wool-gathering analysts at Top 50 headquarters — the Irish course was one good mowing and a couple of tweaks of the Top 50 algorithm from nirvana. On Aug. 1, at 9:42 a.m. CDT, Carne caught Askernish at 10.15/9.85 points on the concentric Perfect-10 scale. For the first time in Top 50 history, two courses share the top ranking. (See the entire Top 50 list here.)
I, for one, was not caught by surprise. Carne’s rise can be explained by the recent opening of its new Kilmore 9, a spectacular side of golf winding through the Mullet Peninsula’s most breathtaking dunes. Designed tag-team style by American Jim Engh (Sanctuary, The Club at Black Rock, Tullymore GC) and Dublin-based architect Ally McIntosh, the Kilmore 9 was a decade in the making. I monitored its progress from Day 1, and a couple of weeks ago I returned to the Mullet to bang out the ceremonial first drive on behalf of a contingent of American and British golf writers.
Carne’s new holes were worth the wait. Anchored by three dramatic par 3s and a split-fairway par 5 that invites an heroic approach over a gargantuan dune, the Kilmore 9 echoes the grandeur of Hackett’s back nine without copying any of his holes. In fact, I’d argue that no course in the world offers 18 holes of more distinctive character than Carne’s composite links. Kilmore’s par-3 second, for example, starts high on a bank and winds up far below on the lee side of a massive blowout dune, which McIntosh has cleverly tied into a playable bunker.
But that hole is a mini-wow when compared to the WOW of the par-3 seventh, which launches from a sky-scraping dune-top to another dune, 228 yards away, with a wrap-around view of the Atlantic and western Ireland as an unnecessary distraction. “That’s terrifying,” one of my playing partners said at the opening. I thought he was referring to the dizzying drop from the tee to the fifth fairway, until I looked up and saw that he was staring at the distant flag, flapping in a two-club wind.
I realize, of course, that some course-rating systems place greater emphasis on smooth greens. Carne’s new greens won’t be tournament-ready for a few years, and I say, “So what? I can wait.” Neither am I swayed by the $150 million in frills and environmental abuse that Donald Trump lavished upon his Trump International Golf Links in Scotland. Carne’s Kilmore 9 cost €202,000 from start to finish — or roughly what The Donald spent on cocktail shrimp for his grand opening. To which I say: “Sorry, Donald. You can’t crack the Top 50 on the strength of cocktail shrimp.”*
*If you’re talking cash, I might listen.
Anyway, I thought I’d better get this news out before Golf.com finishes its roll-out of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Courses in the World. There might still be time to dump Pine Valley Golf Club from the No. 1 spot and give Askernish and Carne their rightful position in golf’s ever-changing firmament.