Easy-to-use online tool lets golfers explore decades of data about the country's best courses
One Georgia Institute of Technology professor and his recently graduated student are merging their passions for golf and computer science to help create an interactive visualization for avid golfers everywhere.
Utilizing available “Top 100” lists from Golf and Golf Digest magazines, former student Josh Kulas, who graduated in May with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering, Professor John Stasko, director of the Information Interfaces Lab in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, and current computer science Ph.D. student John Thompson created a visual tool to help golfers quantify their experiences playing some of the nation’s greatest courses.
Count Kulas and Stasko among that enthusiastic community.
Kulas played golf regularly in high school with a self-reported handicap of around 6 or 7. He placed second in the county in his senior year in Champaign, Ill., with a personal best score of 73. Stasko, whose dad was a club professional, grew up around the sport. He played in high school and college (Bucknell University), was a member for 17 years at Atlanta’s highly-rated East Lake Golf Club, and even won the match play club championship, called the Bobby Jones Memorial tournament, there in 1996.
“I haven’t played a lot of the overall top 100 courses, as they are mostly private, but I’ve played a good number of the top public courses,” Stasko said of his experience with courses on the list. “I’m always looking to play more of these. Augusta National is the true bucket list No. 1 that I dream about playing one day.”
Kulas came across Stasko in a class during the Spring 2015 semester. Searching for an extracurricular project, Kulas discovered data visualization through a conversation with the professor. Having played golf rather seriously in high school, Kulas quickly noticed the golf course background on Stasko’s computer during class one day.
“I figured that would be a fun place to start,” Kulas said.
The visualization itself illustrates a composite ranking, pinpoints locations, specifies whether a course is public or private, and lists number of courses by architect, among other features.
“The visualization consolidates a lot of information and gives historical and comparative angles on the data that are difficult to get otherwise,” Stasko said. “I’d actually say that the strength of the visualization is not necessarily in illuminating unexpected information or insights. It’s more of a browsing and exploratory aid.”
“I wanted to make a tool that could answer a variety of questions,” Kulas said. “What is the highest-ranked course I have played? Where do my favorites stack up? Are there any highly ranked courses near me I can play? How has this course changed in ranking over time? For me, I find it fascinating how things change, or don’t change, if you filter for courses built further in the past.”
All of these questions can be answered by the easy-to-use visualization (Kulas has played 20 of the 385 courses listed in the visualization; Stasko has played 40, though a potential trip with some friends to Myrtle Beach, S.C., could add four more).
As are other questions golf fans may be eager to know:
The graphic shows, for example, that only one course in the top 10 of the composite rankings was built after 1935. Adjusting the time frame for the display indicates an influx in public courses, as compared to private, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A list of top architects shows that Tom Fazio, and not Jack Nicklaus, has designed the most ranked courses (46).
The current top-ranked course is Pine Valley, which has been ranked among the top two every year this century. That private course was designed by George Crump in 1918, the only Crump course among the 380 listed.
The recently completed 117th United States Open tournament was played at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wisc. The relatively new course, which has been open since only 2006, is rated the No. 9 public course in Golf Digest’s 2017 ranking, information easily gleaned from the visualization.