Spotless and easy in Palm Springs: Gary Player Signature course at Mission Hills supplies perfect fairways, career rounds
RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. - It's so green that you can be excused for thinking you're golfing on the outfield grass at Yankee Stadium. This is a World Series- opening-game green.
You're on a Palm Springs golf vacation. But if this is the desert, dour character actor Jude Law is the funniest man alive. The Gary Player Signature Course at Westin Mission Hills Resort is so lush, so perfectly conditioned it could leave Martha Stewart gasping in green-thumb envy. And yes, they're a little obsessed about it.
Asked by a couple of regulars why the course is still cart-path-only with the course looking flawless well out of overseed, the starter replies solemnly, "We want to keep it that way."
You got a problem with that?
Any questions melt away once you start swinging away in perfect lie after perfect lie. Shots in the fairways - heck, shots on the edges of the fairways - can feel like they're on tees. The Gary Player Signature Course gives you every chance in the world to hit good golf shots. Indeed, playing here can feel like hitting shots in your golf dreams. You're liable to be a better player at the Gary Player than you are in real life.
"I can't tell you how many people have come up to us and said they just shot their career low round on the Gary Player," Mission Hills Director of Golf Ryan Wilson said.
This is no cosmic coincidence. The Gary Player is set up for you to succeed. Its 131 slope rating from the back tees and 7,062 yards do not speak to its true pussycat nature.
It's not a pushover in any traditional sense. The Gary Player doesn't produce career-low scores because it's quirky-easy. The low numbers derive from the great conditions, and the way Player lays out all the obstacles right in front of you. There's no hidden agenda here; the Mission Hills Gary Player speaks its mind like a precocious toddler.
As Wilson says, "You won't find any tricks out there."
This friendliness to average golfers seems something of an anomaly, especially paired with its sister course, the Pete Dye Resort course. "Gary Player designs more for the public," said Eileen Pennycook, a winter Coachella Valley resident and Mission Hills regular.
The big question is: Do all these score-easing, eye-pleasing ways add up to an interesting round? The answer might depend on what you're playing for. The Gary Player is like a Sunday spent hanging out at the park, enjoyable in a completely non-threatening way.
It's not that Player removes any trace of danger. Plenty of water comes into play. There's a long par 3 (the 200-yard No. 5) that forces you to clear a decent pond even from the forward tees. There's a particularly tough par 5 (the 558-yard 11th) where water runs all the way along the right side of the fairway and then opens up into a lake in front of the green.
"It's a fun hole," Rod Pennycook said.
"I usually just mark an eight on my card," Eileen Pennycook deadpanned back at her husband.
Even if 11 does equal eight here, Mission Hills' Gary Player Signature will never be mistaken for a wolf in sheep's clothing. The water's more eye candy than true menace. It's the difference between Scream and The Exorcist.
Player employs big and little touches to keep your stress level low. The fairways are fairly wide, and even wayward shots tend to get funneled back in (within reason) thanks to the mounding.
"'Stadium' might not be the right word," Wilson said, "but it's almost like a stadium effect. It's like a bowl."
Just another way to keep that career round on track. It's actually a little befuddling to the average hacker to be treated this way. After years of playing courses seemingly designed to beat them down, here's one trying to lift them up.
The main reason to play the Mission Hills Gary Player Signature Course is of the course conditions. This isn't a picturesque course per se. The San Jacinto Mountains are in the background, but there are tons of houses lining the course, making the feel anything but nature-centric. Still, it's doubtful you'll find a course in better shape in the Palm Springs valley.
The Mission Hills management team is fixated on golf-course agronomics. Wilson and the superintendent are every week looking for slight changes to keep up appearances, whether it's working over a particular bunker, making sure the rough doesn't top a player-friendly two and a half inches or ordering a few tree branches trimmed.
"We're not the newest play [it opened in 1991], but we're one of the best conditioned," Wilson said.
You're not likely to remember many specific holes from the Gary Player Signature, but you will not forget all those nice lies and what they meant to your scorecard.
On this day, the beverage-cart guy seemed to forget about our group after the first nine, but maybe he was trying to preserve those career rounds by cutting off the beer. Yes, the Gary Player Signature can put you in a very forgiving mood.
Palm Springs dining
For a quick, tasty post-round lunch, Sub King in a nearby strip mall is hard to beat. The pastrami sandwich is the best thing on the board and it's easy to come away with lunch for two for under $12.
You can find pretty much all the usual chain/fast-food suspects nearby as well. But the place to go for a taste of your home in Palm Springs is The River shopping center. This cookie-cutter outdoor mall on Bob Hope Drive has a unique setup, centered on an artificial stream. When the weather's good people often sit outside along "The River" to eat. If you've ever seen a real river you won't be wowed, but remember - this is the desert. Water's a big deal here.
More universally impressive is the list of draft beers - a few pages strong - at Yard House ((760) 779-1415). This sports bar/decent restaurant is the class of The River center.
Stay and play
The affiliated Westin Mission Hills Resort is across the highway from the Gary Player Signature Course and right next to the Pete Dye Signature Course. Mission Hills Resort offers the Westin Heavenly Beds and tall ceilings that are a large plus. Mission Hills isn't as huge as some of the mega-resorts in terms of restaurant choices and pool size, but the small rushing waterfalls are a nice touch.
The resort has nice walking paths, but unlike some of the giants, it's not a place where you're going to get lost very often. Parking is free, but finding an open spot close to your room is very hit and miss.
The Gary Player Signature Course's clubhouse is a Nike-only shop, completely swoosh in apparel, clubs, etc. It's the only Nike-only golf shop in the Palm Springs valley.
January 30, 2006