Tag Archives: The Masters

Masters Icon Gets Top-50 Treatment

AUGUSTA, GA. — This week’s post may be too technical for some readers, but we are the most scientific course ranking, so there. And while it’s common knowledge that we employ advanced metrics, a Cal Sci algorithm and the mega-computing powers of the Bomar Brain, it’s less well known that we yoke our inputs to to various independent and proprietary data bases, not limiting ourselves to authorized sources. This week, for example, our Kansas City headquarters has a real-time link to the trove of Masters statistics generated by the Augusta National Golf Club.

Augusta National's 16th

The 16th green of Augusta National with the late, lamented Eisenhower Tree barely visible at far left. (John Garrity)

Some of this data is too arcane to be of much use — cumulative ATM fees! — but much of it is germane. A few weeks ago, our Catch Basin second-raters* were about to penalize Augusta National a tenth of a point for the ice-storm death of its so-called Eisenhower Tree. “That tree was one of the game’s most-recognized icons,” said the guy in a white lab coat whose name I can never remember. “It dictated how the 17th was played. Imagine the Road Hole without the Road Hole Bunker, or the Valley of Sin without legalized prostitution.”

*”Second-raters” is not meant to be pejorative. Our field evaluators are called “first-raters” because they collect their data on course visits. 

Fortunately, a cooler head prevailed. “Speed is important,” I told my basement staff, “but nobody of importance will play Augusta National between now and the Masters. Why don’t we just wait until the tournament starts and then adjust our ranking with the aid of fresh statistics — which is, after all, what we do.”

My words made a strong impression on the paid employees, particularly the ones with children and mortgages. Anyway, Augusta National began today, April 11, in sixth place, the same position it held when branches started breaking. I, meanwhile, have set up a command center in Row F of the Masters press building, right next to Gary Van Sickle, the Top 50’s v.p. and executive course rater.

Here’s the Masters stat we’re keeping our eyes on: scoring average by hole. Between 1942 and 2013, the 17th, “Nandina,” was the tournament’s tenth most difficult hole, yielding an average of 4.15 strokes per player per round. It played easiest (3.9485) in 1996, due to the premier of Howard Stern’s radio show in Texas, and most difficult (4.3480) in 1951, following the spying convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Last year, No. 17 was, predictably, the tenth most difficult hole at 4.22.

But now we’re watching as post-Eisenhower-Tree data streams in. As of 4:51 p.m. EDT, No. 17 ranks eleventh in difficulty with an average of 4.172 pppr. In language the layman will understand, this means that the 17th has dropped a full 1.0 in seasonally-adjusted difficulty, relative to the other 17 holes. Put another way, it means the hole is easier than before.

Easier is better than harder — ask any weekend golfer — so I have directed the Catch Basin staff to credit Augusta National with a “fun credit” of .05 points. This will not affect its current ranking, but we’ll be monitoring the National’s metrics all week and making adjustments as necessary.

(Thanks to SI senior writer Alan Shipnuck for his helpful advice about carrying numbers. We’ll look into it.)

Top 50 on TV: The Masters, as usual, is being played at sixth-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. It’s a little-known fact that when the first Masters was played, in 1934, the club was too poor to pay Horton Smith his victor’s prize. Instead, they offered him a friends-and-family discount on future rounds of golf, which he foolishly declined.

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Hillcrest Hole Finally Gets to Stretch

“The wall comes down this week,” writes Kurt Everett, general manager of 43rd-ranked Hillcrest Golf & Country Club.

Just the promise of demolition boosted Hillcrest two rungs in the Top 50 ranking. When the greenside stones actually topple on the course’s once-great ninth hole, Hillcrest will likely soar to unprecedented heights. “The celebrations that greeted the destruction of the Berlin Wall will pale in comparison,” I considered writing to Everett. “The Great Wall of China will regain its stature as ‘world’s silliest if well-intended barrier.’”

Hillcrest's temporary green

The wall on Hillcrest’s ninth was not Donald Ross’s idea. (John Garrity)

Faithful readers of this blog know the history. Hillcrest Country Club, the only Donald Ross layout in Missouri, had a challenging ninth of 420 yards that was regarded as one of the best holes in the Kansas City area. The ninth tested the nation’s best players for decades, including the years when Hillcrest hosted the PGA Tour’s Kansas City Open. But some time ago, at the insistence of a club executive who dabbled in the bridesmaid-dresses resale market,* the Ross green was bulldozed and a new green installed some 50 yards closer to the tee. A stone bulkhead elevated the new green complex from mere deformity to flat-out laughing stock.

*The bridesmaid crack is relevant because the old green site was deemed the perfect spot for a wedding bower — if your dream wedding includes beeping golf carts and two foursomes of braying sandbaggers settling bets.

Hillcrest, Kansas City

Hillcrest’s green transplant began in earnest last week. (Photo by John Bozarth)

More recently, after a dalliance with bankruptcy and conversion to daily-fee status, Hillcrest’s new management decided to restore the original Ross green. That green emerged last fall and is now deemed ready for play. That, in turn, makes the bogus green redundant and its stone facade irrelevant. The ghost of Ronald Reagan was seen on the ninth tee last week, shaking his fist and shouting, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Now, down it comes. It pains me that I can’t attend the actual wall-banging, but I’m moonlighting at The Masters for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com. Still, I’ll know when the wall has fallen.

It will be reflected in the ranking.

The Masters returns to Augusta National for a record 77th time. (John Garrity)

The Masters returns to Augusta National for a record 77th time. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: It’s Masters week, so the golf industry is bivouacked outside 6th-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. Since we were there last, a wall of it’s own has fallen with the admission of the club’s first female members. Reagan’s ghost, we are told, had nothing to do with this long-awaited deconstruction.

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Ishikawa’s Masters Invite Questioned by Ishikawa

“We have no snow in Tokyo,” writes Duke Ishikawa, our chief Asian correspondent. “But temperature is pretty low every day.”

Thanks, Duke. Keep us posted.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy are kicking off their seasons with highly-compensated appearances at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Phil Mickelson’s debut comes at the Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif.

Ryo Ishikawa is also playing in the Humana, so Duke (no relation to Ryo) attached “a question for all my friends around the world” to his Tokyo weather report:

 A Japanese of 21 years, Ryo Ishikawa, has just received a special exemption into the Masters. But I ask you, is Ishikawa a worthy player to be invited at this time? Ishikawa was 7th on our money list last year and 75th in the World Ranking.

Masters Week

Will Ishikawa be rattled by huge crowds on Augusta National’s par-3 course? (John Garrity)

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne gave several reasons for the invitation, but especially the supposed enthusiasm for golf in Asia. That is important, but not so accurate. The total number of tickets sold for Japan men’s tour last year was 480,000 — for the whole season! That was a drop of 100,000 compared to 2011. It is a smaller number than ONE WEEK of admissions to the PGA Tour Phoenix Open.

Also, Ishikawa won the Taiheiyo Masters last November. It was his first win in two years. However, we counted the gallery on the course, and it was only 4,455 on Sunday. Also, Ishikawa has lost many big-money contracts, including Panasonic and Toyota. (I think it is because many Japanese citizens have come to believe pro golf is dishonest between the ropes.) He has lost his value at the market. He is not our golf pinup boy any more.

Ishikawa will make his season debut at La Quinta next week, but I wonder if he will make the top 125 on the money list. I also question that his appearance will give high TV ratings at the Masters.

Sometimes 21 is no longer young any more.

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Partisan Rancor Over Azalea-Free Masters

The electronic mailbag overflowed in response to my Masters post asserting that man-made climate change has so thoroughly jumbled the seasons that spring golf is no longer possible. “You must have been smoking those cherry blossoms,” suggested a reader from St. Petersburg, Fla. “I just drove through two feet of snow to get to Walmart. Global warming is a proven hoax.” A reader from Peculiar, Mo., sent me a crude pencil drawing of blooming redbuds captioned, “Everything’s NORMAL in Peculiar.”

I certainly didn’t intend to wade into one of our era’s most contentious issues. In fact, I’ve purposely downplayed the subject. Last summer, for instance, I redacted a line in a course review that alluded to “crocodile sightings” at Nebraska’s Awarii Dunes. More recently, I rejected a developer’s ad for “Gulf-view lots on the Arkansas coastline.”

But not all the mail came from so-called “deniers.” Several Irish golfers pointed out that a month or so of the Celtic winter seems to have relocated to June-July, making September the most summery month. That followed an e-mail from Dubai insisting that the desert has swallowed up whole golf courses, including Al Ruwaya, a highly-touted Tiger Woods design.

Listen, folks, you’re barking up the wrong, climatically-distressed tree. The Top 50 blog is a politics-free zone, a refuge for golfers escaping the drudgery of the Drudge Report or the sluttishness of Slate.com. Rest assured, if I spot a hoodie-wearing penguin seeking the services of a cross-dressing abortion provider at a radical mosque in my predominately-white Kansas City neighborhood, I’ll keep it to myself.

That said, this is what 50th-ranked Glen Echo Country Club looked like when I played there last week:

Glen Echo CC

Spring lingered last week at Glen Echo Country Club in Normandie, Mo. (John Garrity)

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but the Valero Texas Open is at the TPC San Antonio, where John Novosel Jr. and I performed a Tour Tempo segment for a not-so-long-ago episode of “Champions Tour Learning Center.” (That’s your cue to break down the door of your favorite e-book store for a copy of Tour Tempo 2: The Short Game and Beyond, by yours truly and John Novosel Sr.)

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Climate Change Forces Golfers to Adjust to Lesser Hues

AUGUSTA, GA. — You’ve no doubt heard that unseasonably warm weather in the South has forced Masters officials to dump truckloads of ice on their azalea beds to keep the famous shrubs from blooming prematurely. This may or may not be true. I was going to walk out to Amen Corner yesterday to find out, but it was too damn hot.

Masters Week

Augusta National's par-3 course, famous for its horticulture, may not be as bright this week. (John Garrity)

The meteorologist at our Kansas City headquarters, meanwhile, reports that spring is a month ahead of schedule. The dogwoods, redbuds and crabapples are already dropping their blossoms, and the Top 50 staff, in my absence, spend their afternoons sipping cabernets at sidewalk cafés on the Country Club Plaza. My imaginary friend Bert, who runs a snow-blower concession, says that sales are flat. “I’m a global-warming denier,” he says, iPhoning from the sixth hole of Donald Ross’s Heartland Club (No. 45). “But I don’t deny that the world is getting hotter.”

Bert is my imaginary friend, but I’m not afraid to tell him that he’s a dope. “The world IS getting hotter,” I tell him, “but you’re confusing weather with climate. The scientifically-measured increase in global surface temperature since 1980 was roughly a half-degree Fahrenheit, and if the most dire predictions of climatologists come true, it could rise another 4 to 10 degrees degrees by 2100. This abrupt warming could have a catastrophic impact on the planet, melting the polar ice cap, flooding highly-rated links courses and diverting the Gulf Stream, which would turn continental Europe into a year-round skating rink. But that’s CLIMATE. You’ll still have unseasonably cool summers and unseasonably warm winters. That’s WEATHER.”

Snow on Japanese golf course

The cherry blossoms have yet to bloom on Japanese courses. (Courtesy of Duke Ishikawa)

As proof I sent Bert the latest dispatch from our chief Asian correspondent, Duke Ishikawa, who reports that Japan’s cherry-blossom season is on hold. “We really had a cold winter this year,” he begins.

Enclosed several pictures from Suwako CC in Nagano Prefecture. One thousand meters above sea level. Many courses still closed, but Suwako opened on April 1. In two weeks, they shoveled almost a foot of snow. These pictures are evidence of it. This is why our professional tour cannot start this season until after the Masters.

Suwako, Duke points out, is near the Karuizawa 72 course, site of the 2014 Eisenhower Trophy competition (barring the onset of an ice age).

This talk of azaleas and cherry blossoms is not peripheral to course ranking. Many of the Top 50 courses are currently swathed in spring colors, from the dogwoods of 42nd-ranked Hallbrook to the wildflowers of second-ranked Carne. Here’s Duke again on the Japanese golf landscape:

We have a gorgeous cherry-blossom season from the end of March to early April (normally). That’s in the Tokyo area. Our island is longer than 2,000 kilometers, so the cherry-blossom season moves from south (Okinawa) to North (Hokkaido) with a front line of rising temperatures. We call it sakura zensen. (Sakura is “cherry,” zensen means “front line.”) The cherry trees usually keep one week of bloom in each area, so it is a very short moment. We made it a symbol for the Samurai who had to commit hara-kiri suicide in front of his boss after making a mistake. (Please don’t laugh.)

Some of our golf courses have one thousand cherry trees. With more cherry trees in the hills around, it makes us all pink. I occasionally send pictures of this to my fairway ladies, Louise Solheim and Barbara, whose husband is Jack.

Again, it is a great time of year. Sincerely, Duke

New Richmond Golf Club

The New Richmond Golf Club rivals Augusta National for spring coloration. (John Garrity)

Several of the Top 50’s course raters are licensed botanists, so I had them compile a spring-colors Top 5 from the current ranking. Here it is:

1) New Richmond Golf Club, New Richmond, Wis. (132.6)

2) Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga. (128.8)

3) Augusta National Practice Range, Augusta, Ga. (127.1)

4) Askernish Old, South Uist Island, Scotland (124.0)

5) Mid Pines Resort and Golf Club, Southern Pines, N.C. (123.9)

Top 50 on TV: The Masters (CBS).

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Post-Lottery Bounce for Augusta National

I fully intended to provide final-round coverage of the Course Designers Championship in Augusta, Ga., won by Phil Mickelson of Dallas-based Phil Mickelson Design. Unfortunately, I learned on Sunday that I was one of 28 winners of the Masters media lottery, my prize being a Monday round at seventh-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. With only 24 hours to prepare for my 11:40 tee time, I had no choice but to race through a column for Golf.com, rearrange my travel schedule, and then scarf down a few calories at T-Bonz with Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s caddie.*

*The joint was so crowded that Bones and I had to communicate across several tables using hand signals, but I could tell from the way he mimicked my thumbs-up gesture that he had learned of my good fortune.

It is customary, I know, for writers playing Augusta National for the first time to file self-deprecating accounts of the experience. (If that’s your cup of tea, I highly recommend the breezy, self-flagellating reportage of Chicago Tribune golf writer Teddy Greenstein, who was a member of my foursome.) I, however — mindful of how little space a blog affords the writer — must confine myself to a few highlights. My booming drive on No. 1, for example, which produced whistles of awe from the starters and caddies, carrying far up on the flat. (See my privately-published monograph, “Conquering First Tee Jitters.”) Or my 7-iron on the watery par-3 16th, a tightly-drawn flier that hit the spot I had picked out on the green and funneled down toward the flagstick, stopping two feet from the hole.

Augusta National No. 12

The par-3 12th at Augusta National. (John Garrity)

I was at my best, however, on the par-5 15th, one of the most famous risk-reward holes in golf. Drawing upon my inner Gary Van Sickle, I pounded a long drive up the right side. When I got to my ball, which rested on a relatively flat patch of fairway looking down on Rae’s Creek and a flagstick planted back-right on a wide-but-shallow green, I paused, feigning indecision. Then, with a tight-lipped smile, I turned to my caddie. “Bruce,” I said, “I didn’t come 5,000 miles to lay up.”

Heartened by this display of bravado, Bruce told me I had “195 to the front and 205 to the flag.” Nodding, I pulled the headcover off my hybrid-4 Rescue club, brushed the grass a couple of times with nonchalant practice swings, and then made a Tour Tempo-perfect pass at the ball. The feel at impact was sublime. I watched the shot trace across the distant pines with a feeling of deep contentment — similar, I imagine, to what Mickelson felt on Sunday, when he hit his instantly-legendary 6-iron off the pine straw and twixt the tree trunks on No. 13. My shot was probably struck a little better than Phil’s; it flew precisely 205 yards and landed by the flagstick. Unfortunately, the hole was cut pointlessly close to the back fringe, allowing my ball to skip off the back and run down the tightly-mowed bank. I had to settle for a par.

Was I upset? Not at all. I have studied Alister MacKenzie’s work long enough to know that he labored long and hard to achieve a certain capriciousness in his designs. Sometimes the perfectly struck shot will be punished. That’s how it should be. That’s how you want it to be if you’re a Scotsman fed up with Highlands winters, scratchy kilts and dour neighbors.

Anyway, I found Augusta National to be immaculately groomed and eminently fair from the members‘ tees. I was so impressed, in fact, that I filled out my Top 50 rating sheet in the Champions Locker Room and faxed it off to the Cal Sci number crunchers. A few hours later, they sent me their reply by text: “Augusta National climbs 5 rungs to second! Pebble slides to 7th!”

The Tom Fazio-designed Augusta National Practice Range, meanwhile, holds on to the 47th spot, permanently displacing Oakmont Country Club.


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Tiger, Phil Lead Designers’ Flight

The Course Designers’ flight at the Masters may not get as much attention as it used to, but what a leader board! Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson share the lead at 6-under par heading into the weekend, and Tom Watson is three back after a second-round 74. Ernie Els survived the 36-hole cut despite a Friday afternoon run-in with Augusta National’s 15th hole; he’s at even-par and T21.

The twist at the Masters, of course, is that the designers are ranked according to their golfing ability, not their design proficiency. That leads to amusing results. Top-ranked designer Ben Crenshaw (Sand Hills Golf Club, No. 19, Kapalua Plantation Course, No. 34) shot rounds of 77-78 and missed the cut by eight strokes. But Woods, who has yet to complete a golf course after three years in the design business, gets to play on the weekend. It may not be fair, but that’s what makes it fun.

Anyway, here are the two-round cumulative results:

Position Player Total Cumulative
T-1 Tiger Woods -6 138
T-1 Phil Mickelson -6 138
3 Tom Watson -3 141
4 Ernie Els E 144
T-5 Bernhard Langer +5 149*
T-5 Mark O’Meara +5 149*
7 Vijay Singh +10 154*
8 Ben Crenshaw +11 155*
9 Ian Woosnam +20 164*
*Missed Cut

Top 50 on TV: The Course Designers’ Tournament is being played at Augusta National, No. 7, but the CBS cameras can’t get enough of the new Tom Fazio-designed Augusta National Practice Facility. The new range, which replaces a foreshortened lawn that ended in a 200-foot vertical net, is more than 400 yards long and lined with azaleas (reminiscent of my back yard). The short-game area, on the golf course side of the range, is roped for spectators and features white-sand bunkers and tournament-ready greens. I’ll review Fazio’s work in more detail in a subsequent post, but for this week only his Augusta National range cracks the Top 50 at No. 47, replacing Oakmont Country Club.

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Are Artificial Trees in Augusta’s Future?

Every year at the Masters, an old folk song plays in my head: “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines ….” There are better tree songs, I suppose — Hoagy Carmichael’s “A Dogwood Died in Dallas” comes to mind — but Augusta National’s famous 18 meanders through a pine forest. In fact, when founder Bobby Jones gave course designer Alister MacKenzie his first tour of the Fruitland Nursery property, it was to point out that skinny Georgia pines, unlike Britain’s massive hardwoods, could be felled with a few strokes of a hatchet. And if for some reason you wanted more trees, pines were easy to transplant, having root balls about the size of a duffle bag.*

*The portability of pines is demonstrated annually on the National’s eleventh hole, where trees come and go with the nonchalance of guests at a high-end resort hotel.

The downside of the pine is its propensity for shedding pollen in the spring. A single loblolly pine, according an Audubon-knock-off pamphlet I can’t put my hand on, can produce two to three kilograms of yellow powder overnight — enough to cover a fleet of rental cars. Bees carry some of this pollen to flowers, but the rest drifts up against curbs and doorsills or is inhaled by guileless visitors from the north.

“The official Masters color might have to be changed from green to yellow,” Ron Green Jr. wrote in Monday’s Charlotte Observer. “There’s a soft yellow haze in the air and a heavy coating on most static surfaces around the golf course.”

Relief is promised in the form of thunderstorms, which are expected to rumble through Augusta in the next hour or so. Until then, the  Augusta National Golf Club’s No. 7 ranking is suspended (subject to review by the executive committee).

Golf Cart at 2010 Masters

Georgia farmers hail record harvest of sneezables. (John Garrity)

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Masters Field Too Strong for Tiger?

With Masters week looming, people keep asking what question I’ll spring on Tiger Woods at his Monday press conference. They assume, based upon my background as an investigative, that I will throw him hardballs such as, “Who is Janine, and how did she get your signature on a golf flag?”

Their assumptions are wrong. I’m going to throw the spitter. I’m going to ask Tiger the question that my weak-kneed, pusillanimous colleagues won’t touch with a two-foot pole: “Who is the best course designer in this year’s field?”

I expect Tiger to blush and stammer, because nothing embarrasses him more than his oh-for-three record as a golf architect. Three years after he opened Tiger Woods Design in a blind mail drop outside a mall in Windermere, Fla., Woods has yet to cut a ribbon at a course opening. His Al Ruwaya course in Dubai is stalled, his Cliffs at High Carolina course remains hypothetical, and his Mexican clients have put off construction of their Punta Brava seaside course until they get assurances that they can build it with American labor.

Photo of Cassique Golf Club

The 15th at Tom Watson's Cassique Golf Club, Kiawah Island, S.C. (Tom Watson Design)

Should Tiger dare to answer my question, he’ll have to weigh the design credentials of a couple of dozen tournament players — many of whom have actually visited the courses they are credited with designing. He’ll have to give consideration to two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, who has put his stamp on some 17 courses on three continents. But Langer might not prevail in a design playoff with former Masters champs Raymond Floyd (Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, Aventura, Fla.) and Vijay Singh (The Water at Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai). And those two worthies would certainly meet their match in three-time Masters champion Tom Watson, whose Independence course at the Reunion Resort in Orlando, Fla., has drawn categorical praise from GOLF Magazine, Golf Digest and Golfweek. Watson showed what he’s made of when he agreed to renovate the marvelous Ballybunion Old in County Kerry, Ireland — a judicious tweaking that saw Ballybunion fall only three places, to No. 5, in the Top 50.

The best designer to tee it up on Thursday, however, will be yet another two-time Masters champion: Ben Crenshaw. With his acclaimed design partner, Bill Coore, Crenshaw is the only active player with two courses in the Top 50: Sand Hills Golf Club, No. 19, and The Plantation Course, No. 34. And that’s not counting the duo’s renovation work on Prairie Dunes Country Club, No. 6.*

*Is there a correlation between Masters titles and design potential? I think there is. Phil Mickelson, a two-time Masters winner, successfully partnered with Gary Stephens on the Lower Course at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz. The salient fact is that Mickelson finished Whisper Rock in 2001, three years before he donned his first green jacket. (That augurs well for non-Masters winner Ernie Els. The Big Easy has co-designed roughly a dozen courses to date, including the Anahita Golf Course on the isle of Mauritius, chosen “Best Golf Development for Europe and Africa” by CNBC International Property Awards.)

Tiger may not see it my way, but what’s he going to do? Change the subject to his marriage?

Top 50 on TV: The Nabisco Championship, the first major of the LPGA season, returns to the Mission Hills Tournament Course, No. 44. I’m very fond of this course, having sharpened my game on its eucalyptus-lined fairways during countless playing lessons with my West Coast swing guru, Rob Stanger. It lacks, I admit, the symbolic depth of Desmond Muirhead’s later work — such as his par-4 “Guernica” hole at the Segovia Golf Club in Chiyoda, Japan, which commemorates Picasso’s famous painting of a town savagely bombed during the Spanish Civil War. (“A dismembered foot and hand surround the green,” Muirhead wrote in his program notes, “a solitary eye glares at you from behind it. The teeing ground is elevated as a symbol of power for the golfer and to help to see clearly the horse’s head around the lake.”) I also think that Mission Hills, situated as it is in the desert, could use a few more water fountains.

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