Spring Swings in Austin and San Antonio

La Cantera Golf Course (Image: La Cantera Hill Country Resort)

Jay Morrish and Tom Weiskopf designed the acclaimed Resort Course at La Cantera Hill Country Resort in San Antonio. (Image: La Cantera)

Golf hotspots Austin and San Antonio are at their loveliest in the spring, when the weather is mild and the bluebonnets bloom. And don’t forget the Alamo and River Walk, two of the signature attractions in the Lone Star State.

 

In line with the city’s unofficial slogan, “Keep Austin weird,” local rules at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Cut-N-Putt restrict foursomes to no more than 12 players, and ban bikinis and other sexually exploitive attire, “except on women.”

Willie Nelson (Image: Willie Nelson's Pedernales Cut-N-Putt)

Willie Nelson is the proud proprietor of Pedernales Cut-N-Putt near Austin. (Image: Pedernales)

Pedernales, a tumbledown nine-hole layout built by the country music legend on a former cow pasture northwest of Austin, makes nobody’s list of the Lone Star State’s best courses. But the club’s iconoclastic attitude is typical of a central Texas boomtown of 1.8 million that boasts a music scene rivaling that of Nashville and New Orleans, exuberantly celebrates all things unorthodox or avant-garde, and prides itself on being one of only two Texas cities to vote against George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

Red-hot golf scenes in Austin and nearby San Antonio, just over an hour’s drive south on the I-35, are drawing growing numbers of Canadians to a Sunbelt state that is at its loveliest in the spring, when the weather is mild and bluebonnets and other wildflowers are in bloom.

It was the 1987 opening of Austin’s Barton Creek Resort and Spa that ignited the local golf boom—and raised the bar for resort courses throughout the state. The luxury property’s two Tom Fazio-designed layouts still rank among the best courses in Texas.

Carved through rolling hills west of the city, Fazio Foothills, the original showpiece of Barton Creek’s four courses, takes dramatic advantage of the scenery. A greenside waterfall on the par-three ninth hole is immediately followed by a 30-metre drop in elevation on the awe-inspiring 10th.

Fazio Foothills (Image: Barton Creek Resort and Spa)

Fazio Foothills at Barton Creek Resort and Spa in Austin ignited the Texas golf scene. (Image: Barton Creek)

Launched to wild acclaim in 2000, Fazio Canyons is possibly an even more thrilling test of golf. A series of intimidating carries over ancient escarpments culminate in a pinpoint approach shot across a snaking creek at the par-five 18th hole.

Rounding out the roster are Crenshaw Cliffside (PGA Tour veteran Ben Crenshaw’s first design in his hometown) and Palmer Lakeside (an Arnold Palmer track built on a bluff overlooking Lake Travis), both solid partners to the Fazio layouts.

Barton Creek’s instant popularity inspired the opening of a succession of high-profile courses and resorts that put Austin on the radar of golfers across North America.

Wolfdancer Golf Club, the showpiece of the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa in nearby Bastrop, is one of the most talked about of the new additions. The Arthur Hills layout rambles through three distinct ecosystems—sloping prairie, wooded ridgeline and a river valley dotted with native pecan trees.

Other standouts include Applerock, one of three Robert Trent Jones Sr. layouts at Horseshoe Bay Resort, northwest of Austin on the shores of Lake Lyndon Baines Johnson; the Jay Morrish-designed Grey Rock Golf Club, in the city’s southwest suburbs; and ColoVista Country Club in Bastrop, offering majestic views of the Colorado River.

Even Austin’s five municipal courses, where green fees average about $23, are worthy tests. The best of the bunch is Lions Municipal Golf Course, affectionately known as Old Muni. Future stars Crenshaw and Tom Kite each won the annual Firecracker Open at this character-filled track dating from 1934.

But no matter how tempting the golf, wise visitors to Austin budget enough time to explore a raucous yet charming downtown where the walls literally shake to the beat of blues, country, jazz and rock and roll.

In the Warehouse District and along Sixth Street, where many of the most popular of the nearly 200 live music clubs are found, street signs charmingly warn: “No parking. Musicians unloading.”

The Alamo (Image: The Alamo)

The Alamo in San Antonio has been the symbolic heart of Texas since 1836. (Image: The Alamo)

Fuelling the vibe are the 50,000 students attending the massive University of Texas campus, which sprawls through the city’s heart.

Right on campus is the surprisingly entertaining LBJ Library and Museum. It chronicles the life and legacy of Texas-born President Lyndon Baines Johnson and is the most visited of all the presidential libraries.

And looming nearby, at the north end of Congress Avenue, is the Texas State Capitol, a handsome pink-granite edifice four metres taller than its Washington counterpart.

Among Texas cities, only San Antonio offers a downtown as easily walkable and inviting. Just 127 kilometres down the highway from Austin, San Antonio is an easy side trip for travellers who want to extend the fun. The city of 1.4 million sits at the crossroads of four different ecological zones—Hill Country, Gulf Coast plains, south Texas chaparral and west Texas desert—that together make ideal golf terrain.

First, though, there is the inevitable pilgrimage to the Alamo, the small Spanish mission in downtown San Antonio where in 1836 Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and other Texans held off a siege by a Mexican army for 13 days.

Already rich in history, San Antonio secured its future and the prosperity of its downtown core with the construction of River Walk, a miracle of modern urban planning begun in the 1930s. Rather than paving over the San Antonio River to make room for more buildings, as some developers demanded, the city installed cobblestone walkways along its banks, spanned the narrow river with arched bridges and built access stairways from numerous street-level locations.

Today, the restaurants, bars and luxury hotels that line the banks along a twisting four-kilometre route make an ideal playground after a day of sightseeing—or, of course, golf.

River Walk (Image: River Walk)

River Walk in downtown San Antonio is a modern miracle of urban planning. (Image: River Walk)

Like Austin, San Antonio is home to an impressive roster of outstanding courses. Local favourites include the Arthur Hills-designed Hill Country Golf Club, offering 27 holes of precision golf at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa, north of San Antonio; and The Quarry Golf Club, in the north-central suburbs, a Keith Foster design where the back nine is carved through a 100-year-old quarry.

A great place to soak up local colour is Canyon Springs Golf Club, with its ranch-style clubhouse built on the spot where stagecoaches made their last stop before heading out of San Antonio. Designed by local architect Thomas Walker, this challenging track, on rolling terrain north of the city, requires patient consideration on every shot.

The city’s newest headliner is TPC San Antonio, featuring championship courses by Pete Dye and Greg Norman. Opened in 2010 at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa, both courses host Tour events—Dye’s AT&T Canyons Course is home to the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open, while Norman’s AT&T Oaks Course is the site of a Champions Tour stop.

But the longtime stars of San Antonio golf are found at the La Cantera Hill Country Resort, a Texas colonial-style retreat set high on a bluff north of the downtown. La Cantera’s two layouts, the Resort and Palmer courses, rival even the two Fazio jewels at Austin’s Barton Creek Resort.

Canyon Springs Golf Golf Club (Image: Canyon Springs)

Canyon Springs Golf Club is built on rolling terrain north of San Antonio. (Image: Canyon Springs)

The older and more famous is the Resort Course, the former home of the Texas Open. The Jay Morrish-Tom Weiskopf collaboration swoops and dips through the hilly landscape like a runaway roller coaster. The masterwork of at least a dozen memorable holes is the par-four seventh, nicknamed Rattler, which features a 24-metre drop to a fairway booby-trapped by bunkers and a water hazard.

No less difficult or hilly is the Palmer Course, one of Arnold Palmer’s best designs. The King’s tight fairways and uneven lies cruelly demand an unending succession of tricky shots.

But all is forgiven on the 18th tee, where weary golfers pause to admire a panoramic view across the heights toward downtown San Antonio and the distant Alamo.

They say there’s no prettier view in all of Texas golf.

 

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