Texas is a mighty big place, but I confine my interest in all things Lone Star to a geological oddity known as the Hill Country, a crescent of layered limestone in the state’s southern tier. The Hill Country is a shocker for anyone who arrives in Texas expecting dusty prairies, cattle herds and oil rigs. Limestone escarpments, spring-fed lakes and swift, clear streams sluicing through sheer canyons are among the Hill Country’s pleasant surprises. As native son Lyndon B. Johnson once said, it’s a place where the “moon is a little bigger and stars shine a little brighter.”
Blessed with over 300 sunny days a year, the Hill Country, staked out on its eastern edge by Austin and San Antonio, is at its best in the spring, when bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush and other native wildflowers blanket the hillsides. Summer can be hot as blazes, but autumn, when the live oaks and cedars turn shades of scarlet and orange, brings delightfully cool weather that’s perfect for golf.
The capital city of Austin is not only home to the state’s best golf resort, it boasts the most animated and satisfying 19th hole in the nation. The self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin hangs its hat on Sixth Street, a raucous nightclub district chockablock with honky-tonks, music halls and historic clubs. Follow your ears–there’s everything from Mississippi Delta blues to cozy little clubs featuring traditional country-western acts. Something jazzier, more refined? Head for the city’s revived Warehouse District, there to sample martini bars, eclectic cafes and Latin dance clubs. Going batty? The world’s largest urban bat colony–about 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats–hangs out beneath the Congress Avenue bridge from April to October. A daytime visit is recommended.
Now for the golf. The 72-hole Barton Creek Resort & Spa, tucked away in a pristine corner of the Hill Country 30 minutes west of Austin, offers two of Tom Fazio’s finest creations plus layouts by Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw and Arnold Palmer. (All four courses are part of the newly launched Austin Golf Trail, which mixes an array of resort and daily-fee courses, markets a variety of lodging options, and offers a full-service concierge program to visiting players).
When I first visited Barton Creek 20 years ago, I found myself happily wedged between a rock and a hard place at Fazio Foothills, which has three or four of the most thrilling holes in the Southwest. In a vast state not easily given to consensus, it is probably the best-liked and most popular resort course in the territory.
Routed around pleated limestone outcrops, gurgling brooks, live oaks and fragrant cedars, Fazio took exceptional care with the routing of the layout, which opened in 1986 and for years hosted the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf. The site was a difficult one, requiring the judicious use of dynamite to make way for a few of the holes. Slabs of limestone were used to buttress the tee boxes, several are which are perched 100 feet or more above fairway level. Refined since its debut—a few tees enlarged, the greens converted from bentgrass to Tifdwarf Bermuda, the entire course tweaked and lengthened to 7,125 yards in 2004–Fazio Foothills is a perfect showcase for the Hill Country.
Among the feature holes is the ninth, a mid-length par three that calls for an accurate iron shot to a green propped atop a limestone shelf and protected to the left by a waterfall. Want to play the hole splash-free? Do what the locals do: Carom your tee shot off a slope to the right and bounce your ball onto the rock-ribbed green.
The par-four 10th, which drops a dizzying 110 feet from tee to fairway, serves up a dazzling view of the rocky landscape. Enjoy the hang time of your drive as it floats through the air, but make it straight: The fairway is flanked by a lake to the left and a nasty bunker to the right. After the fun of the drive, the real work begins: The second shot must be played uphill to a small, split-level green.
Fazio himself weighed in on the 18th, a totally unique and original par five where a player’s options are as diverse as the scoring possibilities, basically eagle to ‘other.’ “I am a believer that there is nothing new in golf. Everything has been done in the past,” Fazio said shortly after his namesake course opened. “But as far as I know, there is no other hole with a cave as a hazard.” After clearing a rocky slope with dynamite to create a landing area for the 18th during course construction, a limestone cave was discovered. Fazio left the cave more as a curiosity than a hazard, installing a sand trap–a “spelunker bunker”–near its entrance to prevent wayward shots from going too deep into the cave.
A solid drive leaves golfers three options at the Fazio Foothills finale. A lay-up short of the old bat cave; a lay-up to a plateau above the cave but still short of the green; or a bold shot played straight uphill to a ledgetop green fronted by a rippling creek that flows into a waterfall, with sand pits and grassy hollows bracketing the sides and back portions of the green. It’s a glorious accomplishment to reach this green in two, but the penalty for a miss is severe. Win or lose, the 18th is unforgettable.
Ten years after his phenomenal first act, Barton Creek invited Tom Fazio back for an encore. The designer’s decision to return was predicated on the quality of the site–a superb parcel located two miles from the main resort complex. The newcomer, appropriately named Fazio Canyons, debuted in 1999. Built on heaving, rock-studded terrain with water pumped to 14 of the holes, the layout stretches to 7,153 yards. Judged by any architectural criteria–shot value, hole variety, beauty, drama—Fazio’s sequel is the king of the Hill Country.
Chiseled into a big, rolling site framed by limestone outcrops and a thick stand of red oaks, sycamores and ancient madrone trees, Fazio Canyons serves up the whole enchilada. Gurgling creeks meander along and across the fairways. Many of the holes careen through deep, ivory-colored canyons. The course presents a major-league test from tips, but average players who steer clear of the hazards can negotiate this rugged layout from the forward tees.
Fazio Canyons has a killer par-five 18th of its own. Stretching to 561 yards, this dangerous closer asks players to cross Short Springs Branch Creek not once but twice. The stream cuts directly in front of the narrow green. Lay up too far to the left, and a giant live oak blocks entry to the putting surface. The twin water crossings more than make up for the lack of a cave.
Given the severity of the site, much tinkering was required by Fazio and his design team to make the course playable. Despite the man-made alterations, Fazio Canyons because the first resort course in Texas to be named a certified Audubon International Signature Sanctuary. From the construction phase to present, the golf course has met strict environmental criteria entailing wildlife conservation, habitat enhancement, resource conservation and environmental improvement. Color it green. And blue. Water comes into play at 11 holes.
Both of the resort’s Fazio-designed courses are walkable. Caddies are available. Resort guests receive preferred tee times. There’s also a top-rated golf academy and a Callaway Performance Center on site. While it still welcomes corporate groups, Barton Creek does a much better job these days of catering to leisure travelers. The sprawling 4,000-acre retreat boasts 312 updated rooms and suites, a full-service spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and a variety of dining options.
With the possible exception of World Woods in Brooksville, Fla., Barton Creek may be home to finest tandem of Tom Fazio-designed courses in the nation. Of course, given the post-round entertainment possibilities in Austin, not to mention some of the best barbecue on earth (saucy beef brisket and ribs), there’s really no contest.
Barton Creek Resort & Spa: www.bartoncreek.com
Austin Golf Trail: www.austingolftrail.com