Texas is a great place to play golf. Just ask the Texans, the least bashful of Americans.
I dismiss out of hand the “all hat, no cattle” blather about the “great” courses located in the dusty, pancake-flat areas of the state. But when they start drawling on about the Texas Hill Country and calling me “pards,” I listen up.
Marked by hidden waterfalls, limestone outcrops and dramatic elevation changes, the Hill Country, which cuts a diagonal gash from Austin to San Antonio, is a special place. If you’re a fan of the work of Robert Trent Jones, Sr., whose vintage designs have a nice classic look, head 45 minutes west of Austin to Horseshoe Bay, the best little golf resort in Texas. Actually, this sprawling 54-hole facility, spread across 7,000 acres, is only little-known, not little.
Now attached to a 249-room Marriott hotel, Horseshoe Bay was the singular creation of Norman C. Hurd, a real estate developer who acquired the land for his dream development in 1968. Not content with the look of the par-four 14th hole at Slick Rock, the resort’s original 1971 Jones design, Hurd “harvested” massive granite boulders from an upcountry site and scoured the banks of a silted-up creek to create a two-level, 100-foot-long waterfall that gushes 8,000 gallons of water per minute.
I first visited the property in May, 1990. As luck would have it, Mr. Jones was on hand to throw the switch to start the falls. Then 84, he sat in a folding chair with his hands atop a walking stick that resembled an old wooden golf club. I introduced myself and told him how much I enjoyed his courses. Spyglass Hill. The Dunes. Mauna Kea.. Sotogrande. And so on. When I stopped naming the courses of his design that I had played, he tilted his head and rolled his hand. “Keep going,” he seemed to be insinuating. A man with a bigger ego I have never met.
At my loss of words, he supplied his own. “This hole has to be classed among the great holes in the country,” he said of Slick Rock’s 14th. Clearly, Jones was no stranger to superlatives when it came to describing his work. Actually, the stagecraft at this short par four is more interesting than the strategy. Well forward of the men’s tees, Hurd created a ladies’ tee backdropped by 15-foot-high, Stonehenge-like pillars of rock surrounded by water. The price tag for this beautification project was nearly $1 million. Big dollars in those days.
While Slick Rock, at 6,834 yards from the tips, is user-friendly course favored by the members, its Jones’ later creations at the resort that transformed Horseshoe Bay into a bona fide golf destination.
Ram Rock, opened in 1981, is simply devastating from start to finish. When the wind swirls up from Mexico, which is often, this Jones firebreather might well be the toughest course in Texas. Local pros who’ve played in competitions at Horseshoe Bay claim that when the breeze flaps the flags at Ram Rock, “You wish you weren’t playing golf.”
A sandy brute crisscrossed by dry creeks, the out of bounds on this rugged layout are marked in places by barbed wire. Only low single-digit handicappers tackle the back tees at 6,926 yards (par 71). The layout is somewhat more manageable from the Regular tees at 6,405 yards.
Not only is the terrain at Ram Rock undulating, but its narrow fairways and sharp doglegs are pinched by cavernous bunkers. Drives must be long and well-placed, for the simple reason that rattlesnakes live in the rough. Natural springs flow through the course, feeding several greenside ponds (there’s water in play at 10 holes). Step carefully round the perimeter of these ponds–water moccasins live in them. The bentgrass greens are medium-sized, hogbacked in places and very slick.
While the island green at the par-3 fourth hole attracts a lot of attention, the best hole on the course is the 540-yard ninth, a wicked dogleg that bends inexorably to the left. A deadly funnel-effect is created by channels of water routed up both sides of the hole from the 100-yard mark to the green. A turtle mound fronting the putting surface tends to ricochet unlucky approach shots into the water on either side of the green. Electric fans mounted on trees framing the green circulate air to cool the bentgrass. They do a poor job of cooling off disgruntled golfers.
Ram Rock’s hillier, more scenic incoming nine is every bit as challenging as the front. Blind drives, forced carries over dry washes, a rigorous uphill 18th hole–Jones held nothing back at Ram Rock. More than any other of his U.S. courses, this rough-and-tumble layout was designed to maintain the sanctity of par.
At Apple Rock, debuted in 1985, Jones was given the choicest land available to route a course that deviates markedly from his previous designs at Horseshoe Bay. Very little land was moved here–fairways and greens flow with the natural heave and toss of the terrain–while bunkering was kept to a minimum. Scenically, it’s the best of the three. The higher points of the course serve up 60-mile views of Lake LBJ and the Hill Country’s limestone-studded hills.
In terms of challenge, Apple Rock splits the difference between Slick Rock and Ram Rock. For example, the layout’s water hazards, except at the par threes, are less in evidence. The fairways, framed by transplanted junipers as well as native oaks, elms and persimmons, are considerably wider on this 6,999-yard track. The pampas grass in the rough lends the course a savannah look, though the black-eyed daisies that sprout near the bunkers are pure Texas.
After a front nine that repeatedly changes elevation and counter-punches with holes that swing left and right, the back nine gets off to a racy start at the par-5 10th. Here the tee shot must carry a tree-filled gully to a crowned landing area, the fairway tumbling downhill to a large, kidney-shaped green. The 11th, another par five, is the personification of temptation: the green is guarded to the left by an inlet of Lake LBJ. At the par-3 12th, the green is backdropped by tall oaks and a tiny single-room schoolhouse dating to the early 1900s.
Heeding the call of his guests for a kinder, gentler golf experience, Hurd in the early 1990s created the Whitewater Putting Course, an 18-hole, 1,712-foot extravaganza built around cascading waterfalls, lush flower gardens and flocks of exotic birds, including flamingos. Designed like a regulation course, Whitewater has fairways, bunkers and water hazards, though all shots are played with the putter. The facility is lit for night play. Beverage service is available. Think of Vegas in the Hill Country.
After the resort changed hands in 1996, the new owners eventually brought in Jack Nicklaus to build Summit Rock, a members-only course slated to open later this year. The early reviews are good, but this newcomer will have to be pretty darn special to exceed what Hurd and Jones cooked up decades ago at the most underrated golf resort in the Southwest. Information: www.hsbresort.com.