Austin Golf Trail—New Medley of Hill Country Golf Hits

Wolfdancer G.C. at Hyatt Regency Lost Pines

In a tribute he wrote to his late father, Texas native Turk Pipkin struck upon a truth that bears repeating here. “The one cure to the speed at which life passes,” mused the actor-filmmaker and man-about-Austin, “is to open your eyes and look around you.”

That advice can have special relevance to a traveler, since often we must set out from home to really notice our surroundings. Pipkin’s acclaimed memoir, “The Old Man and The Tee,” also recounts the author’s rediscovery of golf during the mid-1980s. This re-immersion into the game brought Pipkin to the sloped fairways of Austin’s fine courses almost daily. His incessant visits to a place called Barton Creek made Turk a familiar site on the emerging property’s first golf course, which opened in 1986.

That stellar layout, Fazio Foothills, became the first in a string of four championship options at the Barton Creek Resort and Spa. At about the same time, on Red River Street downtown, C.B. Stubblefield was opening what many now consider Austin’s top live-music venue, Stubb’s Bar-B-Que. That each of these venues will soon celebrate a 25th anniversary further proves how swiftly life proceeds.

It’s enough to make a man pause and really take stock. That’s what golf professional and course manager Chip Gist recently did—with the idea of better presenting the pleasures that a golf-inclined visitor (or even a golfing local) will encounter in and around Austin.

Apple Rock G.C. at Horseshoe Bay

Gist looked at the array of courses and hotels in his midst and hatched a plan for the Austin Golf Trail. Straight out of the chute his new Trail compares strongly to any of the dozen or so golf-and-lodging constellations flung across the U.S. map. If you’re bringing your clubs and a change of clothes to Austin sometime soon, check first at for price incentives and hassle-busting reservation services. (There’s a toll-free number, as well: 888-588-2871.)

“Austin is a much finer golf destination that we’ve been claiming credit for,” says Gist, whose day job is management of Grey Rock Golf Club, a Jay Morrish-designed sparkler in southwest Austin and one of a dozen-plus courses along the new circuit.

“Part of the Golf Trail concept is linking an assortment of top-tier facilities all together. You make them more accessible and affordable with minimal effort on the part of the customer,” he explains. “But in Austin there is more to it than that. This is a place where things are already linked together, by our culture of contemporary music and arts and by our city’s personality, which is unique in the U.S.”

Gist doesn’t speak for long about the golf and accommodations along the Trail withoutputting in a claim for Austin’s downtown as “the world’s ultimate 19th Hole.” If some other region with great golf wished to replicate it, the task of establishing dozens of taverns and lounges outfitted with legit performance spaces would be first up. Next job would be developing a large, diverse and music-savvy audience to provide the base clientele for all these funky watering holes. That’s before you even bring in the musical acts and their support crews, and work out deals that keep them performing and playing basically every night of the year. Myrtle Beach? Hilton Head? Not gonna happen there.  

For hotel comforts an Austin Golf Trail-rider can choose among names like Intercontinental, Doubletree, Wyndham Garden and Embassy Suites. The resort selections are where this golf trail takes on a lot of its texture. Horseshoe Bay Resort, which contributes three very solid tracks to the AGT collection, offers beauty and luxury along massive Lake Lyndon Johnson, but it’s also full of the original and funky touches that we expect in this imaginative outpost of Texas.

The golf at Horseshoe Bay is by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and it fits both the landscape and the Horseshoe Bay atmosphere like a pecan fits its shell. In routing and sculpting the three 18s here—RamRock, AppleRock and SlickRock—the golf-design patriarch spent Norman Hurd’s budget dollars freely. Theatrical bunkering, ambitious water features and green complexes that are both generous and intricate characterize these three ‘Rocks. As long as you play from appropriate tees (you 6,500-yard people—no sneaking back to 6,900) you’ll find Texas-sized width to the drive zones on most holes.    

Then there’s Barton Creek, with golf by Ben Crenshaw, Arnold Palmer and the aforementioned Fazio—who got two cracks at this rippling terrain, crafting the Fazio Canyons layout to bookend his Foothills course. Barton Creek Resort & Spa is the destination that gives Austin a flag on the global map of fine resorts—you could easily spot its logo on a ballcap in the banking districts of Zurich or Buenos Aires. By the way, that change of clothes we mentioned? If you play 18 at this resort make sure it’s presentable enough for a night at the Hill Country Dining Room, or Barton Creek’s 8212 Wine Bar & Grill.

Like Barton Creek, the four-diamond Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa is a tough place to go for a conference if they stick you with an all-work, no-play agenda. Golf at the Hyatt Lost Pines is quite a find—7,205 yards of beauty and brawn called Wolfdancer, it’s from the sketchbook of Arthur Hills. A local player regaining his golf mojo a la Turk Pipkin would be well served by the knockout practice facilities here—a 13-acre shrine to good muscle memory with generous tee areas, a short game complex and two putting greens. Put it all together and you’ve got a venue that Golfweek magazine placed in its Top 100 Resort Courses for 2009.

The stand-alone courses in the package include Gist’s own Grey Rock, painted over Hill Country contours by the highly accomplished Jay Morrish. Known for both challenge and charm, the club has hosted a U.S. Open qualifier, the qualifier, and the Canadian Tour’s Texas Challenge, which you may have seen televised on the Golf Channel. The Grey Rock course is a prime example of this region’s natural golf excellence—yes it’s got big contours and notable elevation changes, but even where the land holds fairly level, there are subtle bumps and dips put there by nature to heighten the shotmaking challenge.   

Other challenges along the Austin Golf Trail include Avery Ranch, tucked northwest of town. It’s a well-groomed 18 crafted by former Jack Nicklaus designer Andy Raugust, who was given some sweet terrain to work with. The finished product is a collage of limestone caverns, live-oak trees, rumpled hills and well-integrated water features. If you’re on a family getaway to Austin, take a look at Terravista. From the longer tees, this Clifton-Ezell-Clifton design stretches out as far as 7,200 yards, but it’s still cited as a Top Beginner-Friendly Course by the national golf course owners association.

You can do your booking for any of these Hill Country wonders the conventional way, but if you work through the Austin Golf Trail you’ll get advanced access to exclusive tee times plus package pricing that’s not available any other way. The packages are customized—including entertainment experiences—according to your schedule and preferences. You’ll find some standard deals on the AGT website, as well. For example, the “Blue Tee” option, providing two nights’ lodging at a three-star downtown hotel, three rounds of golf (you’ll play two of them on the premium daily-fee tracks and one resort-course round). That package runs a compact $579 based on double occupancy (two golfers bunking) with tips and taxes extra.

 If you’ve only got time for golf, no worries. The AGT folks can find secure you tee time on one of the non-resort Trail courses in a snap. The tariff for that—including range balls and cart rental—starts at just $55. Of course it’s all very enticing and your impulse is to jump right on it… provided that little voice that is always telling you to stay home and work doesn’t chime in. Even if it does, you already know you can’t slow life down without taking a long look around you. And it may as well be the fairways of the Austin Golf Trail that you look at.

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