“Life is full of many minor annoyances, and few matters of real consequence.”
In a related strain of March Madness, I can’t wait for the brackets to be announced tonight (March 21 on Golf Channel) for the upcoming World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play on March 23-27 in Austin, Texas. There’s something captivating about the game’s best players—including Rory McIlroy, defending champion, and Jordan Spieth, the pride of hometown University of Texas and the world’s #1 player—going head-to-head in stirring match play competition. And with the tournament being held at Austin Country Club (ACC) it has a special, added appeal to me.
I’ve been fortunate to play ACC the past two years as a guest of friendly members (thank you, Mike Edgar and Roger Terry) with a high threshold of tolerance for a Michigander scoring poorly over the demanding yet fair Pete Dye-designed layout. In a bit of good timing, I played it before and after the course underwent a significant and successful renovation that was coincidentally timed to take place long before the Match Play was announced. More on that in a moment.
Last April when the tournament with Dell as its new four-year title sponsor was formally announced, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was quoted: “In the last 10 years, everyone’s recognized that Austin is a big-events city. It’s knocking down doors with big events.” Here Finchem was alluding to the phenomenal success of such happenings as South by Southwest, the annual set of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March.
It doesn’t hurt that Austin is also the home to Dell Inc., a Fortune 500 Company and one of the area’s the largest employers in this diverse tech-heavy and business mecca. Michael Dell founded the company in 1984 at age 19 with $1000 while a pre-med freshman at the University of Texas. At the end of his freshman year, Dell left school to focus all of his attention on growing his fledgling PC business. Hmm? Twenty-seven years later, another Longhorn freshman, Jordan Spieth, helped his team win the NCAA Golf Championship and then departed the campus the next year for the richer pastures of the PGA Tour. I’d say Dell and Spieth both made some sound early career decisions.
Anyway, the PGA Tour appears to have found an ideal partner in not only Dell but Austin CC. It’s one of the oldest clubs in Texas, harking back to 1899, and has a rich history most notably advanced by the legacy of Harvey Penick, the consummate golf professional and coach, acclaimed teacher of Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Michigan Golfer Hall of Famer Cindy Figg-Currier, and co-author with Bud Shrake of the best-seller Little Red Book.
ACC’s current location in the Davenport Ranch area on the northwest side of the capital is actually the club’s third. Its beginnings, as Austin Golf Club, started in the heart of the city on property that now boasts a busy nine-hole municipal course, Hancock GC. Needing more space, the club moved in 1949 to Riverside Drive in east Austin. Long-time members told me the Riverside course was member-friendly, walkable and not overly penal. It was also the site where Kite and Crenshaw first took lessons from Penick. In 1984, ACC moved again and opened its new course, designed by Dye, on nearly 200 acres of property with gorgeous views of Lake Austin (part of the Colorado River, TX) on the front side and with rugged highlands, canyons and ravines on the back.
Okay, about that renovation. Years in planning yet delayed by drought conditions, ACC began its multi-million dollar renovation in 2015 when the course was closed for nine months. After playing it again a few weeks ago, I was impressed how subtle and understated the changes are. To outsiders, they’d be hard-pressed to notice any alterations to the layout.
Essentially, the changes entailed bringing the greens up to current USGA specs, lending more pin positions to them, replacing fairway grasses, leveling tee-boxes and other “tweaks.” One improvement I noticed and duly applauded was how certain parts of the course were cleared of underbrush and smaller trees, opening up cleaner sight lines between holes and leaving a better overall appearance. As superintendents will attest, such changes also enhance air movement and sunlight for healthy turf.
Members are rightfully proud of Bobby Stringer, their hard-working Superintendent and GCSAA member, who expertly oversaw the renovation. On the day I played, he was kibitzing with members while carefully applying a fire ant application near the first tee. He’s obviously a roll-up-your-sleeves and get-it-done type Superintendent. And the course conditions were exemplary given all of the changes. Modern agronomy plus old-fashioned sweat and toil equal positive results.
So how will the course handle the Match Play? The short and obvious answer: fine and dandy and it will look stunning on television. Other comments:
Tournament organizers made a smart if not obvious call in reversing the nines for the event. Now the scenic views provided by Lake Austin and the commanding Pennybacker Bridge, normally seen along holes 3-7, will dominate the back side drama for the tournament. These riverside holes will be “Blimp-perfect.”
The rugged, uneven terrain found on the club’s back nine also doesn’t work well for spectators and the many hospitality suites. For ACC members, they’ll avail themselves of a three-story “1899” suite with all the amenities of a clubhouse save hot showers. Dell employees and their guests will be similarly well settled at other upscale suites.
For the well-heeled spectator an access ticket (at a sold-out price of $600) to the Capital City Club will provide a great vantage point to watch the action on the signature par-five 12th hole in a sports bar setting.
The risk-reward par-four 13th hole at 317 yards should also be compelling. Most members play it safely, avoiding the hazards by a layup with a hybrid or fairway metal. But now with a large hospitality “structure” guarding the green, some players will undoubtedly “go for it” knowing there’s a man-made backstop behind. Rules officials on that hole will be very busy.
Adding to the scenic backdrop of these holes will be the sight of hundreds of boaters moored in designated and buoyed areas along Lake Austin. Law enforcement officials will be present to ensure both a “no-wake zone” and general decorum for thirsty fans imbibing Austin’s best craft brews.
Not surprisingly, ticket sales are sold out and were limited to no more than 10,000 per day given the course topography and acreage as well as the limited field that’s reduced each day. In an appropriate and equitable concession to both ACC members and the employees and guests of the title sponsor, practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday are confined to them alone. The general public will have course access beginning on Wednesday, the first day of competition with 32 matches.
Last year at Harding Park, the format for the event was wisely altered so as not to have a “one and done” single elimination for the game’s best players, some of whom traveled across the globe to get to San Francisco. Again this year, players are guaranteed to play three rounds (Wednesday-Friday) and only advance to the weekend based on their records in designated groupings, commonly seen in World Cup-type team competitions. As such, Michael Dell doesn’t have to worry about Spieth losing his first match and being out of the tournament on Wednesday night. No early departures from this “campus.”
The biggest concern may be traffic and bottlenecks getting to, from and even near the course and in spite of the standard bus shuttle system. Austin is a great place to live and work but its traffic, a by-product of its success and appeal, can be daunting and stressful. I know of one golf writer who’s even considering riding his bike to the course. That’s Austin!
Despite the usual grumblings about the distractions and annoyances of hosting a major PGA Tour/World Championship, I suspect the members of ACC will continue to embrace it, knowing the memories it will engender will be priceless. The first fist-pump by favorite son Spieth when holing a close-out birdie should bring a proud smile to the crankiest of members.
Or as Mr. Penick might say, this tournament at our club is a matter of real consequence.
photo courtesy of Austin Country Club