(The following article first appeared in the September 2012 edition of Golf Canada Magazine)
Purists insist that walking is the best way to experience a golf course. While the romance of feeling the full largesse of a course's undulating curvature under one's feet is dandy, I have learned that a layout's topographic subtleties fully reveal themselves once elevated four or five feet above the ground…on horseback.
The Cowboy awakening came while clippity-clopping alongside a few holes of Austin's Wolfdancer Golf Club aboard a 1,250-pound, doughnut-loving gelding named Dakota. The club is among the Austin Hyatt Lost Pines Resort's plethora of amenities and enticements, which also include a butterfly sanctuary, pet longhorn steers, and hybrid elliptical bicycles, and the Renegade Trailhead, saddle-up central for riding adventures.
A foursome on the sixth green here got a kick out of me tipping my Tilley hat in appreciation and applauding "It's in the hole, partner," just as a 15-footer was about to plop right in the cup. Provided a caddy or stablehand could follow along to rake up droppings, and a way to fasten fourteen clubs to a steed was devised, I wouldn't mind galloping after balls on a sure-footed trotter like Dakota. Riding on cart paths might chap traditionalists, but it would shave half an hour off of a round.
Wolfdancer is a 7,205-yard, par-72 Arthur Hills master-stroke. The vivacious South Western beauty is a wild one, weaving in a trio of over-580-yard par 5s, which unfurl dramatically. Sprawling across 150 acres of prime Texas hill country, Wolfdancer plays out over three distinctive acts. The opening holes roll through wide-open prairie land, once populated by the Tonkawa tribe.
The meat of the course meanders into a heavily wooded stretch routed through a large ridgeline. For the dénouement, the finishing six holes track through parkland along a river valley brimming with pecan trees. A first-class touch, the Marshals hand out frozen almond scented towels, a refreshing balm to weather-beaten players and essential cold comfort on a gun-smoke-hot afternoon.
Nicknamed "Top of the World," the signature 12th hole is a postcard-pretty, downhill par 3 with a bird's-eye view of what seems like half of Texas.
The standout here for Director of Golf, Eric Claxton, is No. 10, a deceptive dogleg right.
"The trick that most people don't realize is to aim at the tree in the left rough," advises Claxton, whose personal best here only tails the course record-holder, University Texas alumnus and PGA Tour stud Jhonattan Vegas' 65, by four strokes. "If you aim in the middle of the fairway, or even if you try to cut that corner, you're going to end up down in the ravine on the right hand side. So aim at the tree on the left side and everything will feed it back down to the center of the fairway."
Outdoor après golf activities abound at Lost Pines Resort, ranging from hiking through canyons at McKinney Roughs Nature Park, to kayaking or rafting along the Colorado River, which abuts the property. I chose to knead away memories of failed sand saves and one too many three-putts by partaking in the spa's signature Django massage. The relaxing bodywork set to a mix of Django Reinhardt's Gypsy jazz loosened up my shoulders and rebalanced my swing for subsequent rounds. If a lady friend busts a nail up on Wolfdancer, a Texas Rose manicure will fix her right up.
While Interstate 35 is the most direct route between Austin and San Antonio, I opt for a more scenic route, taking 290 to 281, a prettier drive that'll give you a greater appreciation for the Hill Country's natural surroundings. Plus, going this way, you pass through a series of fascinating Texan towns, including Blanco, a hamlet that hosts a lavender festival, and Dripping Springs, home of folk singer Sam Beam, a.k.a. Iron and Wine, and inspiration for the obscure Johnny Cash song Down at Dripping Springs.
The first impression at the J.W. Marriot Resort & Spa, adjacent to the TPC San Antonio, suggests a business casual conference vibe with plenty of clubby executives. But, once you walk through the doors of this immaculate 1,002-room palace, you realize you've entered the hotel equivalent of a giant mullet: straight-laced up front, but plenty of party in the back.
There's a Texas-sized waterpark here, featuring slides, a blissfully meandering lazy river, and a giant chessboard for some intellectual poolside pawn moving. If you want to catch a game, the hotel's High Velocity sports bar features a deep roster of brew stretching beyond that Texas stalwart Shiner Bock. Their 120-foot media display and bevy of additional screens gives you plenty of viewing options to go with the good company on an NFL Sunday.
In 2010, following a fifteen-year tenure at the Westin Le Cantera, the Valero Texas Open moved to the newly built TPC San Antonio. The AT&T Oaks course hosts the annual PGA Tour event and its Pete Dye-designed neighbor, the AT&T Canyons course, holds the AT&T Championship, a Champions Tour stop, in October.
To fully come to grips with exactly how good the pros are, you not only have to play where they play, but right after they just played. I had just been in San Antonio for Fiesta, Alamo City's biggest annual party, a couple weeks before this Texan golf trip, and managed to catch a round of the Valero Open on the Oaks course.
With fresh memories of watching Ben Curtis top the leaderboard, taking my first practice swing in the tee-box on No. 1 felt as if I was literally in the 2003 British Open winner's soft-spikes. There's some serendipity to feeling the aura of a guy named Ben in these parts. Two other, more famous Ben's enter most golfers minds whenever they get their spurs in Texas – native sons Ben Hogan and Ben Crenshaw.
With the grandstands and crowds removed, the course seemed wider and less daunting, though this 7,522-yard spread is the polar opposite of a pushover. "Lets have some fun," bellows my gregarious playing partner, Adrian, a British ex-pat who resides in Switzerland, before choosing his weapon of choice and taking a thundering wallop of a swing. While Adrian spends a lot of time castigating the Bermuda grass, he seems to derive as much pleasure in crafting witty colour commentary about his comeuppances as making pars.
"It's merciless," he says, anthropomorphizing the course as one does, "it never gives you a chance to recover." He adds, "It's fiendishly insidious and insidiously perfidious." One zinger en-route to a double bogey on the back nine went like this, "They really ought to call it Medusa grass, it is like hundreds of tiny snakes that coil themselves around your clubhead."
While the two of us were shooting far from our best golf, by the final three holes, we both managed to find our rhythm and headed into the clubhouse content at least with our performance on the closing holes. This dressed-to-impress Greg Norman track, which Sergio Garcia chipped in on as a consultant, ups the already sky-high aesthetic ante on the final three holes, where the resort enters the backdrop. No. 16, in particular, a par-3 firecracker, features a bunker in the middle of the green that forces you to visualize the landing zone as four separate aiming quadrant – a formidable shooting exam for mid-to-high handicappers.
The finishing hole, an uphill par 5 with a creek protecting the green from the fairway, is also a pageant-winning head turner. Throughout the Oaks, keen-eyed golfers will note a very cool feature: many bunkers have sandy protruding fingers mimicking the shape of surrounding oak trees.
BARTON CREEK RESORT & SPA - Austin
With a foursome of fine courses with designers the ilk of Palmer, Crenshaw and Fazio attached, Barton Creek is Austin's stay and play base camp for discerning golfers who prefer not to repeat courses on vacation once they've become a notch in their belts. For those on a short stay, The Foothills, Tom Fazio's first foray into Texas, is Barton Creek's emerald jewel. It is not, however, for faint of heart shot-makers. On the18th, an ominous cave comes into play, and if you lose one through its mouth, it's not cowardly to do the right thing and take the drop. Brazen golfers who venture in may have to ward off a couple bats to reach their spelunking sphere. While the creatures of the night admittedly creep him out, honours for the hole that give club director Michael Rushing the most trepidation go to No. 9. " It's a really small target, a beauty & beast at one time, you need to believe in your ability to hit that green because short is not good, left is not good and there's a little bail out right, but generally it gets you in a little trouble."