Texas Two Step – Austin and San Antonio combine to make an excellent golf escape in the Lone Star State’s Hill Country.
April is a time of hope. Winter is in retreat and another sweet Canadian summer is on the way. That’s what I kept reminding my wife, in the depths of a vicious ice storm, as I walked out the door with my clubs and a plane ticket for Texas Hill Country.
Canadians know all about Arizona, California and Florida, but don’t sleep on springtime in Hill Country, when the PGA Tour is in town, Fiesta is hopping and the wildflowers are in bloom. The South may have plenty of sun and golf, but it only has one Texas.
I’d barely finished breakfast at Wolfdancer, 30 minutes southeast of Austin, when Glenn strode across the practice tee to shake my hand. The lanky contractor apologized for the weather — “only” sunny and 13 Celsius, headed for an afternoon high of 28 — and raised his brow at the squall I’d left behind. “Why would anybody live in a place like that?” he asked, not rhetorically.
Wolfdancer’s fairways are broadly draped across a rolling highland and a gentle flat abutting the Colorado River. It’s a different story on Arthur Hills’s exacting little greens — more sloped and much narrower than typical resort surfaces. But Wolfdancer fits the ranchy feel at the adjoining Hyatt Lost Pines, the only hotel in my acquaintance that employs a mustang, an alpaca and two longhorn steers for hospitality events.
We paused at the third and 12th tees for long vistas. Glenn had driven up from Houston for the scenery, one of several Texans I met from flatland cities who were in Hill Country looking for topographical relief.
Austin, which bumbles down those hills to meet the Colorado, was always a city of civil servants, musicians and eccentrics. But it’s exploded into a southern tech hub, bringing money, traffic and gentrification. Never mind the honky-tonks and the South Congress bridge bats — the new Austin is a renovated barbecue shack beside a tower of glass.
Rainey Street, a short walk from the old 6th Street entertainment district, epitomizes this. Rainey used to be row of rustic bungalows; now, it’s a pedestrian mall for foodies. It was a bit rough around the edges on my last visit, but it’s been fully buffed. Backyard beer gardens and fusion bistros are shaded by condo towers, and hipsters share patios with tourists and suits.
This kind of gentrification leaves Austin a bit less weird. But it’s still full of music and food, which can be sopped up in strip malls, taco trucks and inventive neighbourhood restaurants. I love the Elizabeth Street Café on South 1st Street, a bright French-Vietnamese breakfast bakery that makes a killer egg and pork-sausage banh mi.
The classic Austin golf resort is Barton Creek, 15 minutes west of the state capitol. It has two courses by Tom Fazio, one by Arnold Palmer and one by Bill Coore and Austinite Ben Crenshaw. All but the Palmer are being tweaked in a $150-million expansion that will also maximize hotel views and add a conference centre, new restaurants and nearly 200 more rooms by 2019.
Another downtown icon is Austin Country Club, just a few minutes from Barton Creek. Without connections, your best chance to see the private Pete Dye course is by crossing the adjacent arched Pennybacker Bridge — or by scoring tickets to the WGC Match Play, played at Austin CC in March.
Forty-five minutes west is Horseshoe Bay Resort. Its hotel, just refreshed as part of a $60-million renovation project, is tucked into a manicured waterfront residential development. It has a grass putting course by the bar, plus three full 18s by Robert Trent Jones. Cameras love Slick Rock’s “million-dollar hole,” a tee shot over an engineered waterfall, but the consensus choice for scenery is Apple Rock. From a rocky knob, the course slides down the slope with views across Lake Lyndon B. Johnson. It’s preparing for a new clubhouse and greens and bunker renovations.
Interstate 35 links Austin and San Antonio in just over an hour, but the Hill Country’s back roads are worth exploring. In spring, they’re full of bluebonnets and jumping deer.
My stomach carried me to Lockhart, a sleepy town of 12,000 anchored by a baroque sandstone courthouse and four iconic brick-pit barbecue joints: Smitty’s; Black’s; Kreutz’s Market; and Chisholm Trail.
Lockhart is a Texas barbecue mecca, and picking a favourite shrine is an eternal struggle — researching my visit by smartphone, I got deeply engrossed in a Texas Monthly review before realizing it had been written in 1973.
I opted for Black’s, where signed photos of famous patrons and 26 sets of horns and antlers look down approvingly. (A jackalope on the rack with the camo hats makes 27, if you’re getting technical.) Four generations of Blacks have been grilling ribs, sausage and brisket over low, oak-fired heat. Their lean brisket holds its shape pertly but it’s tender enough to be eaten with just a plastic fork. The tangy side sauce is completely unnecessary, a universal mark of quality in Texas barbecue. The taste of salt rub and oak lingers on the palate like a beefy, aromatic cigar.
If Austin wrestles with the past, San Antonio revels in it. It’s been a city of missions and militaries since 1718, and its architecture maintains a colonial Spanish feel. The city map is like a dartboard, with concentric circles and spokes drawing the eye to a bullseye with the city’s two marquee attractions.
Many visitors start with the Alamo, as the Mexican army did in 1836. It’s a tiny landmark, but its significance dominates the Texan psyche. There are also four other historic Spanish missions along the San Antonio river — all are part of the Unesco World Heritage site, and all have far less tourist blight than the Alamo.
The other downtown icon is the River Walk, a cobbled subterranean glade of restaurants, boutique hotels and convention-goers. The pedestrian area can get raucous, especially during the annual Fiesta festival. But mornings are quiet and atmospheric, when a few floating limes are all that betray the previous night’s margaritas.
San Antonio’s downtown neighbourhoods are sprinkled with art and history museums. They range from the kitschy Buckhorn Saloon, which specializes in Texas Ranger lore and creative taxidermy, to the highbrow Briscoe, where stirrups and saddles ride on in glass display cases. There are also locally patronized restaurants like Rosario’s, which does a roaring Tex-Mex trade, and Schilo’s, a historic deli that serves a velvety homemade root beer.
Then there’s the Pearl district, a former brewery full of hot restaurants with names like Larder, Lick and Cured, as well as the industrial-chic Hotel Emma, named for the enterprising woman who somehow kept the brewery operational all through Prohibition. On the margins of the district’s physical (and nomenclatural) boundaries is the Granary ‘Cue & Brew, where the brisket is moist, the beans come spiked with burnt ends and the beer is local craft. It’s a polished, urban take on Lockhart.
San Antonio is also a golf town. Brackenridge Park is a few hundred yards from the Pearl. Locals speak fondly of “Old Brack,” a restored A.W. Tillinghast muni that held the Texas Open 21 times between 1922 and 1959. That tournament, now known as the Valero Texas Open, has been played more recently at two resorts in the city’s northern suburbs.
La Cantera has a genteel vibe, the ultra-contemporary Signature restaurant and two noteworthy courses: a taxing Palmer and a resort layout by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. The resort course is wide with vast, rebuilt greens, but it had enough teeth to host the pros as recently as 2009. Both courses have elevation change and interesting vistas, including a lovingly presented panorama of the local Six Flags from the resort course’s seventh tee.
In 2010, the VTO moved to TPC San Antonio, where two courses for members and resort guests traverse the Hill Country terrain.
The Canyons Course actually runs along the ridges, with strategy dictated by Pete Dye’s trench bunkers. It’s fun and playable, even in a two-club wind.
Greg Norman’s Oaks Course, the tournament venue, is a stringent test, falling downhill from the first and 10th tees before marching back up to the resort. But it’s a user-friendly spectator experience: You can bite off loops of two, four or six holes on the back nine, all returning to the amphitheatre at the 18th green.
Wandering farther, a fan might be nearly alone with the players, but that could change next year, as the VTO moves to a date directly before the Masters. The stronger field is likely to improve attendance and give the tournament more edge — a small price to pay for springtime in Texas Hill Country.