On the Green in Houston

By Brian McCallen

golf3Not far from the city's impressive glass-and-steel skyscrapers are dozens of superb daily-fee facilities, many of which have sprouted like mushrooms in the past few years. Drive in any direction from downtown, and you will find not dead-flat oil fields-the common misconception-but an attractive array of courses set on rolling, wooded land. With an average annual temperature of 70 degrees and 250 sunny days per year, the weather is perfect for golf, especially in spring and fall. Perhaps best of all for visiting players, H-Town, while brash and ebullient, is a very friendly town. Southern hospitality in SpaceCity? Yes, Dorothy, it exists.

A review of the top tracks follows.

Houston's most venerable municipal facility is Memorial Park Golf Course. Designed in 1936 by John Bredemus, the 'Father of Texas Golf,' Memorial Park is an oasis of urban golf just west of downtown. It was not always so. The course had devolved into a dusty, worn-out muni until it received a $5 million facelift in the mid-1990s. The roomy, tree-lined layout, set within one of the city's prettiest parks, was the original host of the Houston Open (1951-63). Memorial Park is where golfing greats Jimmy Demaret, Cary Middlecoff and many others got their start. The legendary track, renovated by Baxter Spann with input from Houstonians Jay Riviere and Dave Marr, now features a Spanish Mission-style clubhouse and a golf museum created from the original clubhouse.

Defined by several ponds, 90 bunkers and lots of bonhomie, Memorial Park is perhaps the nation's finest urban muni.

golf1North of Houston is the 54-hole Cypresswood Golf Club. The club's Creek and Cypress courses, both woven through a thick pine forest, are pleasant and straightforward, but the star attraction is the Tradition Course, a Keith Foster-designed layout debuted in 1998 and named to GOLF Magazine's 'Top 10 You Can Play' list the following year. Carved from tall pines and live oaks on rolling land marked by sand flats and deep ravines, the Tradition is an old-fashioned shotmaker's course designed to rekindle the charm of the game's past. The pair of gaping sand pits at the par-three 11th hole, for example, were inspired by the famed Spectacles bunkers at Carnoustie in Scotland. Clever risk-reward scenarios will delight experts and novices alike–if they can avoid the meandering brooks, rock-rimmed ponds and bathtub-shaped bunkers.

This is a course that puts out a welcome mat on its opening holes but tries to slam the door on unsuspecting players at the finish. Host of many prominent tournaments, the Tradition at Cypresswood was ranked the No. 1 public course in the area in 2003 by the Houston Sports News.

West of the city is BlackHorse Golf Club, a 36-hole complex spread across rolling, wooded ranchland. Horses were once raised here, but it also looks like the kind of place where buffalo roamed. The North Course, debuted in 2000, is intersected by a creek and dotted with thick-waisted oaks. A brawny track marked by wide corridors and large greens, the North is a big-time test from the tips at 7,301 yards, even for PGA Tour pro and course co-designer Peter Jacobsen.

The facility's South Course, opened in 2001, is a little shorter at 7,171 yards and quite a bit tighter, with trees pinching the fairways and water in play on 12 holes. The club's finest holes are found on the South's back nine, a few of which are routed around the rim of a spent sand quarry that has long since filled with water and is now a cavern of reedy wetlands. The signature hole is the par-three 17th, its target a massive green that rises on grassy pilings from the center of the quarry. After the round, drop by Jake's Grill, one of the best 19th holes in town.

golf4Also situated west of Houston is Meadowbrook Farms Golf Club, a well-groomed course that offers exceptional diversity on terrain that does not inspire at first glance. Course designer Greg Norman chose to revitalize the Texas Gulf Coast prairie, a landscape unique to the region and one that is fast disappearing. Tall native grasses and wildflowers were planted to attract birds and create a pleasing frame for the holes. The look is simple, pure, traditional; the holes fit the gently rolling land hand-in-glove. The plateau greens at Meadowbrook Farms, many of them embraced by close-mown humps and hollows, are very slick. Stacked-sod bunkers and a tree-lined bayou add to the challenge. This subtle, beautifully manicured test, opened in 1999, is one of the finest designs on Norman's resum?and one of the most respected venues in town.

The Gulf plain flattens east of the city, but a superior country club-style experience awaits at Redstone Golf Club. Unveiled in 2003, Redstone was built by Peter Jacobsen and Jim Hardy on the site of a pre-existing club. The layout retains many of the original corridors but is essentially a new course marked by enhanced wetlands and minimal bunkering. In fact, there is little here to terrify the game's best players: local hero Fred Couples, a star on the University of Houston golf team, posted a 21-under par victory in the Shell Houston Open held at Redstone last spring. Average players will find the course interesting, fair and more than a little watery in places. It's a big hitter's ballpark: From the tips, the back nine measure over 4,000 yards. Redstone, the highest-priced daily-fee facility in town ($130-$145), will debut a Rees Jones-designed course in 2005.

A new tradition in Houston golf began in August 2005 at The Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club. The first of its kind in the region, the Tournament Course was designed specifically to host Houston's only PGA TOUR stop, the Shell Houston Open. Famed golf course architect Rees Jones worked side by side with PGA TOUR professional and course consultant David Toms to ensure that the Tournament Course at Redstone provides a spectator experience unlike anything Houston's golf fans have ever seen.

golf5For those who enjoy replica tracks that emulate America's greatest courses, Houston offers two good copycats. Tour 18, opened in 1992 east of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, was the first facility to borrow holes from famous clubs. The club's homage to Amen Corner, inspired by holes 11, 12 and 13 at Augusta National, coupled with holes drawn from Inverness, Colonial and Oakmont, provide an enjoyable test.

In 2000, the developers of Tour 18 produced Augusta Pines, its front nine inspired by the storied back nine at Augusta National, a string of holes imprinted on the national consciousness by The Masters.

The layout's incoming nine borrows from Pinehurst No. 2, Oakland Hills and other classics, though the holes are inspirations, not cookie-cutter copies. Site of the annual Champions Tour, Augusta Pines, characterized by small, undulating greens and plenty of water, offers a solid test on heaving land framed by tall pines.

Outer space may be the 'Final Frontier,' but for dyed-in-the-wool golfers, links-style golf is the last stop on the shuttle. A few miles south of the NASA-Johnson Space Center is Magnolia Creek Golf Links, a 27-hole complex that simulates an authentic links. The rolling, tumbling fairways on this nearly treeless site are pinched by manmade hillocks and 'dunes' cloaked in tall native grasses. Situated a scant 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, the facility's Ireland, Scotland and England nines are invariably swept by steady winds. Conditions are firm and fast. Bump-and-run shots into the open-entry greens are encouraged.

Designer Tom Clark, who moved 1.5 million cubic yards of dirt to create the course, did himself proud here. Magnolia Creek may lack centuries of tradition, but it saves visitors the trouble of making an overseas trip to the U.K.-or booking a flight to the moon.

Brian McCallen is the former travel editor of GOLF MAGAZINE for 16 years and now writes for T&L Golf and others publications.

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