Reviews written by Tim Price
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Trevino is a course designer?
When I played a golf course this week that was designed by Lee Trevino, I had to think back to one of my best memories of Merry Mex. It was that celebratory moment when he kissed his putter on the final green at Shoal Creek in the 1984 PGA Championship.
Everything about his victory was so quintessential Trevino. The Mexican kid who grew up sneaking onto golf courses in segregated Dallas, Trevino won on a golf course whose membership, to that time, institutionally believed that a man of Trevino’s color should be shining the silver -- and not hoisting it -- during the post-round ceremony. He won on a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, a rival he could out-golf and out-think face-to-face on the course.
But for all the wet smooches Trevino would slobber on that putter, Gary Player looked beyond the performances on the greens that week to the reason why Trevino was the winner and Player was the runnerup: “If all the golf courses required that you drive the ball in the fairway, Lee Trevino would win all the tournaments.”
So as my round progressed this week at the Golf Club of Texas outside San Antonio, I quickly began thinking that if I didn’t start hitting the fairway, my score would end up in triple digits. The Golf Club of Texas is closer to the beautiful little Alsatian-founded burg of Castroville than San Antonio, so this is gnarly South Texas. Think of cactus, thorny bushes and mesquite trees, and that’s the sort of stuff you’ve got to contend with if you miss the fairway. Wander in there and try to find your ball -- if the sign in the clubhouse warning you about rattlers, and not the thing your kid shakes -- doesn’t scare you off.
I haven’t run into such impossible lies sitting a few yards off the fairway since I played in Scotland.
Despite the inhospitable native lush, this is becoming a good area for golf. Briggs Ranch Golf Club is across the street, and it was designed by Tom Fazio and will be the site of the U.S. Women’s Mid Amateur this fall. But it’s exclusive, so I have to look at the left side of the menu and stick with the Golf Club of Texas. I would not have come out here except for a deal offered on social media. And that’s what it will take to get me back, because despite Trevino’s sensible design, the condition of the course is not what I would find at places that charge everyday almost what I paid for the special.
There were flashes of good conditioning, but the maintenance was inconsistent. The good putting surfaces, mostly on the back side, couldn’t erase the memory of the trampled texture of the green at No. 3. And then there was something I’ve never seen before: a cup cut in the portion of replacement sod from a cup position from a day or two prior. That was at No. 5, and I was cross-eyed trying to read that putt.
Don’t even talk about the bunkers. It’s not often that I’ve seen raked mud clods, and many of the traps weren’t raked. They were forgotten, like the yardage markers in many of the fairways and the par 3s. I finally found them when I circled those tee boxes and pulled back the hairy Bermuda covering them.
There are other problems, but I’ll let them glare out there and turn to, as I say, Trevino’s sensible design work. It saves this course as being a place you’d entertain thoughts of returning to if the managers ever go the coupon route again. It’s 7,000 yards from the tips, and many of the holes are like the ones on the Tenison Park layout where Trevino grew up in inner-city Dallas -- straightaway. There are even some partially blind shots into fairways, notably at the downhill 10th, the second shot at the par-5 14th and again off the tees at the straight eighth and 16th.
Trevino’s greens are big -- huge, even -- where they need to be (long par-3s and long par-4s) and scrunch up at the proper places (the short par-4, risk-reward fifth being a good example).
That fifth hole, in fact, would be my choice as most memorable. It’s 337 yards from the tips, and there’s a chance a big hitter could drive the green if he’s willing to cut the corner and take a route right of the bunker plopped down in the middle of the fairway. Problem is, the lake that must be carried off the tee hugs close to the path to the green, and there’s another bunker lapping off to the right of the putting surface. Play it too safe by teeing over the least amount of carry, further left, and there’s a good chance the drive will bounce through the fairway and climb the mounding where uneven stances live.
The fifth hole offers good design, but also the sort of work that I’ve seen come from Greg Norman (Doral Tesoro at the Texas Motor Speedway, where the course was so difficult that they spent $2 million on Jay Morrish to come in re-do it) and Keith Foster (Quarry in San Antonio). In other words, the Trevino name looks good -- and he did a good job -- but the design at the Golf Club of Texas could have been similarly performed by lesser known names.
Trevino does hold to his design philosophy to keep golf from being so difficult: You’ll find hardly a carry over a green-fronting bunker unless you misplace your tee shot. My best shots here were run-ups over mostly flat aprons to gentle greens. But the misplayed tee shot makes up for that, severely, and the course rating of 73.1 and 135 on the slope are justified. If that doesn’t bite you, maybe the snakes will.
"Cedar" another Finger design that walks the line
I have an uncle who was a former public-school coach, and he was one of the first people to take an interest in me playing golf. He liked to play right there at home, and when the Grapevine Municipal Golf Course opened at some point in the ‘80s, he invited me to play what he said was a really nice course. The course was a challenge, so much so that I balked at the chance when I asked him how long it took to play on the weekends -- six hours.
That place was designed by Joe Finger (a friend of Byron Nelson's), and for all the complaining about Rees Jones designing courses that the golfer of average ability can’t handle, I think Finger walked that line back in the ‘80s.
Cedar Creek Golf Course opened in San Antonio in 1989, and Finger’s name is listed on the design credits along with his surviving partners Baxter Spann and Ken Dye (Finger died at nearby Kerrville in 2003). I don’t know how the work was split between the partners (I‘ve been told Mr. Finger did much of the redesign at Memorial Golf Course in Houston), but Cedar Creek walks that same line of being too tough for the average golfer. I played a tournament there recently and it took six hours to finish our round.
Yeah, it’s got some length (7,150 from the tips) while it scores a rather moderate 131 on the slope with a more appropriate 74.1 rating. The course plays longer in spots when you consider that the 435-yard third hole, 410-yard seventh, 455-yard ninth and 435-yard 17th all play uphill (at least on the drives, if not on the entire stretch) and the 455-yard 11th requires an approach over mounds obscuring most of the green.
But it’s the putting surfaces that kills -- and adds minutes to -- your game. At least half the greens have split or tri-level designs, and all of the surfaces have enough undulation that could be considered significant sloping. The superintendent has an annoying habit of cutting pins that are just two or three feet from the start of a fall-off area. The greens are especially slick in the winter when the Bermuda gets dormant.
The outstanding feature of this place is the topography. This is Texas Hill Country terrain; I always think when I’m making the drive out there that I’m going so high up that I'm scraping against the ceiling of the San Antonio city limits. I actually think the design team has made as good of use out of these hillsides as any Hill Country course I’ve played, maybe the best. And this considers a list that includes Tom Weiskopf and Arnold Palmer, who each designed a layout at nearby and highly regarded La Cantera (Weiskopf‘s 18 was the site of the Texas Open until recently).
You get that sense of efficient design incorporating the natural landscape right from the start at Cedar Creek when you tee from a ledge to the first fairway that slants right to left. Any decent drive to the right will roll down center fairway and leave a 9-iron or so from absolute Position A.
There are other holes that are just beauties. The fifth is between 500 and 530 yards of double dogleg from a plateau driving area to a green that’s down hill and blind. The 10th (they flipped the nines at “Cedar” a couple of years back) is really pretty. At less than 400 yards you can swing a 3-metal from an incredibly elevated tee. When I hit it pure I always expect a string to hang from my ball -- like it’s solid core of helium.
This place was the jewel of the city of San Antonio’s municipal course lineup, until the wild hogs started flushing out of the brush and decided they liked to eat dinner through the tee boxes and green fringes, and then when the A.W. Tillinghast-designed Brackenridge Park near downtown was redesigned in 2009. But, now that the city has assigned the management of the courses to the non-profit Alamo City Golf Trail, the hogs aren’t quite as hoggish. Even La Cantera has trouble with the big pigs.
Cedar Creek remains a hot property, and I’m lucky to have this Hill Country golf experience available as a part of my membership in Alamo City Golf Trail. I just always hope the novices aren’t playing when I do.
(Tim Price has more reviews posted on the Secret In The Dirt website. His "Golf Like You're Poor" blog can be read at http://timpricesportsbooks.moonfruit.com/#).
Stevens redesign is class, by George
Perhaps the name of Burke gives a ring of legitimacy to a golf course, and Stevens Park in Dallas certainly has a history that includes the fact that Jack Burke designed the course there in 1922. This was just a couple of years after Mr. Burke finished second, a stroke back, to Ted Ray the first time Inverness was the site for the U.S. Open. His son Jackie would push it over the top by winning a pair of majors -- the Masters and PGA in 1956 -- among his 18 professional titles.
But for all the strength in such golf name association, the person I really think of when I hit Colorado Blvd., in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas and drive out to Stevens is George Kessler. I don’t know if he ever picked up a stick, but Kessler captures the essence of what Stevens Park has been and what it has become.
The beautiful, classic neighborhood that hugs the Stevens Park golf course is named after Kessler. So who the hell was he?
Kessler was born in Germany and was moved to Dallas by his father, who invested in a cotton plantation during the Reconstruction days. Kessler became one of the first in this country to dabble in city master planning. These cats are regarded flippantly by developers as artsy-fartsy types, but Kessler got in his digs back at ‘em.
The object to keep in mind while managing growth in a city, Kessler stated, is to make them “decent places for masses of people to live in. Cities grow mostly by accident in response to trends in the real estate market. Very little thought is given to their qualitative characters. But there comes a time when development must be subject to control, when further growth must be planned such that urbanization will no longer proceed at the expense of devastating nature.”
Nature has been shaped elegantly throughout Kessler Park, and the golf at Stevens Park makes for the classiest -- if sometimes quirky -- place settings on the table arranged first by Mr. Burke and now in the redesign by John Colligan and Trey Kemp last year. This golf course is part of the good collection of municipally owned properties by the city of Dallas.
I’ve got first-hand experience with the work of Colligan, who has set up shop at Arlington between Dallas and Fort Worth. He re-did Brackenridge Park, an A.W. Tillinghast design of 1916 that the city of San Antonio owns right near downtown. Fine place, though short at less than 6,500 yards just like Stevens, and my first experience with square greens on some of the holes.
Colligan, citing overhead photos he viewed that showed square greens in use at both places, went ahead and did the same thing at Stevens Park. When I came to the second square-form green at Stevens on the fifth hole, it looked like a piece of paper laying on a table and ruffled up and hovering here and there by a gentle little breath from underneath. And if this were a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” the greens would be paper-covers-rock because -- whether the green shape is square or, as Colligan says, is “as round as a Buffalo nickel” -- nothing comes flat.
The redesign’s routing progresses in mostly the same manner through the opening 12 holes, though there are changes. There are back-to-back 3-pars, instead of a 3 and “barely” 4, at the 7th and 8th. But those are good par 3s now, then you walk over to the elevated tee box at No. 9 and have 600 yards staring straight back at you. The 11th and 12th are similarly altered; the old 11th was a par 3 that’s been wiped away by extending No. 10 into a par 5, and the No. 12 that used to sweep nicely along North Plymouth Road has been divided into a short par 4 (now No. 11) and a par 3 of medium length.
But then you take the few steps across Colorado Blvd., and the world changes. Coombs Creek still flows through, but the re-design team totally changed it over there. They expertly cut facets into a nice gem. I mean it’s good.
No. 13 is a short par 4 doglegging left with risk-reward off the tee. No. 14 is strong near 200 yards over the creek. And 16 and 17 are a strong back-to-back collection: a par 5 with a landing area near the green that’s up on a bluff past the creek (I got stung by a wasp during one round there years back when the hole was a par 4 routed from the other direction), then an uphill par 3 of 150 yards that requires clearance of a pot bunker. The views are as different as liberal and conservative. Look back over your putt on the 16th green and you see the big, gleaming Emerald City skyline of Dallas. Check your alignment for the shot on the 17th tee and there’s a quaint little church up there. It’s all gorgeous.
Just about my only bicker with the new stuff is the 18th, where the trees the redesigners were mandated to save made them place a tee that’s short and forces a tee shot with the trajectory of a stinger.
The “Miniverde” strain of Bermuda they planted onto the greens are showing the signs of newness, not helped by the fact planting took place in the brunt of the drought here in Texas. But everything else around the 38 new bunkers and planting of 800 trees or shrubs looks of class.
As does the old stone clubhouse at the top of the hill. It’s where I walked in after nine one day and saw Frank Reynolds up on the TV screen giving the ABC News break-in report that President Reagan had been shot. But, better, I’ve had many a time to reflect and enjoy that golf has proceeded there, but it never came at the expense of devastating nature. George Kessler might well like it that Stevens Park is part of his old neighborhood.
Remembering Glory at Woodlake
It’s sad to see an old friend battle an illness so bravely, and even show signs of pulling out of it and getting back to the road to recovery, before taking that long, final turn to the inevitable end. Every setback is excruciating, and the memories of the good days gone by are bittersweet.
This is a little bit of how I feel when I visit Woodlake Golf Club on the northeast side of San Antonio. The person who runs this almost 40-year-old course, and who heads the small-business investment team that owns the land, couldn’t be more dedicated to golf. His staff couldn’t more accommodating. No telling how much money he and his investors have put into the place, nor how many inventive ideas generated to get business back.
Fighting, they are, to keep the canvas where some special pictures have been painted. Woodlake does have a small space, maybe just a sentence, in the history of golf. It’s here that Ben Crenshaw, with oh-so-much promise, finished his eligibility at University of Texas (he and a fellow named Tom Kite took the Longhorns to two-straight NCAA championships) and drove on down to San Antonio and became the second player in history to win the first tournament he entered on the PGA Tour at the Texas Open in 1973.
Crenshaw, who already had won the PGA Tour Q-School, had a three-shot lead with five holes to go at Woodlake before he fell into a tie with 1969 U.S. Open champion Orville Moody with three left. But he outdrove “Sarge” by 75 yards on the 16th and stuck his sand-wedge approach four feet from the hole and made the birdie. He was four feet away again after a 9-iron into the final hole and sunk that for another birdie, giving him the two-shot victory and a $25,000 check. It was a sign of Crenshaw to come, because those two birdies were two of his 11 one-putt greens on the day, including seven in a row at one point.
“He is going to be a lot like Arnold Palmer, and not just because he is a winner,” Moody said at the time. “He has the same appeal that Arnie has always had, and he has the game and the competitive drive to keep playing well.”
As you can tell from the Crenshaw celebration here, no one is trying otherwise to write an obituary. Woodlake, the patient, is still on the table. But, in my view, it’s getting grimmer. Despite the hard work from the management and patience from the investors, the way the place is looking these days makes the end look inevitable.
Unlike Crenshaw and his one-putting, it looks like Woodlake will lose it on the greens. The place has a persistent problem with a stretch of greens on the backside. They’ve had temporaries on at least two of them, and even a new superintendent probably won’t save them from going to temps again. Bad thing for the super that he was hired right as the drought worsened here.
There are other glitches. They’ve filled in some of the bunkers (because they couldn’t maintain them) and have not been able to get sod on what they covered up. There are plenty of ant hills in the fairways and rocks in the rough.
It was designed by Desmond Muirhead, who designed Muirfield Village with Jack Nicklaus about the same time in 1972. It measures almost 6,700 yards from the back tees and gets in at a slope of 130 with a rating of 72.3
It’s usually in places where you can see the beautiful swans gliding along where the place gets tough. The sixth hole, 199 yards and most of it carry over the swans’ main swimming hole, is a challenging, fair par-3. The par-3s, in fact, are the test of the place. No. 3 (186 yards) goes to an elevated green with a bunker tight in front, and that’s the case with No. 17 (170 yards). But Muirhead designed a narrow green behind that front bunker at 17, and the wind usually pushes the tee shot at the back.
It’s an opposite wind from the 16th fairway, yet I know how Crenshaw outdrove Moody that day by 75 yards coming up that hole and left himself with a sand wedge in on the 410-yarder. The south wind usually doesn’t blow in your face in November, when the tournament now known as the Valero Texas Open was played at Woodlake.
There’s plenty of OB here (comes into play on eight holes) and enough other tricky trouble to usually give me fits. But I tend to forgive Muirhead, plus the sagging condition of the place, when I think of the history there and the fact that this is probably the place that kindled the idea of seeking value from a golf course.
But value must factor in the idea of course condition, and that’s the thing I’ll be looking for as I keep my eye on Woodlake in the coming months. If the place can’t improve, I wonder what will stop the encroaching retail and residential development from tripping over onto the course from next door.
I’ll keep my hopes up. This is a place worth saving.
No cliffs, but some value, at Northcliffe
When the pro at the counter charged me $16 for a round of golf at Northcliffe -- and that included a small bucket of practice balls -- he asked me "How's that?" It's good, really good, that's how. It's the cheapest flat rate I've played for a round in I don't know how long. It's convenient, located hard by IH-35 about 15 minutes from my home in northeast San Antonio and on the way to Austin within sight of the start of the Texas Hill Country to the west.
But, with such a price, you can expect it's not Augusta when it comes to condition. I note it, but don't bemoan it. Ants are building homes on the fourth fairway; the drought, though mellowed enough recently to fill in the four-foot cracks from the summer, has left dips and depressions and ripples on many of the fairways. And the greens are a mixture of gnarly common bermuda and more fine-bladed bermuda that would be great if it could cover the entire surface. Overall, the greens roll fine and hold shots.
Given the green fee, it's back-stabbin' to spend much time being critical. Besides, the course is quite playable -- not an issue. But it's also not worth going through with a description of every hole. I look for design highlights that stand out no matter the condition.
There are enough to make you come back and feel mildly challenged. It's 131 on the slope rating, and I think that's high (it was once 125; that's more appropriate). It's a 71.0 course rating, and that's about right. There is some OB that has to be dealt with, and that's probably why it figures to a 131 on the slope. Plays 6,500 or so from the tips.
Some challenges at Northcliffe are subtle: The fifth hole is just 365 yards downhill, though usually into the wind, but do you hit driver and get past the humps that roll into the fairway or just stick with 2-iron off the tee and end up just short of those humps? A driver puts the water in play. Do you hit driver off the tee and cut the corner through the dogleg left, 410-yard No. 12 and risk trees and the bunker about 260 yards out, or do you aim for the meat of the fairway with a 3-metal and stay short of that bunker but have the longer uphill shot to a well-bunkered green? And, more simply, do you look at the 457-yard downhill 16th as a par 5 (as the scorecard does) or do you have a go at it like it's a tough par 4?
Other holes stand out: The uphill No. 4 at 434 yards is the toughest hole when the prevailing wind switches directions. There's a tree in the driving zone left and OB right. The 415-yard seventh is a nice driving hole with OB right and a hazard usually with no water but still with an ability to make you pay with the rocks down there. The par-3 14th has a big tree obstructing a straight-line view of the green, but the putting surface is 150 yards tops from the tee so that tree can be handled with ordinary loft. And the par 3 17th is 185 yards commonly into the wind to a green that has plenty of slope back to the water hazard.
So, the place scores well in the category of value. It's on my regular rotation and will be as long as it stays in reasonable shape -- and I continue to play Golf Like You're Poor.
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