By Alan Bastable
Thursday, February 15, 2007

Of the bounty of golf resorts and courses in San Antonio, Texas, the biggest golf story in the Alamo City these days is about a golf resort that isn't there.

In fact, it's front-page news. What's all the fuss? The PGA of America's proposal to build a sprawling multi-course golf resort -- in the same mold as the original PGA Village, in Port St. Lucie, Florida -- in the scenic Hill Country, about 15 miles northeast of downtown.

At the heart of the controversy is the site for the development: 2,800 acres atop the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, the city's primary source for drinking water.

Environmental activists, who fear runoff from the courses will eventually pollute the water, are opposed to the PGA's proposal and have tallied nearly 70,000 signatures to thwart it. To date, their efforts have paid off; the proposal has been stalled.

Representing the other side is Mayor Ed Garza, who has sided with those San Antonians -- many of whom work in the hospitality and tourism industries -- who believe the economic impact of the resort would far outweigh any negative effects that runoff might have on the water supply.

They also contest that the environmental standards to which the PGA Village developers would be held would be far stricter than those that individual homeowners would be obligated to follow if the area was instead turned into, say, a housing development (a likely outcome, insiders say, if the PGA proposal is rejected).

That, in simple terms, is the heated dispute brewing in the state's second-largest city. At press, a newly-revised plan was being reviewed by a federal judge, but an opposition group alleged that not only was the new plan no different from the original, but that the mayor and city council illegally struck this deal in secret. In other words, the future of the proposal looked bleak. Stay tuned.

So, what does all this have to do with the current state of golf in San Antonio? Plenty. While the PGA could have dropped San Antonio months ago and awarded the Village to a handful of other salivating cities waiting in the wings, it has remained patient for a reason.

PGA Village or not, the Alamo City already is an exceptional golf destination -- and a convenient one, too.

Within a 20-mile radius of the downtown River Walk district, the city boasts a stellar lineup of resort, daily-fee, and municipal courses. Though it's the diversity of the courses that is most compelling.

From vertiginous highland tracks to tree-lined parkland designs to linksy lowland layouts, San Antonio caters to every taste, and if you can tolerate the occasional 100-degree day in August (or 40-degree day in January), it's open for play year-round.

A great starting point is the Westin La Cantera Resort, a luxurious Spanish-style retreat set atop an old limestone quarry 15 miles northwest of downtown. La Cantera, a 2002 GOLF Magazine Silver Medalist, showcases a couplet of courses: the Resort Course, which opened in 1993 and is home to the PGA Tour's Texas Open, and the less publicized Palmer Course, which debuted in 2001 and is the more dramatic of the pair.

Both offer spectacular views of the surrounding Hill Country and the San Antonio skyline, and both ebb and flow over the terrain as severely as the roller coasters at the adjacent Six Flags Fiesta Texas amusement park.

But the similarities end there. In fact, says Palmer pro Cob Garner, most players like one course or the other, but will rarely tip their hat to both. "You have to pay attention to every shot you hit [on the Palmer] if you're going to score," he says. "While on the Resort Course, you could sleep walk through a couple of holes and still make birdie."

Indeed, the Palmer Course is a forbidding challenge, in particular the second nine, which barrels its way up and over the rocky terrain at a dizzying pace. The par-71, 6,926-yard layout (yes, it's an Arnie design) is peppered with blind shots, uneven lies, harrowing carries, waterfalls, and breathtaking views. First-timers beware: If you don't know the course, either play with someone who does or play with extreme care. Novice golfers may want to sit this one out.

The site itself is stunning. The memorable par-four 10th, a cape hole, hugs the edge of a quarry wall as it bends sharply to the right. Drives up the right side leave an all-carry approach to a green neatly tucked between a pair of bunkers. A tough shot, yes, but nothing compared to the approach at 18.

A solid tee ball here still leaves 200-plus yards to a three-tiered green surrounded by bunkers and a rock-lined pond to its right. It's occasionally a blind shot (if your drive is not long enough), often off a downhill lie, and always into a stiff prevailing wind. If the hole's cut back right and you need a par, good luck. A birdie? Forget it.

The Resort Course "welcomes" players with a 665-yard opening hole -- yes, monstrous hitters have reached this green in two -- but it still is a more manageable track for the average player than the Palmer.

PGA Tour players often gripe about the par-72, 7,001-yard layout, but that's mostly because they have to walk it. You can't blame them: Some tee boxes, like those at the par-four fifth, sit on the precipice of the quarry, plummeting more than eight stories to the fairway. These elevated tees make for great driving holes, however, and most of the fairways are generous enough.

Bunkers abound -- 75 in all -- and they're all in the process of being upgraded. The resort is re-lining them with a brillo-like material that helps sand cling to their walls during heavy rains, such as the deluge that flooded San Antonio in July. (La Cantera's courses took a pounding that week, though they avoided major damage; other nearby courses were not so fortunate.)

On a course replete with spectacular holes, the bland, straightaway finishing hole seems out of place, but there's a logical explanation. In the original design, the demanding, uphill par-four fourth, which runs parallel to 18, was the closer, and the current 18th was the fourth. But because the original fourth was better suited to accommodate galleries for the Texas Open, it was converted into the finisher.

A 25-minute drive southeast of LaCantera is Pecan Valley Golf Club, another track with which golf junkies may be familiar.

Pecan Valley hosted last year's U.S. Amateur Public Links and, more memorably, the dramatic 1968 PGA Championship, at which Arnold Palmer fell a stroke shy of capturing the one major that eluded him.

Pecan Valley, a par-71, 7,010-yard layout, is a flat, parkland-style design eons away from La Cantera in look and feel. At top form, it's craftily placed oak and pecan trees, exacting doglegs, and ubiquitous water hazard, Salado Creek, are reminiscent of Perry Maxwell's design at Southern Hills in Oklahoma -- no surprise considering Pecan's layout is the handiwork of his son, Press. In traditional style, tees and greens abut one another, making the course eminently walkable.

In 1998, after years of neglect, the layout received a $5.5 million tune-up. At the direction of designer Bob Cupp, his team reconstructed every tee box, re-grassed the greens, trimmed back dozens of overgrown trees, and improved the par-three third by shortening it more than 30 yards and bringing a pond to the right of the green into play.

Be sure to check out the charming, 800-year-old Burnt Oak to the left of the 13th tee box, then bear down, because the closing holes -- from the dogleg right, 467-yard par-four 14th to the exhausting 418-yard closer -- may be the toughest stretch of golf in all of Texas.

The most unique course in Texas may be The Quarry Golf Club, five miles south of San Antonio International Airport. The back nine of this 6,740-yard Keith Foster design belongs on one of those desk calendars featuring digitally-created golf holes in impossible locations. Laid out on the base of a century-old, horseshoe-shaped quarry, the holes stare up at 100-foot limestone walls towering above.

Holes 10 through 16 play around a pond on the ground level, while 17 and 18 are routed some 30 feet above them on a second "tier." The 386-yard, par-four 17th is a blast. The tee shot on this hard dogleg left is all carry as it cuts the corner on one end of the quarry, while the approach plays to a green well guarded by bunkers left.

Not a single stick of dynamite was ignited during construction, but more than one million cubic tons of dirt were brought into the site. Another construction team -- the project was too big for just one -- worked on the flatter, more linksy, and less memorable front nine.

The real winners at the Quarry, however, are the homeowners whose houses ring the top of the quarry wall. A decade ago, their backyard was a huge abandoned hole. Today, they stare down on one of the state's top golf courses.

No course screams "Texas!" louder than Hill Country Golf Club 13 miles east of downtown (next door to Sea World). The likes of Alan Jackson and Willie Nelson blare out of speakers on the driving range, and at the attached family-friendly Hyatt resort the bell hops welcome you clad in jean shorts and western-style shirts. During the evenings, armadillo racing is a featured attraction. Despite its casual feel, the resort actually offers top-rate accommodations and a new deluxe spa.

Don't be fooled by the name: Hill Country this is not. The par-72 Arthur Hills-designed course, which measures 6,913 yards, is routed over rolling, but not mountainous terrain. Burrowing its way through native grasses and old oak trees, the layout emits a natural and secluded feel. Most holes are isolated from one another, and in typical Hills fashion, each side presents a nifty, short par four: the third and 12th, both of which play 328 yards. The ninth and 18th, a pair of par fives with forced-carry approaches, share a massive double green.

Another nine holes by Hills are on the way at Hill Country, and should be open by spring 2004. One great perk for families: Children under the age of 16 play free if accompanied by a parent (fees are half price if they tee it up alone).

When Canyon Springs Golf Club debuted in 1998 some 10 miles north of the airport, it was supposed to be part of a resort, but when developers ran out of cash, those plans fizzled. What's left today are 18 fabulous holes sandwiched between three residential communities.

Despite the presence of homes, the course maintains a wild and rugged feel. The wooden sign on the par-three third might have something to do with that. "Beware of Rattlesnakes," it warns.

The fairways at the par-72, 7,077-yard Canyon Springs are forgiving, but on most holes there's just one cut of rough, then a wall of thick native grasses that'll eat your ball alive. In other words, bite off more than you can handle on one of the courses seven doglegs, and you'll eventually pay.

The Thomas Walker-designed layout offers a lively mixture of elevated tees, forced carries, split fairways, and linksy holes with large, dipping greens. The 535-yard, par-five 10th sits some 80 feet above the fairway and, even from the middle tees, calls for a 180-yard carry over a gaping gorge and a line of cross bunkers guarding the fairway.

Two holes later, a rolling, straightaway 496-yard par four awaits. Fortunately the green is large enough -- "You could play the World Cup on it," jokes pro Jim Nichols -- to accept a long-iron or fairway-wood approach. Canyon has long-term plans to turn private, so play it while you still can.

Before taking the job at SilverHorn Golf Club of Texas, the club's current superintendent was the head man at Oak Hills, one of San Antonio's premier and best conditioned private clubs -- and it shows. SilverHorn, about five miles north of the airport, is the best maintained public course in the city, and at a high of $75 a round, it's one of the best deals. What's most refreshing, however, is its subtleness. From the understated ranch-style clubhouse to the natural flow of the holes, there's nothing flashy about SilverHorn. Designer Randy Heckenkemper, with some assistance from Tour pros Willie Wood and Scott Verplank, carved the layout from a flat, oak-lined piece of property, and allowed the existing contours of the land to dictate the design.

Water comes into play on no less than 12 holes on the par-72, 6,922- yard layout, perhaps most menacingly on the 556-yard, par-five sixth, a cape hole buffered by a pond down the entire left side. The big hitter can get home in two, but the approach must stick a green just 20 paces wide. The sneakiest water hazard, however, is a narrow creek which fronts four greens on the back nine. Heed the yardage book on the par-four 15th where this pesky creek cuts in front of the green -- twice.

Rounding out the serving of mouth-watering public golf within a short drive of the city center are a pair of munis, Brackenridge Golf Club and Cedar Creek Golf Course.

Cedar Creek, just five minutes from LaCantera, is not your average muni. Built in 1989 from the same tumbling Hill Country as its posher neighbor, it's a fun layout with surprises tucked around every knoll.

The 395-yard par-five first nose dives from a perched tee box to a fairway banked on both sides like a waterslide, while the 340-yard third plays straight uphill slithering through a slew of trees and waterfalls. You get the point.

Quick Facts

  Westin La Cantera Resort Resort Course
(800) 446-5387 $115-$130;

  Palmer Course
(210) 558- 2365 $115-$130

  Pecan Valley Golf Club
(210) 333-9018 $80-$90

  The Quarry Golf Club
(800) 347-7759 $75-$95

  Hyatt Regency Hill Country Golf Club
(888) 901-4654 $70-$135

  Canyon Springs Golf Club
(888) 800-1511 $55-$95

  Silverhorn Golf Club
(210) 545-5300 $55-$75

  Cedar Creek Golf Club
(210) 695-5050 $24-$44

  Brackenridge Park Golf Club
(210) 226-5612 $16-$19

Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

What's more, some holes offer up to six tee boxes -- a feature more often found at high-end daily fees than at munis -- and the par-72 design can stretch to an intimidating 7,150 yards.

The course has had three different superintendents (each with a different philosophy) in the last year alone, however, so it's struggled somewhat with conditioning. But still, it's a bargain at $44 (cart included) on the weekend, and unquestionably the premier city-funded track in town.

The smartest hole on the inward nine is the short 15th, a 360-yard par four. This dogleg right, whose inside corner is protected by a large bunker, plays to a two-tiered fairway. Blow your drive left and your approach must contend with a tall oak and pond guarding the left side of the green.

What Brackenridge Golf Club -- just two miles north of downtown -- lacks in conditioning, it makes up for in history. An A.W. Tillinghast design, it was the first public track in Texas when it debuted in September 1916. Its stone-walled clubhouse was the hunting lodge of George W. Brackenridge, a local banker and multi-millionaire, who donated the land.

Brackenridge hosted the inaugural Texas Open in 1922, and, in 1939, succumbed to the first 59 on record, posted by Judd McSpaden.

Though lack of investment from the city has made it impossible to keep up, Brackenridge still hosts the City Junior and City Women's Championships each year, and its 19th hole is a great place to sit around and listen to older generations rap about the legendary names -- Hogan, Snead, Nelson -- who won the Texas Open on the course you just played.

The layout is a shell of its former self, but the skeletons of great holes still remain. Ancient pecan trees and the occasional palm tree line most of the holes, and, though the course maxes out at just 6,185 yards, narrow drive zones make you think twice off the tee and well-placed bunkers make approach shots a good challenge. But the real fun is knowing that many of the game's greats have walked these same fairways.

No one appreciates that lore more than Director of Golf John Erwin. He spends much of his time trying to convince the city that Brackenridge is worth sprucing up. "They've got a gold mine -- the history of golf -- in their pockets," he says, "and they just don't know it."

Well, know this: Golf in San Antonio has never been better. From historic munis to spectacular resort courses, it has something for everyone -- PGA Village or not.

Alan Bastable is Associate Editor of GOLF Magazine Special Publications.

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