Texas may be one-of-a-kind in golf history, home to legends old (Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson) and new (Jordan Spieth), but when it comes to its golf courses, it leads the way in copycat tracks. For public-access golfers, that’s a good thing. It’s nearly impossible to wrangle a tee time at Augusta National or at some of the strictly private Golden Age layouts on Long Island unless you know a well-connected member. To play many of the British Open and PGA Tour public spreads, you’ll need a suitcase full of cash. Fortunately, Texas boasts a fistful of entertaining, affordable courses that let you sample some of the greatest holes and design philosophies in golf.
First up is The Tribute ($79-$129; 972-370-5465, thetributegc.com), a Tripp Davis design in The Colony, up in the northern suburbs of Dallas. The entire layout is comprised of homages to Scotland’s greatest links holes. In a burst of hyperbole, the friendly starter explained that this course featured “exact replicas of St. Andrews.” As it turned out, he wasn’t far off. Having played most of the real versions, I’ll say that architect Davis nailed these homages. The St. Andrews holes are skillfully reproduced and the lesser-known gems (tributes to Nairn, Moray and Western Gailes) are seamlessly integrated. Artfully placed bunkers and breezes off very visible Lake Lewisville add to the authenticity.
Among the other greats depicted at The Tribute are Royal Troon’s “Postage Stamp,” par-3 8th, which shows up as the 5th here and Carnoustie’s “Hogan’s Alley” hole, the par-5 6th, which arrives early as The Tribute’s 3rd hole. Still, my favorites remain the opening and closing holes that mirror the same numbers at the Old Course at St. Andrews and two Muirfield holes. The Tribute’s 9th and Muirfield’s 9th are both outstanding par-5s, replete with long, low-slung stone walls down the fairway’s left side, exquisitely placed bunkers and native grasses awaiting the errant shot. One difference: Muirfield built a new back tee for 2013, so the hole now plays 554 yards. The Tribute’s is 505.
Hole No. 14 at The Tribute mimics one of the world’s great par-3s, Muirfield’s 13th. Yardage is similar, 201 yards, to Muirfield’s 190, and so is the long, narrow green. Most impactful are the gaping bunkers that frame either side of the green. Replica courses can often look and play contrived and gimmicky, but they got nearly everything right here. Avoid playing on dewy mornings, when lack of fairway roll makes the course play more like Sarasota than Scotland, but all in all, I’ll tip my hat to The Tribute.
Next up on Texas’ slate of replica courses is the granddaddy of them all, Tour 18 Houston ($45-$95; 281-540-1818, tour18golf.com). Situated in suburban Humble, not far from the Golf Club of Houston, site of the PGA Tour’s Shell Houston Open, this Tour 18 kicked off the replica movement back in 1992. Threatened legal action caused the removal of the red-and-white-striped lighthouse behind the first green, that was meant to replicate the 18th hole at Harbour Town, but the playing value of the hole remains faithful to the original.
What’s most fun about Tour 18 Houston is the eclectic array of replicas it dishes out. Sure, you have old reliables such as Augusta National’s “Amen Corner,” here showing up as holes 5, 6 and 7 and the island green at TPC Sawgrass, which occupies hole 9 in Houston. However, less well-known gems are represented as well. The third hole at the 2014 U.S. Open course, Pinehurst No. 2, is featured as No. 3 at Tour 18 Houston. Of course, this hole shows Pinehurst as it was for 60 years, not as it is now, owing to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s 2011 alteration/restoration. Likewise, the par-5 10th hole comes from the Desert Inn, the fabled Las Vegas layout that made way for the Wynn course on the same spot in 2003. Fans of the PGA Tour’s Florida Swing will warm to the par-5 2nd hole, which duplicates Bay Hill’s banana-shaped 6th and the closer, which emulates the 18th at Trump Doral’s Blue Monster.
Tour 18 Houston proved to be such a winner, that Dallas opened its own version three years later. Tour 18 Dallas ($59-$95; 817-430-2000, tour18-dallas.com) was meant to replicate the success of a replica course, so it’s no surprise that Dallas and Houston share seven holes in common. Located in the northwest suburb of Flower Mound, Tour 18 Dallas sports an Amen Corner of its own, holes 16, 17 and 18. They had to import the tall pines, which are native to Houston and Augusta, Georgia, but not to Dallas, but it’s startlingly realistic nonetheless.
Among the standouts at Tour 18 Dallas is the par-4 first hole, which borrows from its counterpart at Cherry Hills in Denver. History buffs will recall that Arnold Palmer drove the green to kickstart his final-round charge in the 1960 U.S. Open, on his way to victory. Another gem is the par-3 5th, which lifts its character from the 10th at Winged Foot West, home to five U.S. Opens. Ben Hogan called the hole, “a 3-iron into some guy’s bedroom,” and its architect, A.W. Tillinghast, considered it his finest par-3. The bunkering at the Dallas version isn’t quite as nasty as its New York counterpart, but par is well-earned indeed. Pine Valley, the World’s number 1-ranked course, sees its 17th hole featured as the 13th here, while Firestone South’s “Monster” par-5 16th is here as well, appearing as the 14th hole.
More replica action is to be had at Augusta Pines ($69-$85; 281-290-1910, tour18.com/augusta-pines-home) in Spring, just outside of Houston. That said, its many Augusta National overtures and back-to-back island greens lets you know that while the design might not be innovative, it’s dramatic and fun. An eagle or two landed -- as well as hundreds of birdies -- when the Champions Tour came calling in October 2007. Bernhard Langer made some history of his own by scorching Augusta Pines’ TifEagle greens for rounds of 62-65-64, a 25-under total that swamped Mark O’Meara by eight shots. Perhaps familiarity helped the German, as he’s a two-time Masters winner and so has quite an affinity for anything named Augusta.
The par-3 17th is a solid facsimile of the same number at TPC Sawgrass (Players Stadium). Not as well known, but nearly as scary is the par-5 18th, which replicates the 15th hole at English Turn, a Jack Nicklaus creation that played host to the PGA Tour’s New Orleans stop from 1989 to 2004 and again in 2006. Designed by the same team that fashioned the Tour 18 layouts, Augusta Pines features water on 11 holes.
A final Texas replica course worth your time and money isn’t a replica course at all. The Old American Club ($125-$150; 972-370-4653, theoldamericangolfclub.com) sits across the street from The Tribute in The Colony, 35 minutes north of Dallas, yet evokes an entirely different feel. Yes, architect Tripp Davis crafted both layouts, but at The Tribute, his intent to mimic famous holes was deliberate. At Old American, which he co-designed with former University of Texas All-American Justin Leonard, holes were intended to evoke fescue-fringed early American classics such as Shinnecock Hills and Prairie Dunes. The subtle, thought-provoking track embraces the deceptively placed bunkers and imaginative contouring that characterize those Golden Age greats. Toss in an emphasis on width, angles and coping with winds off 23,000-acre Lake Lewisville and you have a low-profile winner.
Old American’s flatter back nine yields more lake views, notably on the superb 232-yard, par-3 12th, but the risk/reward decisions that crop up throughout the round make the entire layout a thinking-man’s delight. The par-5 7th, just 506 yards but rife with cross-bunker peril, is another sterling example of option-laden shotmaking possibilities.
The great state of Texas is awash in award-winning original designs, scattered in every part of the state, encompassing every type of golf, from desert to seaside to pine forests. Nonetheless, it’s the replica/homage layouts that might be the most fun of all to play.