San Antonio and Austin offer the best of the Lone Star State
By Ted McIntyre
You can stand before the historic Alamo in San Antonio and remember the sacrifice of 200 brave souls in their epic battle
against General Santa Anna’s 2,000-strong army during the Texas Revolution in March of 1836. Or you can sit on the veranda of the Omni Barton Creek in Austin and feel all the pressures of life slip away as the sun melts into the rolling, rugged horizon of the Texas Hill Country like a distant forest fire. But I’m willing to bet the most indelible memory from your first trip to the south-central region of Texas will be the River Walk.
Situated 20 feet below street level and draped in towering, century-old Cypress trees as it weaves past a string of hotels, restaurants and shops at its heart, this glorious 15-mile manmade circuit of water connects vital cultural hubs throughout San Antonio, all the while evoking the great public spaces of Europe with its lush landscapes, quaint pathways, waterfalls, outdoor art and relaxing patios. A recent $358.3 million expansion now links museums and the historic Pearl Brewery in the north and four of the city’s Spanish colonial missions to the south. Apart from illustrative barge tours, visitors can take in the natural beauty of the river via hiking and bike trails.
There’s another watery wonder 25 minutes north of the city at the JW Marriott in the Texas Hill Country. At 600 acres and 1,002 rooms, it’s the world’s largest JW Marriott. A destination unto itself, it includes a sensational $15 million waterpark, a 28,000 square-foot spa with a huge private pool and hot tub area, and the stunning 120-foot-long TV screen of High Velocity sports bar.
But two of the main attractions are the resort’s TPC San Antonio courses: the AT&T Oaks by Greg Norman (home to the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open) and Pete Dye’s AT&T Canyons Course (site of the Champions Tour’s San Antonio Championship). Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary-approved, both layouts were designed to take full advantage of the abundant natural resources, including Live Oaks and Crape Myrtle trees with their pink and purple blossoms, as well as indigenous flora and fauna.
Although the Pinehurst-styled concave green complexes at The Oaks, coupled with the closely mown green surrounds, can sometimes toy with players who lack a deft touch, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the Hill Country, culminating with the long, uphill par-5 18th, where even the layup is dicey given a creek that slices diagonally through the fairway, while a false front stymies many an approach shot to the green.
The Canyons Course is more forgiving, and, for the standard resort guest, arguably more aesthetically pleasing. And at under 5,000 yards from the forward tees, it’s a negotiable round for higher handicappers.
Among the other must-plays in this area of 40 courses are The Quarry and Brackenridge Park. The former steadily builds in drama, past the well-bunkered par-three eighth, where towering chimneys of a long-defunct quarry provide the backdrop, and then finally along the ridges and into the depths of the pit that gave the layout its name.
Brackenridge offers another look entirely. The oldest public golf course in Texas at 101 years of age, this easily walked, tree-lined A.W. Tillinghast classic is punctuated with tight driving alleys, some penal bunkering and subtle greens. Host to the PGA Tour’s Texas Open from 1922 to 1959, it’s now home to the Texas Golf Hall of Fame.
But the golfing Shangri-La of the Lone Star State might well lie 85 miles northeast of San Antonio along I-35, just west of Austin, where one can find the four courses of the Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa.
Always hopping with some form of entertainment and host to the annual Barton Creek Live summer music series—Austin bills itself the live music capital of the world—the area served as a rest stop in the 1800s for settlers and ranchers bringing their cattle to the Austin rail yard. Today the Omni embraces 4,000 acres of secluded property—the waters of spring-fed Barton Creek now providing as much an obstacle as a respite for golfers.
And they do love their golf here, as evidenced by Omni Hotels & Resorts’ offer this season to pay the air travel baggage fee for each guest’s golf bag through Labor Day.
On a canvas that includes limestone cliffs and a variety of native trees, from live oak and cottonwood, to pecan and cedar, some of the world’s finest golf architects have etched their artistry, including a pair of masterworks from Tom Fazio. Located just out the back door of the resort, Fazio’s Foothills Course is a standout featuring plenty of elevation change, dramatic cliff-lined fairways, waterfalls and natural limestone caves, including an abandoned bat cave on No. 18 that must be traversed.
The Dallas Morning News has consistently listed several holes from the course among the State’s best or most beautiful, while Golfweek has named the Foothills as high as No. 4 among America’s 50 Best Resort Courses, and No. 1 in Texas.
Another bonus is the fact that the 1986 creation “greens up” earlier in the season and stays green later into the fall, providing players with a more consistent, dense playing surface.
The first resort course in Texas to be certified as an Audubon International Signature Sanctuary, Fazio’s Canyons Course features several scenic holes lined with stately Red Oaks and Sycamore trees and some wonderful views of Short Springs Branch, a limestone bed creek that meanders throughout the course. Located a couple miles offsite, the Canyons—one of the top-ranked public layouts in Texas—also offers a sense of solitude at several turns, compared to the more open routing of the Foothills.
In 1988, the dynamic design duo of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw fashioned the self-titled Coore Crenshaw Course at Barton Creek. A traditional design featuring broad, rolling fairways and widely varied green sizes, the routing lovingly embraces the natural flow of the Hill Country, including taking advantage of existing plateaus for putting surfaces. And while it tests players’ short games with undulating and greasy-slick greens, the challenge is balanced by generous landing areas off the tee.
Durable drought- and heat-tolerant grasses were incorporated into the design as part of the environmentally sensitive considerations. The highlight is the 18th hole, where approaches must skirt a running creek to a low-lying green, seemingly etched into the hillside.
The final of the four is Arnold Palmer’s Lakeside Course, which is actually located 25 miles from the resort. A hidden retreat of sorts, perched on a secluded hilltop overlooking Lake Travis, Lakeside has no short supply of striking panoramic lake views and twilight glimpses of whitetail deer, with many professionals having cited it as possessing the best Champions Bermuda greens in the state. Its signature par-3 11th hole is highlighted by a cascading waterfall and native flora.
For jaw-dropping beauty, it’s no River Walk. But it’s pretty damn close.
San Antonio Tourism: visitsanantonio.com
JW Marriott San Antonio: http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/satjw-jw-marriott-san-antonio-hill-country-resort-and-spa/
San Antonio River Walk: www.thesanantonioriverwalk
Austin Tourism: www.austintexas.org
Omni Barton Creek Resort: https://www.omnihotels.com/hotels/austin-barton-creek