Westin, LaCantera and the Palmer Course Shine

Central Texas has had its share of colorful golf characters. From Alamo-legend Colonel William Travis, who never played the game, but whose never-say-die letter to his commander (read by then-Texas Governor George Bush) inspired the 1999 Ryder Cup co eback, to that year's captain Ben Crenshaw and fellow Austonian Tom Kite, to Texas icon Willie Nelson, who has his own course and says “par is whatever I say it is.”

But over the past few years, this part of the Lone Star State has added character to its characters. You might not find more variety in golf to play anywhere. Some of it is pretty high-end, but much of it is extremely reasonable. All of it is challenging, and now there’s enough “all of it”, a critical mass if you will, to entice you to visit courses all over the region, and create Texas-sized stories to share for years.

San Antonio

There are a number of high-class golf resorts in the area. Tapatio Springs in Boerne (22 miles northwest of downtown) in the famous Hill Country offers 27 holes through those hills. The Hyatt Regency Hill Country, located next to Sea World a little closer to town, boasts an Arthur Hills-designed layout. But the biggest (and remember, that’s always important to Texans) and best-known of the golf resorts is the Westin La Cantera. Located in the first set of hills west of the city, next door to Six Flags’ Fiesta Texas and now the Shops at La Cantera (with Nieman-Marcus and Nordstrom as anchor tenants), the Westin La Cantera is a sprawling 508-room resort that’s only been open since 1999, but feels like it has been on the hill forever. The gigantic main lobby was designed after the historic King Ranch, but what truly lets you know you’re playing golf in Texas, besides the bigger than life views, are subtle things like honky-tonk music playing on the practice tee from speakers hidden in the trees.

Westin La Cantera has two championship courses. The Resort Course, a Weiskopf/Morrish layout where the Valero Texas Open has been played for more than a decade, has a couple of serious “wow” holes. Walk up, and back, then aim at the roller coaster to play the tips of the short (just 316-yards) seventh just to get the feel of driving the ball off a cliff, literally. The drop is at least 100 feet, which is why they’ve got barbed wire at the front of each tee box. The 12th is a gorgeous par-4 with a second shot carry over a deep ravine to a horizontal green protected by three back bunkers.
Interestingly, even those who work there say the newer Palmer Course, opened in 2001, is tougher than the one they play the TOUR event on, and they’re right. Stunning elevation changes enforce why there’s no walking, and no caddies here. Carts are a requirement and an ATV wouldn’t be a bad option. The last 240 yards of the 460-yard-plus 18th look like a downhill ski run from the mission-style clubhouse. (www.westin.com/lacantera)
San Antonio’s daily-fee golf is even more diverse than the resorts. From the hilly terrain of the city-owned Cedar Creek (next door to the La Cantera’s Palmer Course) to a very special course for anyone who loves playing “the land”. The Quarry touts itself as “San Antonio’s Most Unique Golf Experience” and they’re not exaggerating. Keith Foster laid out his front nine in true Scottish-links fashion on the high ground of the property. The back side was built completely inside an 86-acre limestone quarry, 100 feet below the surface, every hole visible from the clubhouse. The risk-reward drives are a challenge to your confidence (or testosterone) and the final two holes, halfway up the side of the quarry walls, offer a breathtaking finish. (www.quarrygolf.com)


Within Austin, there’s the renowned Barton Creek Resort. You could overdose from golf at this 4,000-acre giant, if there weren’t a world class spa on the lower level of the complex for you to decompress. Four courses, two designed by Tom Fazio, the other two by Ben Crenshaw and Arnold Palmer, give you completely different (and unattached) looks and all now employ forecaddies that can guide you around and make what are frankly very tough resort layouts a lot more enjoyable. And if you need a lesson, the Chuck Cook Academy has tutored winners of three U.S. Opens. If your company has a convention or meeting at Barton Creek, elbow people out of the way to take it. (www.bartoncreek.com)

A perfect contrast to Barton Creek, except for a similar high level of service, is the brand new Hyatt Regency Lost Pines in Bastrop, about 30 minutes east from downtown, but within 20 minutes of the new airport. A bit smaller than Barton Creek in size (but still with over 400 rooms), Lost Pines might have a bigger feel because it is surrounded by, well, not much. Except the Colorado River for fishing, float trips and kayaking, 16 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails in the adjacent McKinney Roughs Nature Park, and an Arthur Hills-designed course you’re going to read a lot about in the coming years.

Wolfdancer is actually three courses in one, six holes atop the rolling prairie, six holes through heavily-wooded ridgeline and the final six holes along a riverbottom through a grove of native pecan trees. Though only open since June, Wolfdancer has that “feel” of a course where every hole has a different look, and the entire experience will only improve with age. The three short par-4s (under 350 from the tips) might be the three most fun holes as you decide how close to play to the hazards that front the greens. A great place to take the family, this resort also offers not just multiple dining venues and pools, but a water park with a channel for floating, and spas for both adults and kids. (www.lostpines.hyatt.com)

You expect “big” when you come to Texas. But golf in Central Texas isn’t just big, it has big variations, in course stylings that blend in with the diverse countryside, in options of amenities and pricing, and in the activities surrounding a golf trip. If we could only do as Willie Nelson does and set our own par, Central Texas golf would be par-fect!


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