SAN ANTONIO – You know you’re at a freshly minted golf course when the superintendent who greets you hasn’t even taken the plastic seat covering off his John Deere Gator utility vehicle.
Finally, TPC San Antonio’s AT&T Oaks course is slated to open Jan. 22. Good timing, because in May, the course, designed by Greg Norman, with consulting input by Sergio Garcia, debuts as the home of the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open. The facility’s other course, AT&T Canyons, designed by Pete Dye with Bruce Lietzke as player consultant, opens the same day and is in line for the Champions Tour’s AT&T Championship in 2011.
It has been a long road getting to this point, with environmental sensitivities of the 36-hole site having delayed development for years. The 2,855-acre golf resort and community sit atop the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone 22 miles north of downtown San Antonio. Initial plans involving the PGA of America with Forestar Development ran into sustained opposition from ecologists who worried about runoff as well as habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler. Eventually, Miller Global, the resort and golf course owner, hired the PGA Tour’s Construction Services to manage development of the golf courses and contracted with the TPC Network to manage golf operations.
The key to getting approvals was a closed-loop irrigation/drainage system that captures rainwater and recycles runoff through a series of ponds that were built. Developers had to route the entire property around a 750-acre bird sanctuary. Thousands of live oak, cedar and pecan trees were left in place, and the courses are slated for certification in the Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary system.
The native limestone base of the site was scarcely suited for golf-quality turf or anything else. To ensure adequate soil and to maximize drainage, the courses were capped with 1 foot of clay and then 8 inches of sand – all of which had to be trucked in at the rate of 300 loads per day for 200-plus working days.
Norman’s AT&T Oaks Course has been cut low into the limestone base, with deep bunkers and slightly raised greens that require lofted carries. There are ground-level entrances to the putting surface, but they are narrow and require so much shotmaking acumen to hit they scarcely qualify as bailouts. Fairways are on the narrow side, averaging 26-28 yards in the landing areas, with fairly generous roughs to cushion wayward shots from reaching the dense, all-but-irrecoverable native areas.
Dye’s AT&T Canyons course, by contrast, has been propped up above natural grade, with wider fairways that roll off into shallow bunkers and greens that, while small, allow for access along the ground.
Both courses are unspoiled by home sites. All of the development’s 1,700 residences are to one side and out of sight. A reminder that the place is, as per its subtitle, “A PGA Tour Experience,” comes in the form of a 25-acre, 450-yard practice range.
And there’s no escaping the Texas-sized hotel and conference center, a 1,002-room facility with a 1.2-million-square-foot, nine-story bulk that engulfs the TPC’s clubhouse. It’s the only excess to be found.
• • •
Rater’s notebook: TPC San Antonio – AT&T Oaks Course
1.) Ease and intimacy of routing: 7
Out-and-back routing of returning nines, with most of the holes isolated in their own pocket and arrayed along a north/south axis, with the only big gap at the turn.
2.) Quality of feature shaping: 8
Everything is visible off the squared-off tees, with classic raised greens above steep-faced bunkers and lots of confounding spill-offs to the sides and behind greens.
3.) Natural setting and overall land plan: 5
On arrival, you realize this is where the Hill Country ends and the cutting edge of San Antonio suburban development begins. The golf is isolated from this, except for the towering hotel. Large areas of native roughs help cocoon the holes and insulate the course.
4.) Interest of greens and surrounding chipping contours: 6
Champions Bermudagrass greens average 6,200 square feet and at times are heavily sectioned in an effort to create defined targets for championship play. Almost all approaches are aerial over protective front bunkers, with plenty of chipping areas long and on the sides.
5.) Variety and memorability of par 3s: 7
An interesting mix of holes, which from the standard 6,624-yard tees ranged from a 3-hybrid to a 6-iron. The forced-carry third hole over a pond is a bit discordant; the most intriguing (and controversial) will be the short 16th, 183 yards from the back to a green with a pot bunker at the center – an obvious nod to Riviera’s sixth and one that works.
6.) Variety and memorability of par 4s: 8
Fine mix of long and short, including two tempting short holes in the drivable category, a split-fairway option hole (No. 11) and a few long, demanding holes to elevated greens.
7.) Variety and memorability of par 5s: 7
All have interesting second shots rather than simple layups. The greens get a little too sectioned-off in an effort to make championship hole locations a struggle. Attention will focus rightly on the 591-yard 18th, a showy hole with a rocky stream gurgling in front of a convoluted green. It’s reachable in two (especially if the tees are moved up), but it’s risky.
8.) Basic conditioning: 9
Impressive grow-in of various Bermudagrass strains throughout, with thick and sticky Bandera rough likely to clobber resort guests at almost any height. Superintendent Tom Lively plans to mow down marginally the leading edge of fairway bunkers so that golf balls can find their way in, not just through the air but along the ground.
9.) Landscape and tree management: 9
Trees are only a factor on the short side of dogleg par 5s; otherwise they’re well back. Corridor cuts are irregular, not linear.
10.) “Walk in the park” test: 6
Despite the 110-foot elevation change on site, it doesn’t quite come across as a compelling stroll through an engaging landscape. Yet the holes themselves, individually and collectively, certainly are compelling to play.
Overall rating: 6.5
One of Norman’s best designs in terms of overall playability and among the least contrived of the TPC network courses. Deserves a serious rating among top 100 resort courses.
• • •
• Par 72, 7,435 yards
• 23808 Resort Parkway, San Antonio, TX 78261
• 210-507-4191; www.tpcsanantonio.com
• A private resort, accessible to club members and guests of the J.W. Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa
• Founder’s membership: $50,000 plus $333 per month
• Green fees: $131-$175, including optional cart