2005: Features - Texas Two-Step

The Lone Star State is so vast it hardly makes sense for travelers to confine themselves to only one part. In fact, its mammoth size (nearly 270,000 square miles) and enviable variety (deserts and forests, mountains and beaches) demand that visitors not only explore a bit but also take their time doing so. Then, there is the road factor. After all, we are talking about the land of Bob Wills, who sang about the miles and miles of Texas, and Willie Nelson, who finds bliss whenever he takes off in his bus.

Texas is Mexican cantinas and all-night truck stops along blacktops connecting towns with names like Van Horn and Valentine as well as the lowdown honky-tonks with Pearl on tap. It’s stretches of pastureland on ranches that are tens of thousands of acres, across which horses and cows graze on gama grass with antelope and deer.

And it’s a state best investigated by automobile – or better yet, pick-up truck – even if traveling in that fashion occasionally means half-day drives and heavy ingestions of caffeine in the form of Dr Pepper.

Jetting in and out simply does not cut it.

It is that way even for golfers, and anyone looking for a proper Texas golf experience would be wise to see at least a couple of retreats during their trip in order to sample as much of the state as possible – before, during and after a round – and take to the wheel to do so.

Let there be no mistake: Texas is not the golf capital of the world. Or the United States. Or even the Southwest.

But it is a cultural entity unto itself, a place uniquely independent, wonderfully diverse and self-assuredly convinced that no other destination on earth is quite like it. And while golf is not necessarily the best it has to offer, many of its resort courses are well designed, beautifully maintained and most definitely a pleasure. They also are distinctly Texan, and so fabulously different as a result.

Consider, if you will, the buzzards perched in the mesquite trees along the first hole one morning at Lajitas, an obscure resort in Big Bend country that lies hard by the Rio Grande. Or the coyotes howling at dawn as I poured my first cup of coffee and watched the sun rise over the Chisos Mountains, slowly dousing wide stretches of Spanish dagger and prickly pear cactus with desert light. I stared hard into those hills and thought of the Comanche Indians and Mexican bandits led by Pancho Villa who formerly roamed this territory, and of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who established a cavalry post there in 1916 in an attempt to bring some semblance of order to a place locals still call the badlands.

It’s not quite Pinehurst or St. Andrews.

And it was nothing like Barton Creek, either. To be sure, the 4,000-acre retreat outside the state capital of Austin is not nearly as remote as Lajitas. But it still reeks of Texas, from the jack rabbits that scoot between stands of live oak on its golf courses to the creeks that run through scrubby ravines colored with wild flowers and the waterfalls that gurgle down limestone cliffs. I half expected an Indian warrior to walk out of the cave built into a fairway bunker on the 18th hole at Barton Creek’s Foothills layout, and when I got back to my room I could not resist slipping a Pat Green CD into my stereo, then reading a little Louis L’Amour as I sipped a Shiner Bock beer.

It seems only fair at this point to confess a modest prejudice for most things Lone Star, as I am the product of west Texas cattle ranchers and a regular visitor to the state my great grandparents, John Zach and Exa Means, crossed in a covered wagon in the 1880s. They settled in Davis Mountains, 160 miles northwest of Lajitas, and that part of the world always has felt like home. I not only enjoy regularly traveling there but also delight in the stories of my cowboy kin – of the time the Comanche stole all of John Zach and Exa’s cattle and the ways the devastating droughts of the Great Depression nearly broke my grandfather, Cole.

It also is the place where my mom grew up, and where she was home-schooled as her brothers fought in World War II so she could work cattle with her father because there was no one else to help.

That makes me a homer when it comes to Texas. But I also am a golfer, and there is no way I would advocate a trip there, with clubs in tow, if I did not think it was worth it.

Location initially drew me to Lajitas, as it is situated just outside Big Bend National Park and boasts the same rugged terrain and remote feel as the land my great grandparents ranched. While the resort does possess a pair of Learjets with which it ferries guests in and out – for a fee, of course – I was only too happy to drive down Highway 67 from the budding art outpost of Marfa to the border town of Presidio, then turn due east at the Rio Grande to follow a road along the river.

The route to Lajitas is a lonely one, with tiny towns spaced 30 to 40 miles apart – and almost no sign of human existence in between. The resort has branded itself “the Ultimate Hideout,” and it is easy to see how outlaws found secure refuge in this region. It also is not hard to imagine that is sometimes still the case today.

But what is difficult to comprehend is what induced businessman Steve Smith, one of the forces behind the enormous success of Excel Communications, to pay $4.5 million five years ago for the town of Lajitas and the 25,000 acres that surround it, as well as a small hotel and nine-hole golf course the previous owner had built. After all, it seemed more than a little bit off the beaten path. But he thought he could create a place where high-end vacationers would be attracted – an isolated and starkly beautiful locale rich in west Texas heritage and replete with first-rate amenities.

It took only one day at Lajitas for me to figure out that Smith has pulled it off. Take my room, which was located in a building called the Cavalry Post, one of four lodges that house the resort’s 92 guest rooms and suites. Decorated in what I’d call cowboy cool, or maybe outlaw elegant, it utilized the attractive western motif I so enjoyed in my grandparents’ home as a child. The king-sized sleigh bed was trimmed with rich, smooth leather that boasted an almost perfect patina. There were mule deer antler handles on the bureau and armoire, lamps made of branding irons and wooden Western stirrups and a saddle hanging on the wall.

I freshened up after my drive, then it was off to dinner at the resort’s Octillo Restaurant, the best of Lajitas’ three dining establishments. I got back to my Texas roots by ordering cabrito (goat) enchiladas and a tasty rib eye with green chili sauce.

Back in my room, I considered my options for the following day. The possibilities included a trip down the Rio Grande, dove and quail hunting, horseback riding or various treatments in the resort’s Agavita Spa, and all were tempting. But I had come to sample the golf, so I headed to the course.

The track at Lajitas is called Ambush, and it is a charming par-71 layout measuring 7,042 yards. The old nine-holer was expanded and redesigned by a pair of Austin architects, Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell, and it has a similar feel to, say, a Palm Springs resort course. I immediately got that sense as I stepped up to hit my approach shot into No. 1 and saw the rocky hills full of cactus and mesquite rising directly behind the lush green.

Ambush has a varied routing, and the layout sets up well off the tees; I always felt I knew where I was supposed to drive the ball. I also liked that four of the holes are laid out on an island in the Rio Grande. Ironically, my favorite hole was the only one I wasn’t able to complete. Known as the International, or 11A, this extra hole features a tee in Texas and a green across the river in Mexico. Unfortunately, it is impossible to putt out after hitting your tee shot, which is usually a wedge, because there is no border crossing. So players have to hope for holes-in-one, made more likely by the a slightly concave green that funnels shots toward the cup.

Barton Creek seems worlds away from Lajitas, and at 500 miles to the east, it is in more ways than one. For starters, it is considerably bigger, with 300 guest rooms, many of which overlook the scrubby foothills outside the capital city. It also boasts a Chuck Cook Golf Academy, a massive spa and fitness center, 11 tennis courts and indoor and outdoor swimming pools. The biggest difference of all, of course, is its setting on the outskirts of a thriving metropolis with a population of almost 700,000, a state university of nearly 50,000 students and an awesome music scene that keeps 6th Street hopping most nights.

And to think that usually the biggest after-hours activity in Lajitas (pop. 48) is watching Clay Henry, the beer-drinking goat, throw back Lone Star long necks in the local saloon.

But what truly sets Barton Creek apart from Lajitas – and any other Lone Star State resort – is the depth and breadth of its golf.

It features four terrific courses, the best of which is Foothills. Designed by Tom Fazio, it now plays at nearly 7,000 yards from the back markers, thanks to a recent renovation that also saw the fairways, greens and tees regrassed.

Though the architect has put a premium on accuracy with tight landing areas and smallish greens, he also has made it a wonderful driving course, as most tees are elevated. In addition, there is terrific use of the creeks that run throughout the grounds, especially on the par-3 ninth, which has water running in front and to the left of a testy green and was once described by President George W. Bush as his favorite golf hole anywhere.

That’s a pretty good endorsement, but I would cast my vote for No. 16, a stunning par 4 that doglegs slightly to the right and features a green fronted by a limestone creek and backed by a waterfall golfers can hear all the way from the 150-yard marker. Close runners-up are the par-3 17th, which is modeled after the Redan hole at North Berwick, Scotland, and the uphill, par-5 18th with the aforementioned cave.

Of course, Barton Creek’s other three layouts merit consideration as well.

The Canyons, also designed by Fazio, is the newest of the bunch and has a similar feel to Foothills, though it plays a bit longer and seems more wide open.

Austin native Ben Crenshaw and associate Bill Coore built what is known as Cliffside, which has large, undulating greens and a pleasing linksy character. And the resort also owns an Arnold Palmer design called Lakeside. Situated 20 minutes from the main hotel by car, it features dramatic views from its elevated tee boxes, including a spectacular vista of Lake Travis on the par-3 14th and an opening hole where the fairway drops at least 100 feet from the tees.

Eating dinner one night at the sumptuous Hill Country Dining Room at Barton Creek and enjoying a bottle of cabernet from its extensive cellar, I thought of how far I had come, literally and figuratively, from Lajitas to this spot.

The difference is huge, from the badlands to the big city, from Lonesome Dove to Urban Cowboy, from the ultimate hideout to hiding in plain view. But the keen sense of being in Texas never left me at either place – or anywhere in between.

And that more than anything else made it one hell of a two-step.

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