Pine Dunes: The best little course in Texas

A waste area on No. 11, with the 13th green in the background at Pine Dunes.

A waste area on No. 11, with the 13th green in the background at Pine Dunes.

FRANKSTON, Texas - It would be reasonable to assume that, upon arriving in this tiny east Texas town, you would be greeted with a billboard bursting with civic pride. The billboard might read something like this: Welcome to Frankston, home of the best golf course in Texas.

But no, there’s no billboard. The closest thing you’ll find is a sign at Pandora’s Box advertising, with no hint of irony: “Outrageously cool junk.”

Even as you drive along State Highway 155, there’s little to suggest that you’re approaching a course that’s often compared to the great Sandhills layouts. Only a couple of hand-painted signs bracket the entrance onto County Road 319, informing guests that they have arrived at Pine Dunes Resort & Golf Club.

Texas, the nation’s second-largest state, has more than 1,000 golf courses. But for the past three years, if you wanted to find the No. 1 course on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Texas, you had to come here to Pine Dunes. It was No. 2 before that.

The story of Pine Dunes is as unlikely as its location, which even owner Jodi Lutz acknowledges is “in the middle of nowhere.” But, she quickly adds, “It’s in the middle.”

Lutz was not a golfer in 1994 when she started buying land in Frankston, which is a two-hour drive from Dallas and three hours from Houston. Her sport was figure skating before heading off to the University of Wisconsin and eventually settling in Dallas.

The fact that the Frankston land included a rundown nine-holer called Dogwood Trails was just an excuse to persuade her parents to move south to manage the property for her. Like Jed Clampett and his oil field, Lutz had no idea that the sandy soil that covered her land is ideal for golf. And she never would have built the course if not for a chance meeting with then-PGA Tour player David Frost.

“People say I have a roundabout way of answering questions,” Lutz says.

It’s not that Lutz sidesteps any personal queries. Quite the contrary, she’s an open book. Ask her a question and prepare for 10 tangent-filled minutes that might range from her “very middle-class” upbringing in Stillwater, Minn., to her years working her way through college making $120 per hour teaching skating, to the NFL player who walked into her Wells Fargo office, pulled out a $10 million signing bonus and handed it to her to invest.

“She’s dynamic,” says golf-course architect Jay Morrish, who designed Pine Dunes. “Her brain never stops.”

Her left brain-right brain degrees in finance and fine arts speak to her hyperactive mind. Lutz, 43, moved to Dallas after college to teach skating, and also started a small ad agency, then a company that sold discount art supplies. That business became “a cash cow,” and soon she was buying small office buildings in Dallas.

Bored in 1994, she jumped to Nations Securities. “I really didn’t know a lot about finance, but I knew how to make money,” she says. By that time, she had begun buying up land near Frankston, which included Dogwood Trails. Her father, Warren, maintained the course, while her mother, Lucy, since deceased, made sandwiches and tended the grill.

After two years at Nations, Lutz was recruited to Merrill Lynch. Barely 30 at the time, she says her salary was pushing seven figures. Later came stops at Prudential and Wachovia, which was acquired by Wells Fargo, where she still works as a portfolio manager. She didn’t realize her dream of skating in the Olympics, but the training paid off.

“The thing about figure skating is that it gave me the drive and the discipline to start a company, to do the golf course,” Lutz says. “It’s just baby steps. Every single day, you have to do the routine. I carried that through my business life.”

While skating during intermission of a Dallas Stars hockey game, she was introduced to Frost. This would prove to be the pivotal moment in Pine Dunes’ history.

When Frost learned that Lutz owned a nine-hole course, he insisted on seeing it. Lutz was embarrassed to show Dogwood Trails to a Tour pro, but Frost persisted. One spring day in 1996, they drove to Frankston with Morrish’s son, Carter. Frost’s reaction was similar to others who see it for the first time.

“It just reminded me so much of Pinehurst, and I said she should really look at having somebody upgrade the place,” Frost recalls.

Lutz remembers that Morrish was even more enthusiastic.

“Carter was, like, crazy,” Lutz says. “He kept jumping out of the cart.”

Carter Morrish recalls that the conditions were “horrible” – lots of bahia and crabgrass. “But the land out there was phenomenal, a white-sand base,” he says. “I was really excited.

I said, ‘You really have something if you can get the financing.’ ”

That took time, but a couple of years later, Lutz called back to say she wanted the Morrishes to build her a golf course. She even told them she was considering renaming it Porky Pines. Jay Morrish gently persuaded her to keep brainstorming.

Morrish did agree to an unusual business arrangement. Lutz asked him if she could pay his fee in monthly, interest-free installments. Morrish agreed. “I’ve never done it before or since,” he says, “but we knew this was going to be something special.”

It has been 11 years since Pine Dunes opened, and every month Morrish still receives a $2,500 check from Lutz. She has 48 payments remaining.

Jay Morrish’s minimalist instincts, along with the natural topography, helped hold construction costs to $3 million. Carter Morrish estimates that only 100,000 cubic yards of dirt were moved during construction.

The Morrishes saw the sandy soil that covers most of the terrain and envisioned a Pinehurst-Pine Valley motif. That’s most evident on holes such as Nos. 5, 11 and 16, where large swaths of turf are stripped away to expose sandy waste areas.

Since opening in 2001, Pine Dunes has been a ratings sensation.

“My first impression was the great surprise of good quality in such a remote location,” says Baxter Spann, a Houston-based course architect and Golfweek’s Best course rater.

“When I got there, I was kind of floored to find a world-class course in that area,” says Sam Morrow, another Golfweek’s Best rater from Houston. Morrow, a former golf pro, likes it so much that a picture of Pine Dunes’ sixth hole, a 254-yard, downhill par 3, is the wallpaper on his cell phone.

None of this is to say it’s a flawless design. Morrow might quibble with the narrow driving corridor on No. 1. Spann says he would have preferred an even “more rugged . . . much less turfed look.”

Then there is the controversial 18th. It’s a dogleg-right par 5 that’s just 512 yards from the tips, with a pond that guards the inside of the dogleg. Bombers can carry the pond, leaving a short-iron approach. Some, such as Morrow, like it. Others, including Spann, not so much.

Jay Morrish sounds as though he would like a mulligan.

“I don’t like 18,” he says flatly. He would have liked to have had more land to make it a true par 5. As it is, it’s fodder for grill-room debates.

“There’s always got to be a hole out there that everybody talks about,” he says.

The fact that those flaws haven’t tarnished the course’s ranking speaks to the strength of the layout and the land. It’s also a good value play: The peak green fee is $79, and guests can stay two nights and play four rounds for $359. At present, Pine Dunes can sleep only 40 in its 10 condos, which are comfortable but modest. It’s an ideal “guys’ hangout,” Lutz says. “They can cook out, bring their own steaks . . . swear, cuss, drink, play golf and play poker all night.”

There are plans to upgrade, with a 60-room lodge and restaurant.

“When people hear ‘resort,’ they think about a hotel and a spa. We don’t have that,” general manager Chris Edmonson says. “When people drive up, we definitely don’t have the curb appeal. But I’ve never had anyone leave and complain about the course.”

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