PGA Tour

Austin's wonderful weirdness offers unique experience for PGA Tour

Austin’s Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake
Austin’s Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake

Sunday, March 27, 2016

This story was originally published in the March 14th issue of Golfweek.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin is a city in a hurry.

The population of the Texas state capital has doubled over the past quarter century, to more than 910,000 residents. Among the nation’s 25 most-populous cities, only Charlotte, N.C., has grown at a faster rate. Already this decade, more than 100,000 new residents have poured into Austin, a town sometimes called “Silicon Hills.” That’s a faster growth rate than in Silicon Valley.

When the PGA Tour visits Austin this month for the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, it will find a city that is determined to maintain its distinctive character even as it rapidly expands.

That’s apparent walking around town. Iron Works, a popular barbecue joint housed in an oversized red shack, is wedged between the sparkling convention center and a new, 1,100-room Fairmont Hotel rising along Cesar Chavez Street. Along Rainey Street, a line of open-air bars and restaurants, not unlike what one might find on a Caribbean island or a California beachfront, sits in the shadows of a swank new boutique hotel. And Austin American-Statesman columnist Pam LeBlanc put out an APB for “Thong Guy,” a local phantom whom she hoped to interview about his penchant for biking near naked when the weather heats up. (LeBlanc compared “Thong Guy” to Punxsutawney Phil: If you see him, you know it’s spring in Austin.)

“Austin’s just weird!” said a bubbly blonde as we rode the elevator down to the lobby of Hotel Van Zandt off Rainey Street.

That’s high praise in these parts, where the battle cry is to “Keep Austin Weird.” And so Austinites cling to their local culture, lest they watch their burgeoning city grow up to be Dallas. That simply would be intolerable.

Austin-based Dell, in the first year of its four-year title sponsorship, plans to showcase the city during tournament week. It has moved the tournament’s draw party to The Paramount Theatre on Congress Avenue and plans a Friday night Leon Bridges concert downtown to celebrate Austin’s love of live music.

Bryan Jones, vice president of marketing for Dell’s global commercial business, said this is the biggest sponsorship in the privately held company’s history, which is saying something given that annual revenues are pushing $60 billion. During tournament week, he wants spectators and Dell customers at Austin Country Club to experience the city’s sights, sounds and flavors.

“We think it will be the most unique golf experience on the PGA Tour,” Jones said.

I took a break from exploring the city to drive east on State Highway 71 to the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, home to Wolfdancer Golf Club, No. 12 on Golfweek’s Best Course You Can Play in Texas.

My playing partner was Jim Hopkins, who directs the resort’s new Harvey Penick Golf Academy. Hopkins’ main mission is to help average players. He doesn’t want to inundate students with too much information, but told me that when he plays with students, he always wants to give them at least one piece of advice after the round. With that, we were off.

Wolfdancer really hits its stride on the par-5 third. You can’t see “All of Texas,” as the name of the hole suggests, but you can see a mighty healthy portion of the surrounding landscape. The bunkering, like most things in Texas, is oversized and plentiful.

So begins a memorable stretch of holes. Architect Arthur Hills has seen much in 50-plus years in the business, and on Wolfdancer, there’s the sense that he poured some of his best memories and favorite concepts into this part of the routing.

Each hole pops:

  • a short 3 (No. 6) with a truly devious green; a short 4
  • (No. 7) demanding a delicate half-wedge, followed by
  • a muscular, punch-you-in-the face par 4; and the lovely 10th, which bends and cants left to right.
  • The 11th is almost a cape-style, short 4 – perhaps even reachable for better players, but filled with land mines. Hopkins threw a ball down in a swale right of the green, saying, “This is usually where I start my course-management lesson.” Good luck getting it up-and-down.
  • No. 12, a drop-shot par 3 with the resort in the valley below, is called “Top of the World” – though staffers know it as “the wedding hole” because nuptials are celebrated on the scenic hillside several times a year.

From there the routing returns to the valley floor for a rock-solid finish along the Colorado River.

After the round, back in the clubhouse with Hopkins, I was curious what advice this Penick acolyte would have for me.

“Was there one thing you saw in my swing that I should work on?” I asked. (Left unasked: “Or were there too many flaws to list over lunch?”)

“There is, but I have to show you,” Hopkins said.

He grabbed a club, dropped a ball on the floor and gave me a quick lesson on setup and balance. It was nothing short of a revelation that had me eager to get back on the range to practice. Isn’t that what a teacher is supposed to do? Had Mr. Penick been there, I suspect he would have been pleased with the way that Hopkins had motivated a passing student.

The next day I drove over to the Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa, just northwest of downtown Austin, for a noon tee time at the Cliffside Course, an early Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design. It is one of Barton Creek’s four courses, including two Tom Fazio designs that alternate daily as member courses, and one of two I would be seeing during my short stay.

When I loaded up my cart, an exceedingly pleasant staffer named Jim asked me if I had played Cliffside before. I told him this was my first visit.

“Watch those greens,” he told me.

“OK.”

“Don’t hit ’em (putts) too hard,” he said.

“OK.”

“But don’t hit ’em too soft.”

“OK. Is there a happy medium?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. OK, then. Good talk.

I had a similar back-and-forth with the starter, which just piqued my curiosity.

Cliffside’s frisky greens struck me as a Hill Country version of another Coore-Crenshaw design, the Plantation Course at Kapalua. It’s not uncommon to play ground-game approaches to greens that run away from you, and I sometimes found myself starting putts at 45-degree angles to the hole.

With its rock outcroppings and elevation changes, Fazio’s Canyons Course also brought to mind another of his designs: the Mountain Course at Ventana Canyon in Tucson, Ariz. At No. 5 on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Texas, Canyons is the highest-rated public-access course in the area, and one of the most demanding. It’s lovely, with pleasing long views from some of the elevated tees. There’s a sense of isolation on this big piece of land, with scattered large homes along the periphery, barely noticeable during play.

Don’t let the pleasant setting fool you. There’s a healthy amount of trouble out there as well.

Some of the holes that made the biggest impression on me were: No. 2, a short, downhill dogleg right to a kidney-shaped green; the difficult par-5 seventh, with the right-to-left slope feeding to a line of bunkers on the uphill second shot; No. 8, an all-carry mid-iron par 3 down the hill; the par-4 10th, with Barton Creek lining the front of the green on the approach; the par-3 11th, played across a small canyon, with two sets of tees that create distinct angles; and No. 13, a short 4 that should be a birdie opportunity if players navigate the hazards lining the left side.

A tight schedule and suddenly crisp temperatures – certainly too chilly for Thong Guy to emerge from hiding – didn’t allow for the chance to play Barton Creek’s other two courses, Fazio Foothills and Palmer Lakeside. Those will have to wait for a return visit, when the weirdness will continue.

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