San Antonio, TX
San Antonio flies so far under the radar, it barely seems airborne. And yet it has the Lone Star State's top three tourist destinations and, who knew, it's the country's seventh biggest city? Plus, there's an awful lot of very fine golf worth finding.
In 1992, Keith Foster was an out-of-work golf course superintendent/builder/architect having just been let go by Arthur Hills's design firm where he had worked for the previous six years. He was 32 years old and, in his own words, had no money with few prospects of making any.
Fortunately, he knew a guy who knew a guy. The first guy owned a golf course management company called Club Consultants. The second guy, a gentleman by the name of Jack Parker who had been the General Manager at San Antonio's Woodlake CC, hired the first guy to oversee development of a high(ish)-end public-access course that he and a group of investors were planning on building in an old abandoned limestone quarry in the city's northern suburbs. The first guy knew Foster had recently become available and asked him to come and take a look.
"The place was a total mess," Foster says of the quarry, once owned by the Alamo Cement Company and from which the stone used in construction of the Texas Capitol in Austin was cut. "It hadn't been active since 1983 and was basically being used as an illegal dumping ground. But I immediately saw a wonderful opportunity, something potentially very special. I thought how cool it would be to put golf holes in and around the bowl of the quarry."
Routing the quarry holes wasn't difficult, Foster recalls. "It didn't take a lot of imagination to picture where some of the best holes would go," he adds. "The hole that became the 17th, a 386-yard Par 4 called 'Reload' and which plays over a chasm from one rock ledge to another, was perhaps the most obvious, and the uphill Par 5 18th followed on perfectly. And because of the position of those holes, I knew where the 10th would have to go. The rest just slotted into place." Foster laid the holes out on the quarry's various rock shelves to reduce the amount of blasting needed to adjust the existing grades. "It was really pretty easy," he says.
But there are two parts to every quarry. The hollow on the north side of the property that resulted from 100 years' of excavation formed an ideal site for golf, enabling even a designer as inexperienced as Foster to create holes with great interest and drama. But after the Alamo Cement Company had removed the limestone it needed, and then shut down operations entirely, a great deal of waste – much of it toxic - remained.
500,000 cubic yards of cement kiln dust (CKD) - the fine-grained, solid, highly alkaline waste removed from cement kiln exhaust gas by air pollution control devices; several thousand pounds of chromium brick – used as a liner for high-temperature industrial furnaces; and 40 million gallons of leachate, had to be dealt with one way or another. "Really the only option was to seal the waste in huge vaults and bury them underground," Fosters says. In order to receive final approval for the golf course plans, a Landfill Closure Plan had to be filed with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.
The clay-lined vaults had to go into the ground at the south end of the property away from the eight-acre lake that had formed in the bottom of the quarry and which was linked to the Edwards Aquifer which provides water for almost two million users in south central Texas. Because of where the clubhouse was to be sited and because he naturally wanted the course to build in excitement as it progressed, Foster made the quarry holes the back nine and those on the other side of E. Basse Rd - the holes with the underground vaults - the front side.
While routing the back nine had been fairly straightforward, forming a plan for the outward half was anything but. "I had to use my imagination and we had to be pretty creative there," says Foster. "We put the vaults into the ground under what is now the 6th, 7th, and 9th holes. We took soil from places on the 1st, 3rd and 4th holes leaving deep depressions which we made into water hazards, and we used the soil to create some mounding and cover the vaults. So the land rises quite sharply towards the end of the front side. The two halves look very different and it was a challenge tieing them together somehow."
This is where Foster first displayed the talent for which he would become well-known in golfing circles. Faced with a dull, square, 100 acres surrounded on three sides by freeways, chain hotels, and office buildings, and under which vaults full of toxic waste needed to be safely concealed, the Florida native fashioned nine enjoyable and thought-provoking holes that can't muster anything like the thrill of the back-nine but which hold their own and add positively to the overall experience. You could be forgiven for wondering why Jack Parker didn't sell this land for housing and build an executive 18-holer or a nine-hole course in the quarry. The simple reason is that the land used for the front nine couldn't be used for anything else. And besides, dismissing the front altogether does Foster a great injustice.
Not surprisingly perhaps, given its lack of trees, this part of the course is tiresomely labeled 'links-style' by people who really can have no idea what a links course looks like. But you shouldn't let that put you off. And don't worry about those vaults leaking and turning the course a radioactive, luminous lime-green. Course Superintendent Bruce Burger confirms they are still very much intact and monitored closely by the Alamo Cement Company which reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "Wildlife habitats have actually been created where there wasn't one before, or enhanced where there was," he says. "We have a 163-acre green belt where most of the wildlife can be seen early in the morning or late in the evening."
There are foxes, skunks, raccoons, possums, squirrels, owls that perch on the cliffs of the quarry nine, hawks that look for field mice in the tall native grasses (Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass, Kleingrass and Sideoats grama), ducks, roseate spoonbills, and several other species of birds.
"I also welcome the bats that swoop down over the lakes on the front nine and take care of the insect population," says Burger. "I'm not sure where they roost but it must be close by. We even have a few coyotes although they are very secretive and are rarely spotted."
18 years have passed since the Quarry opened and it continues to thrive along with the residential and retail areas that have grown up around it. Reviews are invariably positive so it's not surprising Foster, the young and inexperienced architect that designed it, still has fond memories of the job. "It was my first big solo project and I couldn't have been happier with the way it turned out," he says. "I was very naïve about the environmental issues involved, but the process actually went fairly smoothly. And because I worked with a great bunch of guys from Wadsworth Golf Construction, we got the job done in nine months. I ended up calling those guys the Dream Team. I was lucky to work with them again, in 1998 at Haymaker in Steamboat Springs, CO."
Another designer who has worked in both Steamboat Springs and San Antonio is Tom Weiskopf whose course at the Catamount Ranch and Club opened five years after the Resort Course at the Westin La Cantera which he built alongside his then but-not-for-much-longer partner Jay Morrish.
The Weiskopf/Foster/San Antonio/Steamboat thing doesn't end there though, because La Cantera, like its cross-city relative, has a number of holes framed by the walls of a former limestone quarry. Atop one such wall is the 7th tee which looks down not only on a bunker-strewn fairway, a water hazard to the right, and a green just 316 yards away that can certainly be gotten at with a driver, but also Six Flags Fiesta Texas's enormous 180-ft high Rattler roller coaster (actually you don't really look down on the Rattler, more across and up to it).
The 7th is just one of the Resort Course's many fun and engaging holes. The round starts with a 665-yard downhill Par 5, continues with a superb dogleg-right Par 4 where there's plenty of room off the tee but you have to thread the needle between several handsome oaks on the approach, and moves serenely through the north San Antonio hills to the 12th which forces you right off the tee to avoid a series of bunkers down the left then demands a high, soft-landing iron shot to a shallow green fronted by a 25ft-deep gulch.
The Resort Course, which hosted the PGA Tour's Texas Open from 1995 to 2009, is as resort course-like as you want to make it. Take it all on and you have 7,021 yards of course in front of you and a handful of really quite difficult holes. But choose the most appropriate set of tees and you will love every minute. The views are great, the course is invariably in good condition, and the variety of the holes will see your interest is retained from start to finish.
The same is true at the Palmer Course which opened in March 2001. Like most Palmer designs, this course certainly has its share of decorative, eye-catching (maximalist?) holes you will remember long after you leave San Antonio. The 18th is probably the most notable with an uphill drive, and 80ft plunge over boulders and water to a green surrounded by four sizeable bunkers.
Those who prefer something a little more traditional will be happy to know AW Tillinghast and Press Maxwell both worked in San Antonio. Maxwell built a lovely course at Pecan Valley in 1963 that hosted the 1968 PGA Championship won by Julius Boros, and which you can play for just $67 Monday to Friday, and $87 at weekends. Situated about five miles south and east of downtown, Pecan Valley is set in 200 acres of woodland on the Salado Creek and was restored by Bob Cupp in 1998.
Tillinghast worked on several courses in Texas including three in San Antonio. Oak Hills Country Club which opened in 1922, and San Antonio Country Club which he redesigned a few years later are private while Brackenridge Park, a mile from downtown, is very public, very inexpensive ($50 during the week), and very entertaining with its huge, flat-bottomed bunkers and square, push-up greens. It's quirky in the very best sense of the word – unconventional and a little eccentric in places certainly, but never frivolous or silly.
One of seven city-owned courses that form the Alamo City Golf Trail (AGT), 'Old Brack' enjoyed something of a rebirth in 2008 when architect John Colligan and associate Trey Kemp did a splendid job restoring Tillinghast's original as closely as was possible. Having worked on restorations at a number of other historical courses - Tom Bendelow's River Crest in Fort Worth, Perry Maxwell and Alister Mackenzie's Oklahoma City Golf and Country, William Langord and Theodore Moreau's Texarkana CC, and John Bredemus's Rockwood GC among them – Arlington-based Colligan was the logical choice for the job and, well aware of the course's significance, persuaded the Municipal Golf Association (now the AGT) to authorize far more than the simple renovation it had originally sanctioned. "We felt it was our duty as stewards of the game to do more than just renovate the course," says Colligan. "It was altered dramatically in 1968 when Highway 281 was built and the river was redirected, but the gentleman who did it worked for the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department and had no real golf course design background. So we presented the Association with the plan to restore the course with the help of a 1922 survey. Thankfully, they saw the merit of this approach."
Kemp scanned the survey and laid it over a 2006 aerial photograph of the course enabling the design team to devise a routing that incorporated 15 of the original 18 holes and bring back many of the course's old features. "The scan showed the location and course of the San Antonio River back in the day, and we were able to create a mock river in the original location," says Colligan. "We then rebuilt the stone bridges that had crossed the river but had been buried."
Colligan is satisfied he was able to recreate Tillinghast's original as closely as today's infrastructure and regulations would allow, and adds 'Old Brack' is as much a museum as a golf course. "It is to Texas golf what St. Andrews is to World Golf," he says. "She will always hold a very special place in my heart."
With only 113 acres to play with, Tillinghast/Colligan couldn't build a long course, but at 6,243 yards it has all the length non-tour pros require and you certainly won't be getting anywhere near the remarkable 257 Mike Souchak shot over four rounds during the 1955 Texas Open.
If you need any more golf, head to the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort for three lovely nines designed by Arthur Hills, the fantastic Greg Norman-designed AT&T Oaks and Pete Dye-designed AT&T Canyons Course at TPC San Antonio where you'll also find a 1,002-room JW Marriott, Canyon Springs designed by former Gary Player associate Tom Walker, or Silverhorn where designer Randy Heckenkemper and PGA Tour players Scott Verplank and Willie Wood created a Hill Country gem five miles north of the airport.
If you don't need any more golf (we all have our limit, right?) you will not go bored as San Antonio seems to have a disproportionate number of worthy attractions for its size. That said, it is the seventh biggest city in the country and the second largest in Texas, so perhaps the length of the list is merited.
Besides that Rattler coaster at Six Flags, which we understand isn't everyone's cup of tea, San Antonio actually boasts the three most popular tourist attractions in the Lone Star State. Tops is the Alamo, a Catholic mission first named Mission San Antonio de Valero and site of the battle of the Alamo in 1836 when Texian soldiers eventually succumbed to a far larger Mexican force after a 13-day siege. Every year over two and half million people visit the 4.2-acre compound where Davy Crockett, the King of the Wild Frontier, lost his life along with so many other American heroes.
Next there's the very impressive River Walk - a network of footpaths bordering the San Antonio River which meanders its way around downtown and which is lined by restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels. Dating back to 1941 and originally designed by architect Robert Hugman, the River Walk has seen countless improvements and extensions down the years and contributes significantly to the City's $10.7billion tourism industry.
Third on the list is Sea World which might not have the history of the Alamo nor the charm of the River Walk but does have a lot more whales, sharks, alligators and dolphins to look at.
And you'll need to eat while you're here. As with every big city in America, there is a huge variety of eateries to choose from. But if you crave something a little different, try dinner on a river barge such as that offered by Boudro's which Esquire Magazine once listed inside the top 50 restaurants in the US.
Another place you should try is La Gloria on E Grayson St. where Culinary Institute of America-trained Johnny Hernandez serves up Mexican street food which is 100% better, and quite a bit milder, than it sounds.
There is one dish, however, for which some of that furnace-lining chromium brick at the Quarry GC will come in handy – Camarones AguaChile, which basically translates as Shrimp in Fire Water. If a full plate of this explosive dish is a little too much for your delicate palate, try the shooter. It's still fairly lethal, but you might get half way down at least before screaming for ice. "As a general rule, most Mexican food is pretty mild and not spicy at all," says Chef Hernandez. "Real Mexican foods are often accompanied by condiments and salsa that will bring the heat if you want it."
Hernandez strives for authenticity so you won't find many items on his menu that you'd get at Taco Bell. And everything, even the AguaChile…for the first three spoonfuls anyway, is absolutely delicious. As you'd expect, there are plenty of margaritas and some quality tequilas to sip on the side – smooth and 'light-straw' Herradura Silver possibly being the best place to start for those wanting to do as the locals do, but who find the kick of the agave-distilled spirit a little strong.
When you consider all the good stuff it has to offer; the courses, the après-golf, the food, the weather, it's a wonder San Antonio didn't rank even higher than 13th on that list of the country's best golf cities. So, in answer to the question 'Are we missing something?' - absolutely, unequivocally, emphatically…yes!
(This story first appeared in Colorado AvidGolfer)
When to go: We're only 95 miles from Hyatt Lost Pines, so the climate is pretty similar meaning you should get decent weather whenever you go. The January temp can get up into the mid-60s, while it may be in the low 80s by early April. There is about half an inch less rainfall per month in San Antonio than Austin.