Thursday, February 25, 2021

Texas 2021

 I decided to get my 2021 off to a fast start with a trip to Texas in January.  I will hopefully be returning in November, but more on that later.  I played lots of great courses, reconnected with old friends, and had a wonderful time.  I was very shocked by how easy traveling now is because of Covid.  This was my first time flying since the pandemic began and it was shockingly easy to navigate the airport, airplane, rental car etc.  I now wish I had been more ambitious travelling in 2020.  I'm sure the situation will change this summer and things will be getting back to normal, frustrating air travel.

The brilliant Par five 4th hole at Houston Oaks.  One of four excellent par five's at the course.

My trip began with the highlight of the trip.  Memorial Park golf course in Houston was re-designed by Tom Doak and crew very recently.  The course is now the host of the Houston Open on the PGA Tour.  Astros owner Jim Crane donated millions of dollars to pay for the renovation.  The transformation is amazing.  I was fortunate to play with people who had seen the course before the renovation, and they were able to guide me as to just how much of a transformation took place.  Trees were knocked down, new holes were created, old holes were re-routed, and drainage was improved significantly.  I continue to be impressed with Tom Doak as a jack of all trades.  We all know his skill at building original courses but his ability to take municipal courses and turn them into something architecturally significant is amazing.  I was particularly impressed at Memorial Park how he preserved playability for the high handicap regulars while still providing significant challenge for the tour pros.  That is something that is very difficult to accomplish.

The brilliance of Tom Doak is on full display at the short par three 15th Hole.  A wedge shot for most players, the hole demands a precise shot from those that wish to make birdie, and punishes severely when that shot doesn't happen, with fall offs into the water short and left.  Yet Doak left a bail out long and right for the high handicappers that results in a relatively easy chip.

I am also very excited about the prospect of playing match play at Memorial Park in November.  It's a perfect match play course that provides multiple options, and should make for a delightful event.

The par three 2nd hole at Memorial Park.  One of five exceptional par threes at the course.

After my morning at Memorial Park, I headed to the previous host of the Houston Open, the Golf Club of Houston in Humble.  First up was the Rees Jones designed Tournament course, which hosted the Houston open for about ten years.  The course is classic Rees with big bunkers and big greens.

Golf Club of Houston, Tournament Course. Long par three 9th hole

Next up was the Member course at Golf Club of Houston.  Designed by Jim Hardy, the course hosted the Houston Open previous to the tournament course.  I found the Member course to be more intimate and bunkering to be more varied and creative.

Golf Club of Houston, Member Course, Par five third hole

Day two of the trip began with a round with old friends at their club, Northgate Country Club, in Houston.  Northgate was designed by Robert Von Hagge, a European designer, with many courses in Texas.  Von Hagge definitely thinks outside the box as an architect, and Northgate is an example of him at his quirky best.

Northgate Country Club, Par four 3rd hole

One of the fun things about Northgate is the par five 18th hole.  In order to have the best chance of getting to the green in two you must take the most direct line to cut the dogleg.  The problem is that this line is directly over the tennis courts, obviously added after the hole was built.  So many people have tried to cut the corner resulting in golf balls hitting unaware tennis players, that the club had to put up a sign on the 18th tee!

After the eighteen hole course at Northgate, we played the Fast Five course.  Originally one of the three nines at Northgate, the Fast Five was created after a big storm, the tax day flood, resulted in the loss of several holes on the other side of Cypress Creek.  The fast five features the original first hole of Northgate, voted the hardest opening hole in Texas for several years.

Northgate Fast Five Course, Par four 1st hole.  Voted the most difficult first hole in Texas for many years

I wrapped up day two of the trip with another Von Hagge design, The Tournament Course at The Woodlands.  Formerly TPC at The Woodlands, the course has a long history of hosting tournaments including the Houston Open and most recently the Insperity Classic on the Champions Tour.  Because of the clear goal of hosting tournaments, the course is a more straightforward Von Hagge. with more clearly defined features.

The Woodlands, Tournament Course, par three 14th hole

The third day of the trip kicked off with possibly the best course on the trip, The Clubs at Houston Oaks Championship course.  Located about 45 minutes northwest of Houston in Hockley, the course was designed by Chet Williams, who gave us the wonderful Whispering Pines, perennially ranked as the best course in Texas.  The similarities to Whispering Pines are obvious, and yet the real strength of Houston Oaks was the par fives.  I find that most architects struggle to build four great par fives and yet Williams succeeded big time at Houston Oaks.  Each par five requires precision off the tee, strategy for the second, and an interesting green for the approach.

Houston Oaks, par three 5th hole

We headed over to the nine hole course at Houston Oaks next.  Called The Scrambler, the course features seven par threes and two par fours.  We enjoyed the course but were frustrated because six of the seven par threes featured the same yardage.  When I play a short course, I would really like to hit different clubs off the tees, I hit exactly two on the seven par threes.  Other than that, it was a delightful little course.

Houston Oaks, Scramble course, par four 9th hole

Shadow Hawk Golf Club in Richmond Texas was our final destination on day three.  Designed by Rees Jones and located Southwest of Houston, the club was the home club of former President George H.W. Bush, who struck the opening tee shot.  

Shadow Hawk, par three 7th hole

The course is everything you expect from Rees with water featured on several holes.  I did enjoy the risk-reward finishing par five.

Shadow Hawk, par five 18th hole

Day four brought me closer in to the city for a round at Houston Country Club.  Originally designed by Robert Trent Jones in the 1950's, the course was renovated by Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw in recent years.  

Houston Country Club, par four 10th hole

I really enjoyed the course, particularly the bunkering.  C&C have a knack for creating variety and interest in their bunker presentation around greens.

Houston Country Club, par four 6th hole

I wrapped up day four, and my time in Houston, with a round at Royal Oaks Country Club.  Not to be confused with the Royal Oaks in Dallas, this course was designed by Brian Curley as a Fred Couples signature design in the early 2000's.  It features waterfalls on several holes.  I did like the fact that it gives its members ten different tee box combinations.

Royal Oaks, the "signature" par three 16th hole

The final round of the trip took place in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton before I flew out.  Maridoe Golf Club is a Steve Smyers design that was built on top of the old Honors Golf Club.  I was told by my buddies in Houston that this was the hardest course in Texas.  I am happy to tell you that they were very wrong.  I admit it did look a little intimidating when looking at the aerial, but on the ground it has tons of width.  It does require precision around the greens, but Smyers always gives you a place to miss that will not punish you too severely.  

Maridoe, par three 14th hole

My fore-caddie was shocked by how long it took me to complete the round.  I was taking my time, taking pictures, looking at the surroundings, but I was also very dialed in with the driver that day and didn't have to waste any time looking for balls.  The ninety minutes it took me to play the course was his fastest loop ever by forty minutes.  

Maridoe, par four 18th hole



That's a wrap for Texas 2021 or at least for the Winter trip in 2021.  I hope to return in November and play more courses around Houston.  Texas is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to good courses in many different parts of the state.

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