Barton Creek: Still the Queen of Austin

By: Steve Habel


Sometimes the best of experiences are the ones you take for granted or don't have to make a huge effort to enjoy; oftentimes the most pleasing golf courses and resorts are right around the corner from your home, so close and accessible that they can be underestimated because of their familiarity.

Such - as I found out this summer - is the case with the much-ballyhooed Barton Creek Resort and Spa www.bartoncreek.com, a jewel of a getaway and four fabulous golf courses that I (since I live in a suburb of Austin and work in the capital city of Texas) see about 200 days of the year.

Barton Creek has, since its opening in 1987, been recognized as one of the nation's top destinations for golf and getting away. Now operated by KSL Resorts after being in the ClubCorp portfolio for years, Barton Creek is a hybrid resort/country club, sporting an AAA four-diamond luxury hotel and conference center along with a private club with hundreds of members.

For years, this is where Texans and Austin's well-heeled have come to call home and play, as the development that surrounds Barton Creek Resort and Spa boasts a 4,000-acre envelope in the heart of the Texas Hill Country and some of the region's most breathtaking views.

The hotel and resort offers 303 guest rooms and suites furnished in an elegant Lone Star State style. It contains a variety of recreational options, including the golf courses that have been ranked as high as the top-two resort tracks in the state (and that's saying a lot), one of Austin's most luxurious spas, a full-service fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools, a miniature golf course, a fully-supervised children's program and four exceptional restaurants. Barton Creek's conference and meeting facilities also accommodate groups of all sizes.

I spent some time at Barton Creek in the early 1990s when I attended its famed golf school for a three-day stint. And, throughout my years in Austin, where I've lived since 1976, I've played the resort's courses on a few occasions and even covered two editions of the Legends of Golf Tournament when that event was played on the resort's Fazio Foothills course. But I had never stayed at the resort nor enjoyed the full Barton Creek experience until this July, when my fiancée and I were guests there for four days and three nights of golf and fun in the sun.

The verdict: Barton Creek offers the most bang for the buck and the best four-day overall experience in Texas, especially for those visitors to the Austin area: mainly because you will have a hard time finding a golf trip where you can play four great courses and still be so close to a city like Austin, one renowned for its nightlife, entertainment and quality of attractions.

Barton Creek Resort is just a 20-minute ride from the Austin airport and about that far from the city's famed Sixth Street and Warehouse districts. Go west instead of east and you'll find yourself at one of the lakes that surround Austin, where boating, waterskiing and sailing can be found.

But we came to Barton Creek to test its quartet of golf courses, and - by playing each of them in the heat of the Texas sun on consecutive days - we got all the golf we wanted and more. Designed by such masters of the game as Tom Fazio, Arnold Palmer and Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw, Barton Creek's four layouts are a tribute to the game and the rugged beauty of the Hill Country.

Fabulous Foothills

My first round was at Fazio Foothills, the oldest and perhaps the most famous of Barton Creek's four courses and the signature layout at the resort. Fazio Foothills is a design masterpiece, featuring dramatic cliff-lined fairways, natural limestone caves, waterfalls and pristine TiffEagle Bermuda greens. The track provides plenty of elevation change and visual impact, while its undulating aprons and grass bunkers make it a shot-maker's paradise. The five different sets of tee boxes appeal to a wide variety of skill levels.

Foothills was renovated in 2004 to evolve with a changing game. It received new fairway and tee grass and gained nearly 200 yards, taking the par-72 course to 7,125 yards from the tips.

Fazio Foothills course, established in 1986, is situated atop all of the experts' lists. Golfweek rates the Foothills No. 4 among America's 50 Best Resort Courses. The course has also been named the Best Resort Course in Texas and has the distinction of consistently having several holes listed among the state's Best or Most Beautiful Holes (Nos. 4, 9, 10, 12, 16 and 18), as recognized by the Dallas Morning News.

The course is impeccably maintained and plays every bit of its length. I would add that the opening hole - a tree-lined 460-yard par-4; the short but deadly par-5 eighth' and No. 17 (at 203 yards with a deep and narrow green the longest par-3 on the course) to the above list. Let's see: that's nine of the 18 holes as readily memorable after a round.

Canyons Makes you Work

Fazio's second - and newest - Barton Creek masterpiece is called Fazio Canyons and located two miles from the main resort. It boasts its own pro shop and practice areas. Canyons is like Foothills on steroids: you get the same quality experience except Canyons is not quite as green, not quite as manicured along its edges and is quite a bit beefier.

Opened in 2000, Canyons is the top-ranked resort course in Texas, according to the Dallas Morning News. It offers many scenic holes lined with red oaks and sycamore trees and features spectacular views of Short Springs Branch, a beautiful limestone bed creek that meanders through.

After beginning your round with some momentum, Fazio Canyons then takes a toll, especially on its final four holes. The 561-yard, par-5 finisher runs downhill and rivals Foothills' much-lauded 18th hole.

Other spectacular holes at the par-72, 7,153-yard Fazio Canyons are the 596-yard, dogleg-left par-5 fifth; the 457-yard uphill par-4 ninth, which usually plays into the wind and ends at a huge putting surface; the 450-yard, right-bending par-4 10th, where your approach is played over a creek in front of the green; and the sporty par-4 13th, which - at just 357 yards from the back tees - has teeth aplenty with two huge fairway bunkers left and a cliff wall on the right that borders an immense green that measures 54 yards from front to back.

It would be hard to stand before a judge and say honestly which of Barton Creek's two Fazio courses are the best, so let's just say this: if Foothills is No. 1, then Canyons is No. 1A - both are a pleasure and a challenge to play and can leave you humbled if you don't bring your A game.

Palmer Course is Forced - and Not Just the Carries

Of the four Barton Creek courses, the one I have played the most is Palmer Lakeside, and that's where we found ourselves on a stifling hot Saturday afternoon during the third day of our visit.

At Palmer Lakeside - which is perched on a hilltop overlooking Lake Travis, just 25 miles west of main Barton Creek Resort compound - we were surprised to find a track that was a step below its cousins, and that observation hit us hard. The secluded hilltop that houses Palmer Lakeside's par-71, 6,668-yard course is no longer very isolated; in fact there is a huge hustle and bustle of construction all around as homes are being built, even on the weekend. Opened in 1986 as Hidden Hills, Palmer Lakeside is fun for proficient players and quite manageable for novices, but was not in the class of the two Fazio offerings, especially in conditioning and pace of play.

Don't get me wrong - Palmer Lakeside is still a great golf course and has its share of excellent holes. But, somehow, its gimmicks (such as the lay-up shots required off the tee on the 395-yard par-4 fifth and again at the 403-yard par-4 seventh - both of which require approaches over deep canyons - and the dual green on the short par-3 14th) were not taken to heart this time as much as they have been in the past. To me, everything about the course seems a bit "forced."

A cascading waterfall and native flora highlight Lakeside's signature 11th hole, an outstanding par-3 that the Dallas Morning News ranks among the "18 Most Beautiful in Texas." The par-5 12th and par-4 13th both dogleg left with sloping fairways that reward any player who can turn the ball over and take it deep.

Prowess with the driver is a plus here as Palmer's course is a big-hitter's delight, just don't forget to bring your thinking cap.

Crenshaw Creekside Honors Traditional Game

The natural beauty of Texas Hill Country is the focus of Crenshaw and his architect-partner Coore at the underrated Crenshaw Cliffside. Rolling hills, natural plateaus, soft contours and native vegetation are harmoniously woven into a playable layout that provides a variety of interesting holes.

Crenshaw admits his is an "old-style" philosophy: "We let the land dictate the routing rather then imposing ourselves on the landscape," said the two-time Masters champion, an Austin native. Indeed, "Gentle Ben's" course plays across the land quite naturally and most magically. It's rated 38th among the "50 Best Courses in Texas" by Dallas Morning News.

The par-71 Crenshaw Cliffside, which now plays to 6,630 yards, offers a rare taste of traditional design. The course features broad, rolling fairways and widely-varied green sizes. The large, undulating putting surfaces give players their biggest challenge.

There are a slew of great holes at Crenshaw Cliffside, most notably the 464-yard par-4 sixth; the 455-yard par-4 10th (which Crenshaw modeled after the famed 10th at Augusta National); the drivable, downhill 317-yard par-4 14th; the 590-yard uphill par-5 15th, which requires a 240-yard carry over a waste area off the tee; and, perhaps the best of all, the 393-yard par-4 closer, where the approach requires a downhill carry over a creek to a green that looks like it will repel any shot.

After a stay a Barton Creek that included four rounds on four different courses in four days, two afternoons at the outdoor pool, a round of miniature golf that featured some of the toughest putt-putt holes you'll ever play (if you make less than a 10 on the final hole you're my hero), a soothing deep-tissue massage at the spa, and dinner and drinks on the balcony overlooking a suddenly serene landscape of the hills surrounding Austin, it's hard to imagine a better golf vacation anywhere.

And just think, Barton Creek has always been there, right in front of me. Here's to making up for wasted time and opportunities.

Steve Habel is an Austin, Texas-based journalist and Cybergolf's Southwest Correspondent. Since 1990, he has traveled around the globe covering news, business and sports assignments for various news bureaus, newspapers, magazines and websites. He also contributes to Business District magazine in Austin as managing editor and is the Texas football beat writer and a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated, the Austin-based magazine for University of Texas sports. Habel writes a weekly golf column for The River Cities Tribune in Marble Falls, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Golf Writers' Association.


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