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Birthplace of Champions Tour is Still a Great Test

By: Steve Habel


Back in the late 1970s, golf fans became familiar with the Onion Creek Club in the southeastern suburbs of Austin after it hosted the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Tournament, the precursor to, first, the Senior Tour and later the Champions Tour.

Onion Creek's 12th Hole
(photo courtesy of Carlton Wade)

For 11 years, beginning in 1978, Onion Creek conducted the celebrated Legends tournament, as the course designed by Jimmy Demaret and founded by Texas amateur golf legend Jimmie Connolly in 1974 more than held its own before the great golfers of the black-and-white television days. These same players eventually brought the sport into the modern world with a dash of charm and savoir-faire.

The Legends of Golf tournament left Onion Creek in 1990, first for Austin neighbor Barton Creek and then for California and elsewhere. But the history of the event and its legendary players are still on display in its clubhouse and rustle through the huge trees that stand sentinel over the fairways and greens of the original 18-hole layout, which plays at just 6,351 yards and a par of 70. The original 18 is rated at 70.7 and slopes out at 132.

In 1996, two-time Master's champion and Austin native Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore blended nine new holes with Demaret's original design, in the process creating one of the most beautiful tracks in Texas. With its gently rolling fairways shaded by towering cypress, oak and pecan trees that line the banks of Onion Creek, the current 27-hole track - which can be played in its original configuration or as a combo of the Demaret-Crenshaw/Coore design - is still a thrill to play and a shotmakers' heaven.

By design, Onion Creek plays at both a championship level and a member level, providing an enjoyable challenge to golfers of any age or handicap. Demaret used nature as the "architect" of Onion Creek Club. "I simply followed the natural features of the land," he said.

The nine holes crafted by Crenshaw and Coore are meshed into the original to form the North Course. When playing a full 18 on the North Course Nos. 10 through 13 of Demaret's original back nine serve as Nos. 1 through 4. After finishing on No. 13 (Original), aka No. 4 (North), you can go straight and continue playing the newer North Course, or turn left and play the Original Nos. 14 through 18. The clubhouse determines which 18 you can play.

At times over its history Onion Creek has turned into a river as heavy rains have swollen water from the creek over its banks. Floods have left holes under water and caused severe damage to the course. But after each flood the holes have been repaired and returned to their original form and kept in top condition, just like Demaret, who died in 1983, would have wanted.

With the new holes included, 13 holes feature the course's namesake. Nowhere is this more prominently displayed than on second through the eighth holes on the Original Course.

At No. 2, a picturesque 131-yard par-3, Onion Creek sits just behind the green for anyone who misjudges the 60-foot drop and airmails the putting surface. Because you really have to misjudge a shot to reach the water, this is probably the kindest location of the creek during this stretch of holes.

1st Hole at Onion Creek Club's Original Course

On Nos. 3 through 8, the creek is much more of a concern. Any errant drive to the right can find the water or - perhaps even more punitive - get lost in the wall of trees and vines that attempt to keep your ball dry. In addition to the creek, ponds come into play on Nos. 5, 9, and 10. On the fifth, a pond in front of the green runs down the entire left side. Three large bunkers are waiting for errant shots to the right, away from the pond.

Although water can make for many tough decisions throughout the 27 holes, so can the bunkers, which are placed liberally throughout the course. The location of that sand, both in the fairway and near the greens, can inflate your score. On a handful of Onion Creek's greenside bunkers, the front walls are some four feet tall.

Length can also be a factor on the Original Course, especially on the tough, dogleg-left 601-yard, par-5 seventh. Water is in play the entire way with Onion Creek along the right. Tall oaks border the narrow fairway along the left and force you to execute three precise shots to have any chance at par.

The 342-yard and downhill, par-4 12th - Onion Creek's signature offering - looks out over a narrow fairway some 50-plus feet below as the stream beckons on the right. The creek reappears on No. 16 as it runs the length of the hole down the right side.

The 414-yard, par-4 15th on the Original Course is always a challenge as a drive of 260 yards leaves you a mid-length iron over a chasm - often filled with water - to an uphill, off-camber putting surface.

The final two holes on the Original are among the track's most demanding, thanks to their elevated greens. The 17th is a reasonable 144-yard par-3 with a severely elevated tee box - be exact on your yardage as anything not close to the pin will probably result in a three-putt, either uphill to the tri-level putting surface or quickly downhill to a place that is perhaps Onion Creek's toughest hole location.

The closer is a 558-yard par-5 on which the approach is all uphill to a narrow green ringed by sand on three sides. Take two more clubs tha, you think on the third, especially if the pin is in the back.

The Crenshaw/Coore North nine sports some great offerings as well, especially the eighth and ninth, dual par-4s that play at 450 and 461 yards, respectively. I also like the two par-5s: the 526-yard fifth, which is reachable, and the grip-it-and-rip-it, 577-yard 12th. North stretches 6,530 yards and a par of 70 and carries a rating of 71.2 and a slope of 130 from its back set of five tees.

On both the Original and North, the Tifdwarf greens are relatively fast and the 419 Fairways give you a nice roll on solidly struck tee shots. In U.S. Open-like fashion, balls that fall into the rough along the fairway or near the green have a tendency to sink down into the turf and disappear, so be accurate.

Onion Creek Club features a three-facet practice facility. It has 31,000 square feet of teeing ground and is equipped with six target greens that vary in length from 40 to 225 yards depending on the location of the hitting stations. In addition to the range, there is a bunker and chipping green with a 6,000-square-foot green that is mowed to the same height as the course's putting surfaces.

Since Demaret first sent a golf ball rocketing down the No. 1 fairway, Onion Creek has held a special place in golf history. It's not the hardest course, but you have to be on your toes. Thanks to the various configurations, its relative flatness and overall beauty, the club's members don't get tired of playing it.

Demaret never saw the tournament he co-founded with Fred Raphael turn into the tour that today awards millions of dollars each year to the players over 50. But you'd have to think he is looking down and smiling at the way Onion Creek has survived and thrived after four decades.

After playing Onion Creek Club, you'll understand why the great players of past generations enjoyed it so much. It's a track for the ages - all ages that is - with a kindly nod to the past.

For additional information about Onion Creek Club, visit www.onioncreekclub.com.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns.