Finding Great Golf in San Antonio is Mission Possible

By: Steve Habel


The South Texas city of San Antonio is known for many things. Among those are its friendly people, unmatched River Walk entertainment district, great food and importance as a cultural crossroads between the United States and Mexico. San Antonio is also famous for its missions, which were established in the early 1700s and have become a link to the region's past.

Our mission - and we chose to accept it - during a series of trips to the Alamo City was to find and document the area's top golf courses. It was very much a "Mission Possible," as San Antonio and its golf offerings continue to forge their way onto the short list of great destinations in the Lone Star State.

On the second of three trips to South Texas, we were able to tee it up at a great private course (The Club at Sonterra), a much-ballyhooed but off-the-beaten-path public track (The Golf Club of Texas), a 27-hole resort (Hyatt Hill Country Resort) and one of the best semiprivate courses in the state (River Crossing Club).

While the golf courses varied in price, difficulty, accessibility and conditioning, each were high above the norm and well worth the trip. After all - if you're like me - you can never get enough great golf, and San Antonio has that in spades.

6th Hole at the Club at Sonterra's North Course

Challenges Galore at The Club at Sonterra

Our first stop on this excursion to San Antonio was The Club at Sonterra, a private club located in the city's northern confines. The 36-hole facility is split by Loop 1604, and features the North course - designed by Bruce Devlin and Robert von Hagge and opened in 1985 - and Canyon Creek, a Press Maxwell-Joe Finger design that debuted in 1954 and was renovated in 2008.

The par-72 North stretches 7,070 yards from its back set of five tees - where it sports a rating of 73.7 and a slope of 132 - is not too penal for its length. Here, you can bang the drive but will also need to shape your shots, especially on the track's trademark par-4s.

North, also known as Sunburst, features outstanding bentgrass greens and some extremely impressive terrain. Unlike many courses in the area, it lacks numerous trees but makes up for it with loads of fairway bunkers.

All five of the par-4s on the North course's front side are at least 410 yards, including the massive 467-yard second, the 433-yard seventh (the hardest by handicap) and the 426-yard ninth, which is played to a peaked green and over water and sand on the approach. Add to that the par-5, 571-yard, double-dogleg first hole that features a mean approach into a bunker-fronted elevated green, the blind tee shot on the 532-yard par-5 fifth as well as two medium-length par-3s over water, and you know your game had better be on early in the round.

The back side at the Club at Sonterra's North course begins with a 173-yard par-3 (again over water) and crescendos with the 513-yard par-5 13th - where your approach is played over seven (!) bunkers, and the 192-yard par-3 14th, whose green is elevated and surrounded on all four sides by sand. No. 15 (despite being ranked as the No. 2 handicap at the North course) can provide a birdie with a little course management, but prepared to really be tested on the road home.

No. 16 is rumored to have been the golf hole that led to the end of the Devlin-von Hagge partnership and, even as changes have been made to it over the years, it still confounds players. At just 372 yards from the tips, this par-4 turns hard to the right at the landing area, which is narrow and slanted left and the two bunkers and strange lies that await your drive. The real key is keeping your ball on the fairway or, at least, finding a place to be aggressive on the second shot.

At No. 17, the approach is to a narrow green protected in front by a large pond and in back by the ever-present sand. And on the North's closing hole, you must be precise on your second shot as five bunkers ring the putting surface, which is uphill from the fairway.

Canyon Creek plays down in a valley through large oaks, and its signature feature is the numerous rock walls entering play. These walls are most prominent on Nos. 1 and 17 but, for the most part, the course is a traditional layout with small, mound-like greens. Unlike its younger brother to the north, there is no water here.

The course's teeth are in its acres of large oak trees, along with its Tif Dwarf greens and heavily tree-lined Bermuda fairways. It plays to a par of 72 and 6,359 yards from tips, where it carries a rating of 71.1 and slope of 123. The longest par-4 on the Canyon Creek course is just 398 yards (No. 2), and three of the track's par-5s are less than 485 yards, including the 468-yard 11th.

Each of the two courses at The Club at Sonterra offer members and their guests great golf, but it's the people that make the difference here. Even if you're from out of town (and the club offers reciprocal privileges to members of other clubs), you will be treated like family - and that helps if you find yourself constantly in trouble on the course.

For more information, visit www.clubatsonterra.com.  

Golf Club of Texas

Golf Club of Texas

For stop No. 2 on this trek, we headed south and west to the facility, which is set on 1,900 acres at the steps of the Hill Country and about 20 miles from downtown San Antonio. Designed by the now-split, Austin-based team of Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell, the Lee Trevino signature golf course incorporates the rugged South Texas landscape into an imaginative course atop a sprawling floodplain.

The Golf Club of Texas provides the core golfing experience at its best as indigenous plants are juxtaposed against fairways and greens that meander alongside an often-dry creek. The track's real attraction is its ability to generate challenge and excitement for a broad range of skill levels, a hallmark of Bechtol's grasp of players' needs and perspectives.

Though unconventional in arrangement, The Golf Club of Texas is a classically designed course rewarding traditional skills. The course's raw South Texas landscape and sophisticated routing extract the most from a relatively level site. Enthusiasts refer to it as "ranch-style" golf at its finest.

Since its opening in 2000, the par-72, 7,002-yard track (where it earns a 73.1 rating and 135 slope) has become one of the favorites in San Antonio. The layout features an assortment of authentic Texas wildflowers, cacti, bluebonnets, mature mesquite trees and 44 sand bunkers. The land is rugged and rolling, and the course's remote locale gives players the feeling of being away from the hustle of the big city.

The Golf Club of Texas is built around and over Lucas Creek, and water comes into play on 11 holes, linking four ponds. The track is Trevino's only Signature Course in his home state of Texas, but it shows off as more of a Bechtol-Russell design that that of the Merry Mex.

After easing into the round with the 415-yard par-4 first, the hardest offering then hits you in the face (as does the wind) on the 398-yard par-4 second. That wind must also be considered on the 189-yard par-3 third, which is uphill and all carry over watery graves. If you fail at Nos. 2 or 3, you can often get a stroke back at the fourth, a 542-yard par-5 that plays longer than its yardage and whose green is engirded by four bunkers.

At the tee of No. 5 you view a lake-carry to a double-fairway split by a large bunker. Pick which side you want to be on from the pin placement on this 337-yard par-4. It's short, but there's lots of trouble. The eighth hole includes a forced-carry tee shot over a natural area and water and there's a huge waste area along the left side. It's 426 yards and a par-4, but ride the prevailing wind off the tee to create a scoring opportunity.

You climb in elevation on No. 10 at the north end of the property, and have a downhill tee shot of 370 yards; No. 11 is 458 yards with Lucas Creek all down the right and an approach to an elevated green ringed by all kinds of trouble. A massive trap hugs the green on the right and a pin placement tucked behind it creates a traditional sucker opportunity.

Both of the par-5s on the back (the 553-yard 14th and the 531-yard 17th) can be attacked and reached in two by long and accurate approaches. Keep that long-hitter's mentality for the closer, a 468-yard par-4, which is all uphill and sports a trio of bunkers to the left of the putting surface.

The Golf Club of Texas offers good variety among shots, thanks to its position on the side of a gently sloping hill that faces the prevailing breezes. The greens are very large and not too severe, but maintenance - mainly due to the lack of irrigation water - is a factor when you play. Keep an eye on the weather and try to challenge the Golf Club of Texas after San Antonio has received a generous amount of rain - that will show the course as it was designed to play.

For more, visit www.golfcluboftexas.com.  

Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa #1

Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa

Resort golf can sometimes be a bit blah, as its challenges can be muted by the need to pander to the high-handicap golfer and to get players around the course in a reasonable amount of time.

To counter that movement, many resorts have gone to 27 holes. Perhaps the three distinct nine-hole sides - Creeks, Lakes and Oaks - at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa in San Antonio have established the standard for that thinking. The trio of Arthur Hills and Associates layouts are set on more than 200 acres of wide-ranging terrain that encompass trees, rolling meadows, steep hillsides, ravines and tree-shaded plateaus. Interspersed are a series of lakes and ponds that not only add excitement and challenge to the round, but beauty.

The facility opened as an 18-hole golf course in 1993 and expanded with the third nine in 2005. Each nine plays to a par of 36 and extends as much as 3,502 yards from the tips.

Unlike most courses that were subsequently appended with new holes, Hyatt didn't just add another nine it integrated the holes - taking seven on what's now called the Creeks Course and two more on the Lakes Course - to give the entire venue a new feel.

The mostly new 3,429-yard Creeks offers an opportunity to score on the opening two holes before reaching one of the toughest par-3s on the entire property, the 222-yard third. Then you'll then face a true three-shotter in the 538-yard fourth, which turns slightly left off the tee and whose approach is over a huge pond along the right.

The Creeks' seventh earns the No. 1 handicap on the side as water runs along the left and in front of the green on this dogleg-left. The ninth is a tempting downhill par-5 and presents an opportunity to hit a big drive off of a high-plateau tee. Water and bunkers protect the massive green but you may have the green light to swing away if you keep it left and place your ball through the trees overhanging the creek guarding the putting surface.

Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa #2

Lakes is the longest of the trio, checking in at just over 3,500 yards from the tips. After a short par-4 (352 yards) and a mid-length par-3 (159 yards), the Lakes' first stern test comes on the 452-yard par-4 third. Here the fairway turns to the right toward a lake long and right of the green, but the left side is also dangerous because of a huge bunker.

On the short (336-yard) par-4 fifth your best bet may be a long-iron or hybrid off the tee. A drive to the right side of the fairway will leave a wedge over a creek to a severely sloped green. The final four on Lakes will take all your skill, including the "S-shaped," 563-yard par-5 sixth, with a lake on the left and a dry creek bed that twists from the left of the fairway and then right through it. Your second is to a narrow landing area before the approach to a well-protected green with water on the right.

Your tee shot is all water carry on the demanding 418-yard, par-4 seventh - you have to determine how much to bite off and how much to chew. Tall trees pinch the teeing and landing areas on the par-5 eighth, a 560-yard sweeping dogleg left. Stay right off the tee or you'll struggle to get to the green.

It's difficult to pick a favorite of the trio of nines at the resort, but for my money the toughest of the three is the Oaks layout, which plays to 3,438 yards from the black tees and has a nice balance in length of holes. As the name implies, you'll have towering oak trees to contend with so be sure to study the holes from the tee. There are definitely preferred sides to the fairway as you set up for approaches into the par-4s.

You may have trouble finding a spot to land your tee shot on the Oaks' 328-yard par-4 third, a narrow alleyway that with trees overhanging the fairway on both sides and an oak right in the middle of the short grass at the optimal landing area. The green is elevated and guarded by a bunker short and left - quite a puzzle developed by Hills and his crew.

The 420-yard fourth at Oaks will certainly challenge your strength and accuracy. You'll need to be long and straight off the tee in order to set up for an approach over a creek to a difficult green.

The Oaks' par-3s (the 172-yard fifth and the 195-yard eighth) might be the easiest set of one-shotters on all the nines at Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa. But a short tee shot on the fifth will cost you a penalty into the creek so be sure to use enough club. You'll finish your side with a nice downhill par-5 and an opportunity for birdie as you approach into a huge shared green with the Creeks closing hole.

The combinations at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort's golf courses play as the following, each with a par of 72: Lakes/Oaks is 6,940 yards with a slope/rating of 73.7/136; Lakes/Creeks is 6,932 (73.7/132) and Creeks/Oaks is 6,867 (73.3/131).

The Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort & Spa is located on what was once the Rogers-Wiseman Ranch just off Highway 151 directly across from Sea World of Texas. A true resort course, none of the nines is obscured by homes, just plenty of mesquite trees, native grasses, cacti and a few streams and ponds. And, there's plenty of rolling hills and vistas as the Hill Country Golf Club meets all the standards of a truly great golf facility.

Aside from the 27 holes of Arthur Hills designed golf, there are two spectacular pools separated by cascading waterfall, a 950-foot Ramblin' River water feature, a fully-equipped exercise center offering massage and outdoor whirlpool, a world-class spa and a couple of fine restaurants to boot.

Make it great and the players - and the raters - will come. The collection of courses at the Hyatt Hill Country Resort & Spa has been ranked as Texas' top golf destination and No. 17 worldwide by Condé Nast Traveler. It is a great place to golf, a great place to stay and an excellent vacation destination for the entire range of traveler.

For additional details, visit www.hillcountry.hyatt.com.  

7th Hole at River Crossing

Par-4s Make the River Crossing Club Special

About a half-hour north of San Antonio in the burgeoning town of Spring Branch sits a pocket of green and blue called the River Crossing Club. The course, a Larry Hawkins design, is an 18-hole semi-public track known for its serene setting, panoramic views and outstanding, lightning-fast Tiff-eagle greens.

Opened in 2001, the 6,838-yard, par-72 layout is fun because of the varied nature of the holes, but its real character is taken from its fine collection of par-4s. With a good mixture of short and long two-shotters, including some blind tee shots, dry creek beds and constant changes in elevation, River Crossing gives players a complete golf experience and the opportunity to go low because of the wide fairways and large greens.

You'll have the chance to start strong early in your round thanks to the generous fairways, but the course eventually leads to some narrow, tree-lined holes with significant ups and downs. Errant tee shots will find the trees and creek beds that parallel the fairways.

There are 10 par-4s at River Crossing, and they are evenly divided between long and short. After starting off with a prevalent wind at your back on the 410-yard par-4 first, which features a split fairway, you get back-to-back shorties (both at 336 yards) on the fourth and fifth - one turns to the left with bunkers waiting a tee ball hit too far but not on line, while the other moves to the right away from a dry creek bed that is a magnet for poorly hit shots.

River Crossing's real challenge is the three consecutive long par-4s in the middle of the round. Starting with the 452-yard ninth, continuing with the into-the-wind and uphill 463-yard 10th and ending with the 422-yard 11th (which always seems to play longer because of the wind), your round can be earned or tossed away before you get to the 150-yard par-3 12th.

Take all your worries out on River Crossing's closer, as the 380-yard downhill 18th plays much shorter. Virtually any drive on the fairway - which seems like a tube because of the elevated tee - will move your shot to the middle. Your approach must be played over a deep bunker and the green slopes from back to front, so two good shots can lead to a great score and even a greater memory.

The par-5s at River Crossing are a nice collection, too. I especially like the 554-yard eighth, which can be reached with two good shots, and the 535-yard 17th which narrows in the landing area and features a tiny, sloping green. The track's par-3s are varied and thought-provoking as well, including the 140-yard second with its island green, the tough-as-nails 202-yard seventh, and the 203-yard 15th, which requires a carry over water to a green that slopes right to left.

River Crossing provides a top country-club experience as well as excellent conditioning. That combination, along with a great layout that is both challenging and fun to play, puts this track at the top of my list of San Antonio golf experiences.

For more details or a tee time, visit www.rivercrossinggolfclub.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.


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