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Great Golf in Port Aransas & Rockport on the Texas Gulf Coast

By: Steve Habel


For years, the area of the Texas Gulf Coast bordered on the north by Port Lavaca and to the south by Corpus Christi Bay has been known as a haven for fishing, boating, bird-watching and for its pristine beaches. Each of those traits features a heaping helping of relaxation a laid-back vibe that would make Jimmy Buffet proud.

But thanks to the September 2008 opening of Newport Dunes Golf Club in Port Aransas and the continuing presence of Rockport Country Club some 20 miles to the north, the area has another calling card: championship golf - now in two completely different settings.

We teed it up at both of the courses in the late fall 2009 and were pleased as punch at the quality of the tracks as well as with the area's attractions and accommodations. The region is a haven for lengthy vacation fun, but - with its proximity to Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and much of south Texas - don't count out Newport Dunes or the Rockport Country Club as a site for a daytrip for great action on the links.

The 11th Green at Rockport (photo by Carlton Wade)

Lots of Birdies can be Scored - and Watched - at Rockport

Birdwatchers will find more opportunities to add to their bucket lists in the small town of Rockport, set 30 miles north Corpus Christi, than almost anywhere else in North America. Local operators offer wintertime tours of nesting whooping cranes in the expansive Aransas National Wildlife Refuge located, and organizations such as the Aransas Bird and Nature Club have helped preserve unique bird-watching reserves that are readily accessible.

Rockport is situated along the migration route of several species of hummingbirds, and the city hosts an annual "Hummer and Birding Expo" that involves tours of local residences where hundreds of ruby-throated hummingbirds can be viewed at feeders. On top of all that, the city's beachfront park has won awards for "The Nation's Cleanest Beach." Is this a desirable vacation spot or what?

The town is also the home of Rockport Country Club, a par-71, 6,538-yard gem designed by Bill Coore (now Ben Crenshaw's architect partner), with golf great Jimmy Demaret as a consultant. The course opened in 1984 and plays much tougher than the 72.2 rating and 125 slope carried by its back (or blue marlin) tees.

RCC was designed around 65 acres of interconnected lakes and ponds and carved out of stands of coastal live oak trees. The contoured fairways, which vary from wide and forgiving to tight, meander between knolls and sand-dune bunkers of all sizes and shapes (many more large than small, there's even one that stretches 400 yards), with some beautiful homes set back among the oaks.

Most of the offerings are straightforward, but water enters play on 14 holes, and, with all the bunkers, approaches and tee shots need to be precise. The wind - ever-present on the Texas coast - is always a big factor.

The 14th Hole at Rockport (photo by Carlton Wade)

The dogleg holes are relatively short, and the course's signature treatment is its phenomenal greens. The putting surfaces range in size from huge to postage stamp and contain plenty of contours and slopes.

The front nine is considerably easier than the back, but also features one of Rockport Country Club's best holes - the 472-yard par-5 fifth. It boasts a fairway split by a huge bunker that leads from just in front of the forward tees all the way to the green. Long hitters can play down the right side and risk a carry over water and a bunker, or you can take the safer but longer left-side route.

The course's toughest stretch of holes is its final five, beginning with the twisting par-5 14th, a 540-yard eye-opener that involves water all the way and narrows the hole at the green, which slopes rightward to the lake. The par-3, 225-yard 15th stretches to a green guarded front-right by a grass bunker and along the right and rear by a cavernous sand bunker.

The 16th is one of the most perplexing holes I have ever played. Just 335 yards, this par-4 weaves through a narrow slot off the tee and leads to a very small green protected by large trees and a donut-shaped bunker. Add to that another bunker on the left left-front and water on the rear and you'll be confounded as to how to get a ball safely on in regulation.

No. 17, a 393-yard par-4, is the hardest hole by handicap at RCC, thanks to a difficult tee shot to a narrow tree-lined fairway and a small green bordering a large and intimidating lake. But for my money, the closer, a 468-yard monster that plays uphill and often into the wind, is even more of a challenge. Its 18,000-square-foot green makes club selection critical.

For those who have played it, RCC is considered hands-down a top-25 track in the Lone Star State. And while it's technically private, the club's policy is to reciprocate with other clubs and work with groups who've come to play.

The venue puts a premium on the entire game - shot-making, course management and putting, all of which makes it a fun and challenging track. For more information, visit www.rockportcountryclub.net.

An Aerial View of the 13th & 14th Holes at Newport Dunes

Newport Dunes makes its mark in Port Aransas in a Hurry

Located on the northern tip of Mustang Island, Port Aransas is the hub of coastal activities and family fun on the Texas Coast. The bays, jetties and deep Gulf waters offer the finest fishing around, and the town - known locally as "Port A" - boasts beautiful beaches leading to the deep-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It's also the perfect spot for a true links-style course, a vision that Arnold Palmer Design Group turned into reality with Newport Dunes Golf Club. Weighing in at 6,821 wind-swept yards from the tips, the par-71 track meanders through sweeping, untamed native dunes and offers spectacular views of both the Gulf of Mexico and Corpus Christi Bay.

Reminiscent of the coastal links in Scotland, Newport Dunes tests golfers with ocean breezes, rolling fairways lined with native grasses and imposing greens. The design combines with the nature to uncover a new golf experience on each round. True to its design charter, Newport Dunes features stacked-wall bunkers and deceptive landing areas, all of which make the course - rated at 72.9 and sloped at 121 - play much harder than the scorecard indicates.

"We truly believe that Newport Dunes plays more like a course with a 138 or 139 slope because of the bunkers, the winds and the contours on the greens," said Kevin Michael, Newport Dunes' general manager. "Our fairways here - which are grassed with Seashore Paspalum - are wide, but they are rolling, and they end with punitive native areas."

Newport Dunes is the first "ocean-side" track designed by Palmer in North America and the only course to fit the category in Texas. The fairways traverse over, up, down and through the dunes and past native flora, rare and endangered seaside plants and the verdant seashore grass, making it visually stunning and a blast to play.

The 14th Hole at Newport Dunes

Like playing on Scotland links, the keys to scoring involve controlling ball trajectory, accuracy rather than distance and quick adjustments to ever-changing conditions.

Holes 1-3 play on the north side of the highway that splits Mustang Island and play toward and away from Corpus Christi Bay. Once back on the south side of the road, 13 of Newport Dunes' remaining 15 holes play either into or with the wind - depending on the day and time of year - making the course a different each time around.

No. 5 is a representative of the fun encountered at Newport Dunes. The 599-yard par-5 requires an accurate drive to avoid rough on each side of the generally wide fairway, and if you're a long hitter, it's possible to drive into the lake at the end of the landing area. At the lake, the fairway narrows as it heads left and then right around the lake to a green protected by water in front and a bunker rear. On the second shot, you can risk trying to carry the lake to the green, but the safer play is to lay up on the narrow left fairway.

After playing the 187-yard par-3 sixth, the course turns back to the north, and the next five holes are played in that direction. No. 7 is a massive (482-yard) par-4, and the eighth, a 346-yard par-4, has its fairway split at about 250 yards by a huge grass berm and a bunker-guarded green. It can be reached in one with the wind at your back, but if you miss, the berms, traps and rough will make it tough to par.

Perhaps the mist picturesque offering at Newport Dunes is the 148-yard par-3 13, where you can see over the grass-covered dunes separating the course from the beach. Then at 14 (a 381-yard par-4), the large putting surface seems to disappear between grass-covered dunes - there's more room on the green than you think.

The finishing hole at Newport Dunes offers the chance to exit the course with some bragging rights. A par-5 playing at 508 yards, you must avoid two large grassy dunes at the landing area and three small bunkers at the front of the green.

The Mini-Verde greens were in perfect condition when we played, fast with plenty of slope and undulation. The fringe was cut very short, making a bump-and-run or a "Texas wedge" a good way to get close to the pin. In many cases, mounds around the green will push an offline approach onto the green. The sand in the bunkers is soft and thick, and you'll have a major problem if you end up embedded against their very steep faces. Bring some extra balls if you tend to spray tee shots because the thick native rough lining the fairways is very hungry.

Newport Dunes is located in a master-planned resort community that will eventually take the course into private status. The original plans are for a magnificent clubhouse, a high-rise resort hotel, four restaurants, condominiums and Mediterranean-style housing. While the economy has slowed some of those plans, Newport Dunes should be considered one of the best courses in Texas.

With excellent and friendly service, perfect conditioning, fantastic landscaping and first-class touches like wooden pins and old-time wooden trap rakes, the experience at Newport Dunes is second to none. Take advantage of the chance to play this course while you can. For more details, visit www.newportdunesgolf.com.

Lodging & Eating Options in Port Aransas

There's a boatload of lodging options in Port A. We set up camp at one of the area's top condo complexes - the Aransas Princess (www.portaransas-texas.com), located a stone's-throw from Newport Dunes and overlooking the 13th and 14th holes.

Each suite offers spectacular Gulf views and the conveniences of modern life with some nice-to-have extras, including fully-equipped kitchens, a utility space with full-sized washer and dryer, big bathrooms, a private balcony facing the Gulf for intimate breakfasts with spectacular sunrises. Two-bedroom, two-bedroom with den, three-bedroom and penthouse condos are available.

The culinary choices are varied in the area as well, and we enjoyed fine meals at the three local restaurants. A real standout on our visit was the Venetian Hot Plate (www.venetianhotplate.com), where we feasted on the Calamari alla Griglia (flash-grilled calamari served on a salad of spring greens and diced tomato with a refreshing tomato vinaigrette) and Spaghetti alla pescatora (a classic coastal Italian pasta with a variety of shellfish tossed with spaghetti in a white wine herb sauce and a hint of garlic and crushed red pepper). Now that's good eating, folks.

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 Texas CEO Magazine 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, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.