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Renovated Brackenridge Park is the Bell Cow for Alamo City Golf Trail
It took a long while, a lot of hand-wringing and consternation and, eventually, a pretty sizable wad of cash, but the state of municipal golf in San Antonio is surely now on the correct path. Even as the flagging economy and an unpredictable winter drained the rounds from the seven city-owned courses that make up the Alamo City Golf Trail, things are on the rise thanks to a solid foundation of ideas and management - and the success of the trail's bell cow facility, the renovated and solid-as-nails Brackenridge Park Golf Course.
Brackenridge Park with Downtown San Antonio in Background
Things weren't always hunky-dory in San Antonio. After years passed and the condition of the city's courses dropped to unsuitable levels, the San Antonio City Council in May 2007 approved a 10-year management agreement with the Municipal Golf Association San Antonio (MGASA) to improve the city's golf facilities and to manage their operations. The board consists of interested citizens who had shown a keen interest in public golf and/or have been appointed by council to represent the city.
Thus was born the Alamo City Golf Trail, consisting of Brackenridge Park GC, Cedar Creek GC, Mission del Lago GC, Olmos Basin GC, Riverside GC, Willow Springs GC and the San Pedro Driving Range and Par-3 Course.
The city also funded the organization with $9.4 million to renovate and improve the courses that had, during the past decade, lacked the resources to make needed updates. The MGASA, in turn, pledged to borrow an additional $3.3 million to give all the courses a needed facelift. By spring of 2009, all seven municipal facilities were under the management umbrella of the MGASA.
By then, $7.5 million worth of improvements at Brackenridge Park GC were finished. This historic 18-hole track, which opened for play in 1916 as an 18-hole championship course, was the first inductee into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame and the original site of the PGA Winter Tour. The Texas Open originated on this course in 1922 and was played here until 1959. Located near the heart of San Antonio in Brackenridge Park, the course is the oldest of the city's muni layouts.
Brackenridge Park GC closed in January 2008 and reopened nine months later after renovations to improve greens, tees and fairways, and to return 15 of the original 18 holes to those designed by renowned golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, who also fashioned Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Inverness.
The Colligan Design Group, based in Arlington, Texas, was commissioned to bring the course back to as close to Tillinghast's original specifications as possible. Some of the more than 6,000 trees on the track (many of them oaks and pecans) were trimmed, others were removed and the turf was reseeded tee-to-green. Thirty new bunkers were added to the course, and the original path of the San Antonio River was reintroduced to the site, flowing under stone bridges that for decades had stood above only ditches and grass.
7th Green at Brackenridge Park
The result: Sublime beauty and challenge in the shadow of downtown San Antonio and a true source of civic pride for the citizens of the Alamo City.
Set on just over 113 acres, Brackenridge Park GC was lengthened in some places, but still plays to just 6,243 yards from the tips with a par of 71. But there is increased difficulty thanks to raised greens on almost every hole and tight fairways framed by trees and well-placed bunkering.
Six of the putting surfaces were also restored to a rectangular shape, and the bunkers were given the Tillinghast-signature flat bottom and steep grass faces, with some deepened.
Two Water Hazards Imperil the 10th at Brackenridge Park
The redesigned Brackenridge Park is a true test of shot-making and course management. The front nine is tree-lined, tight and demanding, requiring accurate tee shots to score well. The back side is more open, bringing wind into play. The par-5s are all reachable in two, but they are not pushovers and must be respected. Many of the par-3s require carries over water, and several of the par-4s contain doglegs that force wisdom off the tee.
The additional length is illustrated on the par-4 fourth hole, where the back tee box was built in the parking lot, and at the diminutive (133-yard) par-3 15th, where a small tee box was created over a bridge and next to the latest expansion of the famed San Antonio Riverwalk.
Tillinghast's design prowess can be seen throughout the course. On the seventh, a 385-yard, par-4, a long fairway bunker guards the left side of the hole and hides just below the player's sightline (many of the bunkers here are flanged with grass, which adds to the deception and challenge). Golfers are then met by three more bunkers that sit below the hole's elevated, square-shaped green, a characteristic of many Tillinghast courses but a rarity in this part of the country.
On the par-3 10th, golfers hit over two bends in the resurrected river to reach a green 190 yards away. You get back-to-back par-5s at Nos. 12 and 13 (playing 501 and 498 yards, respectively), and then are hit in the face with the massive, left-turning 446-yard par-4 14th - a true test that plays over the river and into the prevailing southwest wind.
Colligan kept the routing of the old Tillinghast design on holes 1 through 14 as well as 18. But because of a freeway incursion in the 1960s, the other holes could not be restored to their original specifications, and those - 15, 16 and 17 - are the course's Achilles heel, if it has one.
"Old Brack," as the course is known locally, was recently honored as the first golf facility listed in the Texas Registry of Historic Sites and last year was named as one of the Top 50 Municipals in the United States by Golfweek. The course is - as they say - all it's cracked up to be and a bag of chips. Any golf trip to San Antonio would be remiss without a trip around the renovated track.
Alamo City Golf Trail is more than Brackenridge
The other six facilities of the Alamo City Golf Trail also offer challenge and good golf at a cheaper price point, always a consideration in this day and age.
Olmos Basin Golf Course, carded at 6,870 yards, is one of San Antonio's most popular municipal tracks. Located in north end of the city, Olmos Basin was designed by George Hoffman and opened in 1963. You're in for a battle right off the first tee, as the initial three holes are the toughest the course offers. Locals figure if they can make it to No. 4 with their scorecards intact, they're in for a pretty good day. The Olmos Creek comes into play on 14 of the par-72 course's 18 holes, and narrow, tree-lined fairways require accuracy with the driver. The par-3s on Olmos Basin are both long and demanding.
Mission Del Lago Golf Course on San Antonio's south side is a links-style track that's wide open and windy on more days than not. Bring your "A" game to this course, which features more than 120 sand traps and numerous water hazards. The venue stretches 7,285 yards from the tips, making it one of the longest of San Antonio's public facilities. Multi-tiered greens add to the challenge to the facility, which takes it name from nearby Mitchell Lake. The course is "sneaky tough," with rolling terrain that provides a number of deceptive elevation changes.
Willow Springs Golf Course opened in 1923, redesigned in 1975 and underwent a three-month renovation last summer. Officials say Willow Springs now has some of the best greens in the Alamo City Golf Trail system. All the bunkers were renovated and the clubhouse and kitchen were upgraded. Willow Springs has also hosted several Texas Opens.
Riverside Golf Course caters to the entire family, featuring an 18-hole championship layout for seasoned golfers and a nine-hole, par-3 layout for beginners. The San Antonio River lines many of the 18 holes, hence the name Riverside.
Opened in 1989, Cedar Creek Golf Course was designed by Finger Dye Spann, Inc. The four sets of tees will allow anyone from beginners to experts to test their talents at this tough yet beautiful course. Great vistas and elevation changes along with waterfalls and meandering creeks add to the experience.
And finally, San Pedro Driving Range and Par-3 is a full-service driving range. A large grass tee line with numerous targets allows for great practice. A chipping area with two practice bunkers and two putting greens is also available. Golfers can also sharpen their short-iron and wedge game at the nine-hole par-3 at the facility.
For more information about the Alamo City Golf Trail, visit www.alamocitygolftrail.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 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.