Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Everything is Bigger in Texas!

I had the pleasure of visiting "The Lone Star State" for the first time for a quick golf trip last month.

The original plan called for us to fly into Houston early on a Saturday morning and play the Tradition Course at Cypresswood Golf Club, which is located only minutes from George Bush Intercontinental Airport. However, a poor weather forecast for the Monday and Tuesday gave us the opportunity to change our schedule and move a couple of other courses up a day to take advantage of a warm weekend.

I'd get my first surprise early, seeing my friend Brandon during a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina. His flight from Kansas was cancelled due to weather and he was forced to first fly into Charlotte and then would be on the same plane I'd be on for the flight to Houston.

We'd get to Houston on time and our friend Jeff, who had flown in about an hour before us, picked us up at the airport. We'd grab a quick bite then headed to our first course, the Cypress Creek Course at the highly esteemed Champions Golf Club.

Champions was founded in 1957 and was the brainchild of noted PGA professionals Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke Jr. Ralph Plummer designed the Cypress Creek course, which opened in 1959 and it has gone on to host a number of the biggest events in golf, including the 1967 Ryder Cup, the 1969 US Open, the 1993 US Amateur, the 1998 US Women's Mid-Am and was also a four-time host of the PGA Tour's season ending Tour Championship.

Demaret and Burke were intent on Champions being a "players club" and as such, to this day, there is a handicap requirement to be a member, with those 50 years of age or younger needing to play to a 14 handicap or better while those over the age of 50 see the handicap requirement relaxed to 18 or better!

Demaret, who won 31 times on the PGA Tour, including three green jackets at the Masters, passed away in 1983 but Jack Burke Jr, who turned 92 in January, is still at Champions to this day!

Burke was no slouch as a touring pro, winning 16 PGA tournaments, including the Masters AND US Open titles in 1956!

You can imagine our surprise and delight that upon walking into the incredibly vibrant men's locker room at Champions, we were immediately taken to meet with the great man himself, Mr. Jack Burke Jr!!

One of our member hosts, Drew, was actually filming a TV show with Mr. Burke and fellow member and major champion Steve Elkington. They had just completed nine holes and were doing a spot in the locker room. Mr. Burke was very polite to us, shook each of our hands and off we went to get started on our round.

The dramatic par three 4th hole at the Cypress Creek course at Champions Golf Club

Jeff (left) and I walking up towards the 10th green at Champions

The Cypress Creek course was really strong and in great shape. It's a true shotmaker's delight, with doglegs forcing the player to move the ball in both directions and expansive, undulating green complexes.

We had a wonderful day at Champions. Drew would meet up with Brandon, Jeff and myself on the 10th tee and after our round, we headed over to another friend's house, Kyle, for a fantastic barbeque. There were about eight of us over there, dining on steaks, drinking some beer and sharing great stories about the club, Mr. Burke and Elkington.

The star attraction on the trip was meant to be a full, 36 hole day on Monday at the incredibly private Wolf Point Club near Port Lavaca, Texas. However, that advanced weather forecast I mentioned at the top of this post predicted that temperatures would be falling into the 30s so our host gave us the option of showing up a day early to take advantage of the much warmer Sunday temperatures, which we accepted with gratitude!

Wolf Point is home to one member - the owner of the club! The course was built by architect Mike Nuzzo, with able assistance from noted greenskeeper and irrigation specialist Don Mahaffey and their only mandate was to design a course that could be enjoyed on a daily basis by their client.

That's me in one of the massive fairway bunkers lining the tremendous par four 5th hole at Wolf Point Club, with the owner's house featured prominently in the background

My friend Brandon approaches the super cool double green shared by the 8th and 18th holes at Wolf Point

Our first go-around saw the three of us hook up with Mark B from the Washington, DC area and then hook up with Jonathan from Illinois on hole #6. There's no issue with fivesomes out here and as you'll see in a photo down below, even 13-somes are fine!!!

We had a blast working our balls around this playground, with extremely firm and fast conditions along with the Texas winds requiring a deft touch and a great "ground" game. Jeff, Brandon and I took a lunch break after 18 holes while Mark and Jonathan went right back out for more. We'd dine on some fajitas cooked up by the grounds crew and then headed back out for more, completing our second 18 in short order.

That evening, there were over 30 of us that got together for dinner at the Shellfish Sports Bar & Grille in Port Lavaca, where we were treated to a phenomenal five course meal along with some great locally brewed IPAs. Check out the fourth course below - I don't think anyone was able to contend with these massive portions!!

This was the main course: a huge ribeye on top of creamy scalloped potatos, topped with bacon and sauteed mushrooms and served with scallops, cajun-spiced shrimp, vegetables and a garlic roll!

We were going to play a Ryder Cup style team event the next day, weather be damned, so the two captains drafted their teams after dinner. Lots of laughs and just a superb evening with friends both new and old.

Indeed, the next day we played in very frigid conditions, with temperatures in the high 30s and plenty of wind making it feel like it was well below freezing. Thankfully, the rain that was forecasted never really materialized and that allowed us to complete our tournament without issue. I was drafted by "Team Texas" and was teamed up with Alan from Colorado - we were able to prevail 5&4 over Don Mahaffey and Ben S, a member of the US Air Force. It was a great pleasure playing with Don, Ben and Alan, who carried me like the proverbial rented mule in our match!

Despite our match win, Team Texas would lose by a single point to Team Louisiana, who took home the first ever Wolf Point Cup! While we relaxed and enjoyed another great lunch, a large group of guys decided to brave the cold conditions and head back out for more golf!

Yes, that is a THIRTEENSOME heading out towards the 8th green at the superb Wolf Point Club!

I could go on forever about everything that is Wolf Point, which easily qualifies as one of the great golf experiences in my life. However, this is a club that requests privacy and I will not compromise that whatsoever. If you want to read more about this incredible course, I urge you to check out architect Mike Nuzzo's blog, which goes into great detail about the entire process of building this modern masterpiece.

I will never be able to repay Don and Mike for inviting me to take part in this event. What an experience!

Jeff and I headed back to the Houston area to grab some dinner before getting ready for our last day in Texas and a round at Walden on Lake Conroe Golf Club!

The lovely vista that is the par five 11th hole at Walden on Lake Conroe Golf Club (photo courtesy of Walden Golf Club)

Walden is a Robert von Hagge and Bruce Devlin collaboration that opened in 1976 in Montgomery, Texas. It's built through a housing community and as such, is a relatively tight course with some of the smallest greens I've ever played. There are a number of gorgeous holes, with the superb par four 8th being a particular highlight. The par five 11th and the short par three 12th both sit out on a peninsula on Lake Conroe and are very beautiful and challenging holes in their own right.

I really enjoyed the layout and the challenge the course presented. Our host Sam had five of us out on another cold morning - Jeff and I played with Sam while my Wolf Point partner Alan played with David M and Keith K. We had a great morning but had to take off right after our round to catch our flights back home.

My first Texas golf experience was incredibly positive and the hospitality from our hosts at all three clubs was off-the-charts. I look forward to seeing them all again soon.