Deep in the Heart

Set against the wild and dramatic landscape of the Texas Hill Country, Barton Creek resort, near Austin, has the two best golf courses in Texas.

There was nothing on this property when I first arrived, not even an entry road," says Tom Fazio of the Barton Creek resort, just west of downtown Austin. "The terrain was wild and wonderful, with steep cliffs and gorges. That gave me some great settings for golf holes."

Today, one of the great pleasures of teeing up on one of Barton Creek's four 18-hole championship courses—including two designed by Fazio—is experiencing how wild and wonderful that landscape has remained.The resort encompasses some 4,000 acres of Texas Hill Country, its knolls and valleys lined with cedars and live oaks. Creeks gurgle through limestone beds, tumbling down ledges formed hundreds of years ago. Rafters of wild turkey strut by groves of madrone trees. In many places, the land falls suddenly into deep, scrubby ravines. The breeze rustles tall stands of gama grass and yucca and the air is perfumed with sage. Of course, that gama grass loses a lot of its charm when your Titleist disappears deep into the rough, but strategic use of natural hazards is part of what makes Fazio Foothills and its new sister course, Fazio Canyons, so challenging—and so lauded. (T&L Golf recently rated them the two best golf courses in Texas.)

Barton Creek was developed in the mid-1980s by a partnership that included former Texas Governor John Connally. After that group went belly-up in the oil and land bust at the end of the decade, the property became part of ClubCorp Inc., the Dallas concern that operates more than 230 clubs and resorts in the United States, including North Carolina's Pinehurst and The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. After Fazio designed Barton Creek's first golf course, Fazio Foothills, in 1986, it quickly became known for such dramatic holes as the 18th: a tough, uphill par five with a fairway guarded by a bunker built into the entrance of a small cave. Over the next decade, two more courses were added, Crenshaw Cliffside and Palmer Lakeside.

For many years Barton Creek was geared toward a Texas audience, with roughly 75 percent of the clientele coming from the Lone Star State. But the people at ClubCorp wanted to broaden the appeal, so five years ago they began a $50 million makeover, adding Fazio Canyons, another clubhouse, a new tennis complex with a dozen courts, and a $1.2 million pool. They additionally doubled the number of guestrooms to 300. Rooms and suites are spacious (between 425 and 2,200 square feet), well-appointed and comfortable. If your swing or short game needs a tune-up, the resort is also home to the Golf Institute at Barton Creek, featuring the David Leadbetter Golf Academy.

"Barton Creek hits all the right notes," says Casey Alexander, a New York City investment executive and a nationally ranked amateur player. "But you never forget that golf is what's most important here. And while the layouts are not that hard, they are by no means easy."

Each course at Barton Creek is beautifully maintained and rarely crowded. The par-72 Fazio Canyons, with its wide fairways and ample greens, measures just over 7,100 yards from the tips. Holes wind up and down gentle hills and across ravines. Streams run along and through several of the holes, gobbling up errant golf balls and threatening to turn pars into double bogeys. Each hole demands precise drives and approach shots, and the greens have subtle breaks that can baffle the most accurate eye.

Fazio forces you to move your ball in a variety of shots. For example, many holes favor the right-to-left player by doglegging to various degrees in that direction. You have to be able to draw your ball to be most successful. But the design also demands left-to-right fades, creating a true test of your shot-making abilities. Fazio wants you to hit every club in your bag, and he wants you to hit them every which way.

But Fazio also wants you to enjoy yourself, which is why he built so many elevated tees. "They lend a strong sense of drama," he says. "You get a real rush when you're standing up high looking down at a fairway or green. It's something that we've been trying to do more and more often in our work. Years ago, people wanted one signature hole on a golf course. But now they expect every single hole to have some sort of 'wow factor.' "

That is certainly the case with the par-five fifth, which measures nearly 600 yards from the back tees. A good drive seems to hang in the air endlessly, and it's hard to resist the temptation to pose with your finish as the ball settles onto the fairway. The next shot is down to a green cradled in tall limestone walls. The par-five seventh is another sensational hole. After you hit your drive from a hill to a landing area backed by a canyon bed, you need to run your ball just short of the hazard, then crunch your second shot over an abyss and up to the fairway and green beyond.

The par-72 Foothills track has plenty of elevated tees as well, although the landing areas are generally narrower than those on Canyons. At 6,500 yards from the back tees, it is a shorter course with smaller greens, so accuracy, not distance, is the name of the game. In particular, you have to hit the ball consistently straight.

"This must be the best hole in all of Texas," said one of my playing partners as he surveyed the view from the 16th tee down to a generous landing area. If you smack a decent drive, you are left with a short iron to a fairly narrow green that is guarded by a creek and a small waterfall. There is no place to bail out, and no choice but to hit a good shot onto the green.

Modeled after the classic Redan hole of North Berwick in Scotland, the 191-yard par-three 17th requires a high, long-iron draw onto a green that slopes slightly from right to left. The ninth is a picturesque but challenging par three that President George W. Bush once described as his favorite hole anywhere. Even he, however, has surely lost his share of golf balls in the water hazard in front of the green.

Fazio Foothills, which has hosted a number of U.S. Senior Tour events, is in first-rate condition after a massive renovation project in 2001. All the bunkers were reconstructed, and the grasses on all greens were converted to a better variety of Bermuda known as Tif-Eagle. Next fall the course will be the site of the U.S. Golf Association's Senior Women's Amateur championship. The two Fazio tracks are almost natural extensions of one another. Playing both in the same day provides a wonderful dose of some of the game's best architecture without ever making you feel like you're watching reruns.

Although Canyons and Foothills get the bulk of the attention at Barton Creek, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss the other two courses. Crenshaw Cliffside, which was designed by Austin native son and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and his partner, Bill Coore, has large greens and fairways and a pleasing linksy feel. The premium there is on putting—which was, of course, Crenshaw's strong suit during his heyday on the PGA Tour. Because the greens undulate significantly, it is crucial that you position your approach shots properly.

Shortly after ClubCorp built the Crenshaw track, in 1991, they purchased a failing country club with an Arnold Palmer course (a short drive away, and just past the nine-hole public layout that singer Willie Nelson owns and operates on the Pedernales River). Now called Palmer Lakeside, it has one of the most dramatic opening drives in golf, thanks to a tee that stands at least 100 feet above the fairway of the first hole. The par-three 11th is also breathtaking, requiring a long iron across a pond to a vast green with a stream along the left side and a huge limestone waterfall in the background. The next par three, number 14, starts on a cliffside tee overlooking Lake Travis several hundred feet below. In the distance, the two-tiered green has nothing but drop on the left. There are also plenty of adventurous par fours with spacious fairways and receptive greens.

"You can hit your driver all the time and not get in too much trouble," says Byron, a local with whom I teed up one morning. "And you know how we all love to hit the Big Dog."

Creek Comforts

Home on the Range At Barton Creek, ask for one of the 1,200-square-foot FAIRWAY SUITES, which are done in muted earth tones and feature supple leather armchairs. They also have private balconies with sweeping views of the surrounding Hill Country. At 2,200 square feet, the Ben Crenshaw Suites are the largest. Rooms, $280-$1,550.

Rib Eye Rare
The HILL COUNTRY DINING ROOM serves (not surprisingly) neo-Southwestern fare. My own recommendation would be to opt for the charbroiled venison chop with roasted honey-glazed sweet potatoes and sun-dried blueberries or the filet mignon with caramelized-shallot butter. Dinner, $100. The wine list offers 150 well-chosen labels.

Après Golf
After a round, unwind at the SPA with a Moor mud body mask, a French seaweed treatment, or even a caviar facial.

Greens fees are $198 for Fazio Foothills or Canyons; $128 for Crenshaw Cliffside or Palmer Lakeside. At 8212 Barton Club Drive; 800-336-6158 or 512-329-4000;

John Steinbreder wrote about Kingsbarns, the new Scottish course, in the October issue of Departures.