Swingin' Through San Antonio
When I was a teenager growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif., I found myself playing a round of golf with one half of the Smothers Brothers. Tommy, or Yo-Yo Man, barely spoke when he was on stage. But after he topped a drive that day, he said, "I'm going to write a golf book: The 99 Things To Remember at the Point of Impact." We've all been there. I certainly was at the end of this summer and considered reading a how-to book on yo-yos, but then I had a swing thought: Go to San Antonio instead. Home of the Texas Open since 1922, the seventh-largest city in the United States (1.4 million) has a big military population and a reputation for being conservative. It's also known for being left of liberal with birdies.
Two of the tour's three lowest 72-hole scoring marks have been set at the Texas Open (Mike Souchak shot 257 in 1955, and Tommy Armour III shot 254 in 2003).
But all of that has changed. This year the Valero Texas Open moved from the Resort course at La Cantera (where it had been played since 1995) to the Greg Norman-designed Oaks course at the new TPC San Antonio. Adam Scott won with a 72-hole total of 274, 20 shots off Armour's record.
The Oaks is a spacious layout with receptive fairways, but it's a long way from easy if you play the 7,435-yard back tees. Even if you don't, you still have to contend with intimidating rough, scowling bunkers with jagged edges, undulating greens and a variety of hole locations. Then there's the bunker in the middle of the green on the 154-yard 16th. (Fortunately for me, I wasn't hitting it straight enough for the bunker to come into play.)
The Slope Rating from the tips is 148, four more than the back tees at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, a Pete Dye design that is No. 1 in Golf Digest's ranking of America's 50 Toughest Golf Courses.
Which is why it was critical that Dye dulled his knife before cutting Canyons, the other course at TPC San Antonio. Neighboring a 700-acre nature preserve, this user-friendly resort course is the perfect complement to the tour-caliber Oaks. There are a few straightforward holes early in the round -- some might call them boring -- but it gets interesting for any level of golfer on the last four holes. It's not often that a struggling swing looks to a Dye design for relief, but you can at the Canyons.
TPC San Antonio is private, meaning that you have to stay at the resort to play the courses ($175 for each). Finding accommodations shouldn't be a problem. With 1,002 rooms ($300 a night), it's the biggest JW Marriott in the world, visible from almost every hole of both courses. Only 13 miles from the airport and 15 miles from downtown, it's like a city tucked into 2,800 acres of the Texas Hill Country.
Not only is there a Starbucks and a FedEx station in the lobby, there are a variety of boutique shops, a 26,000-square-foot spa, a six-acre water park with four slides and a 1,100-foot-long lazy river that is heated and open all year. There are seven dining options, including a sports bar with a 40-yard flatscreen TV. My best meal was at 18 Oaks, which serves a Texas-size steak and is conveniently next to the clubhouse. Apart from excursions to off-site courses, the only time I used my rental car was to visit downtown San Antonio for a foot tour of its famous River Walk shopping district (see Local Knowledge).
I also played Brackenridge Park and the Palmer course at La Cantera. Both were within 20 minutes of the TPC and worth the ride. Like the Oaks, the Palmer course is tough (142 Slope), and it has blind shots, severe elevation changes and potentially unfair downhill lies, especially on the 490-yard 18th that finishes with a green protected by sand and water. But I like the course and would play it again. (Rates from Nov. 8 through Dec. 31 are $89 during the week and $99 on weekends.)