The Best Little Muny In Texas

December 22, 2013

LEFT TO RIGHT: Dustin New, Scott Anderson and Evan Zickgraf; sign near the entrance; Randy Kelly and son Trace.

If you're thinking about moving to maximize your year-round access to golf, you could do worse than study a map of the nation's air bases. The reason isn't that pilots play more golf than other people; the reason is that Air Force facilities tend to be concentrated in places that are relatively free of the kind of weather that keeps fliers on the ground—which happens to be the kind of weather that keeps golfers indoors. By that metric, the most golf-friendly micro-climate in the United States just might be in and around San Antonio, where thousands of new airmen and airwomen are trained each year.

At least, that's the theory of Scott Anderson, a 38-year-old information-technology consultant, whose wife is a major in the Air Force Reserve. She spent five months in Afghanistan, and, during her deployment, their Skype conversations were sometimes broken off by explosions. "I hate this role reversal," he told me. "She'd be under attack somewhere, and I'd be home, hand-washing the dog bed."

I met Anderson on the first tee at Brackenridge Park Golf Course

, a few minutes from downtown San Antonio and roughly midway between Lackland and Randolph Air Force bases. Old Brack—as regulars refer to it—opened in 1916 and was the first municipal course in Texas. It was designed by A.W. Tillinghast and built partly with convict labor, and for many years it was the home of the Texas Open. The clubhouse was built in 1923, after the original clubhouse burned down; it does extra duty as the Texas Golf Hall of Fame & Museum.

Anderson told me he took up golf because he figured it would be a good way to meet people, especially while following his wife through her military career. (She might be headed to Germany.) His playing companions that day were Dustin New, 26, an accomplished bowler and former assistant golf-course superintendent, who works as a landscaper; Evan Zickgraf, 33, an aircraft engineer; and me. Zickgraf is a Level I member of a city-run program called the Alamo City Golf Trail, and is entitled to discounts at Old Brack and to free rounds at five slightly less prestigious San Antonio munys. (Memberships range from $59.95 to $2,200—all bargains.)

Old Brack wasn't a long course even when Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead won the Texas Open there. A couple of holes were shortened further in the late 1960s, when a freeway lopped off the southern end of the second nine. (You can still make out an abandoned green location on the far side of the roadway, if you know which trees to look for.) In 2008, the city spent $4.5 million on an upgrade of both nines. The course today is 6,200 yards from the longest tees—about the same as in Tillinghast's plan—and 5,800 yards from the regular men's tees. In theory, that's short for a modern course, though in practice I'd say it's just right. During four rounds there, I played with golfers whose ages ranged from 15 to 75, and whose handicaps ranged from scratch to incalculable. We all found plenty of challenges—a mark of a good course.

On the 13th hole, Anderson, New, Zickgraf and I were joined by Stephen Escobedo, a teaching professional I'd met the day before. His father, Marshall, caddied on what's now the Champions Tour, and when Stephen was 3 or 4 the local newspaper took a photo of him on the Old Brack practice green, pretending to smoke a corncob pipe. Stephen played baseball in college. He took up golf in a serious way during a five-year stint in the Marine Corps, and he liked the game so much that he decided to build his post-military existence around it. Today, in addition to giving lessons and working in the golf shop, he coaches the golf team at St. Anthony's Catholic middle school. "My VFW chapter just gave the team $1,000, which we're going to spend on golf bags," he said. "Those will be the first team bags they've had."

Stephen and Marshall are both members of the Pan American Golf Association, a predominantly Latino group that was founded in San Antonio in 1947 and now has 44 chapters in nine states. The organization's national archives and Hall of Fame are next door to the golf course, in a building that also serves as both a clubhouse and a public bar. Marshall and a large group of his golf buddies were there having a post-round beer when I stopped by, late on Saturday afternoon. They play most of their rounds at Old Brack, although they occasionally take field trips. "There's a course they sometimes play that's 30 miles away from here," Stephen told me. "But even when they travel, they always come back to their own clubhouse to do the scorecards."