When the popular Bluebonnet Hill Golf Course on Austin's east side closed at the end of 2019 for redevelopment, it was a shocking and huge blow to public golf in Austin.
And little did we know at the time how big of a deal the closure would become. A few months later, COVID-19 hit and then golf rounds surged. The "oversupply" narrative of golf in the market had officially shifted to a balanced - or dare I say, under-supplied? - state.
Bordering the Texas Hill Country, The state's capital city is an exceptional golf town that carries a laidback and friendly vibe thanks to its bohemian roots and more directly because of Harvey Penick, whose gentlemanly Texas stoicism helped to permeate through all the golfers he touched over his long tenure at Austin Country Club. I've never visited a "stuffy" golf course, public or private. The fact the munis allow dogs on a leash always turns visitors' heads, but it's just part of the low-key culture here.
I've lived in Austin since 2008 so I'm starting to feel a little bit like a local, bemoaning the loss of old haunts that have given way to high-rise condos (RIP Lustre Pearl!). The golf scene in 2021 certainly feels different than it did back then as we were in the throws of the economic downturn. Some courses have since closed. Homegrown Golfsmith is gone. And now, private clubs are booming and you need to have your finger on your mouse at the ready to land the good weekend tee times. Former mostly-privates River Place and Onion Creek, which once offered some public play during the week, have gone fully private following their recent purchase by Arcis Golf.
But with growth comes opportunity and I'll remain optimistic for the future. Downtown's casual Butler Park Pitch & Putt reopens in April with new management and energy, and we cling to hope that our beloved local Ben Crenshaw can work the miracle that is truly saving the Lions Muny from development. A new private club by Discovery Land Company, Driftwood, will open this fall. While past proposals for a new golf course and metropark at Lake Walter E. Long were tabled a few years ago, it's an exciting proposal that, as more residents come, will be critical to ensure recreation opportunities on the east side.
I play the vast majority of my golf at Austin public courses, save for the occasional invite to a private club. I'd like to share my Top 10 list of resort/public area courses for any golf groups visiting, whether it's for a bachelor/bachelorette party, SXSW, ACL Fest, or possibly a Texas Longhorns game - and, as of 2021, the MLS expansion team, Austin FC.
GolfPass members, you can check out my 5-day Ultimate Itinerary to Austin video and tips.
Here's the ultimate Texas Hill Country Resort Course: Fazio Foothills, where the architect gives the tourist what they want: elevated tee shots, Hill Country scenery and waterfalls galore. It's older than Fazio Canyons and homes play a little closer to the fairways in a couple spots, but the shot variety is a little better and the routing has more interest, at times playing along high ground overlooking the namesake creek. The par 5s are a strength, especially the gutsy shots into the narrow 8th and 14th greens. And before you think Fazio is resort-friendly all the time, play the 18th, which has a severely elevated green and a small cave that gobbles up mishits. Recent renovation and tree management as part of Omni Barton Creek's extensive expansion helped elevate this showy layout back to the top. (Green fees: $185-285)
*Resort stay required
Honorable Mentions: three fun golf courses an hour from Austin
There are a few courses outside of town that are a little too far away to really call "Austin golf courses," but they're within a 60-75 minutes drive and are unique enough that I try and make the trip on occasion.
Delaware Springs Golf Course: Northwest of the city in Burnet, this friendly muni is one of the best in Texas for the combination of value, conditions and course design. The duo of Axland & Proctor laid out a very fun routing in gentle but scenic land near Inks Lake. The only thing I don't like is it's a little too spread out to walk comfortably, in contrast to my next pick. | My full course review from 2013
Landa Park Golf Course: An old muni jewel of New Braunfels, I like this loop more than the newer and flashier (and pricier) Bandit nearby. Set right in the historic town, the course winds along the Comal River, passes over railroad tracks and around the city park and is also bordered by Schlitterbahn. It's just 6,200 yards but a recent renovation by the Finger-Dye-Spann team made the green complexes very interesting (playing here makes me salivate over what Lions would be like with rebuilt greens). If you play Landa in the summertime, be sure to pack your swim trunks and go to either Schlitterbahn or the spring-fed pool next door. Visiting in the fall? Plan your tee time around Wurstfest.
Horseshoe Bay Resort: An hour west of Austin on Highway 71, this resort is set along the shores of Lake LBJ and features three Robert Trent Jones Sr. championship courses, led by my favorite, Apple Rock (though Ram Rock is usually rated higher). In 2021, Horseshoe Bay is finally ready to open their brand new Cap Rock clubhouse. This is an ideal resort stay for families and the Yacht Club on the shores of Lake LBJ is a fantastic summer-day hang for everyone.
More Austin-area golf sleeper picks
Still reading? Why stop now!? Here are a few others worth seeing:
Mustang Creek Golf Course: If your group is seeking "Keep Austin Weird" vibes, here's a proposal: 9-hole Mustang Creek in Taylor. It's an unlikely spot for one of the oldest courses in central Texas, dating back over 100 years. It feels a lot like a remote, unknown Scottish heathland you might uncover by accident. It's a rural place that is minimally maintained with small greens but has an interesting layout. (It's not far from Star Ranch if you're looking for a PM round).
Riverside Golf Course: On the east side, Riverside was the second home of Austin Country Club from 1950-84. This Perry Maxwell design has since lost most of its shine and has been altered due to development of Austin Community College, which now owns and operates the course. Nevertheless, it's an affordable, convenient play with its share of moments. Nos. 8, 14 and 15 are three of the strongest long par 4s in town, while the stretch from 11-13, back-to-back par 5s followed by a drivable par 4, is a hoot.
Lakecliff Country Club: West of town near the exclusive Austin Golf Club, Lakecliff has rare bentgrass greens to go with an Arnold Palmer design. It used to be a private club, and for a year Austin Country Club members had an option on the property and considered adding it to their portfolio, but it's since settled into a semi-private course that posts times to TeeOff.com. It's also a little lesser known, so if you're looking for tee times last-minute on a busy weekend be sure to look it up. Green fees are ramping up to a $140 peak, which is surprising.
I can't end an article about Austin golf without mentioning Willie Nelson's Pedernales Cut & Putt. Willie owns this 9-holer west of town near Lake Travis. Golf doesn't get any more casual than here. There are basically no rules, and apparently on Saturdays, a group of 20+ locals play in a group, and if you happen to be behind them, too bad. When I was there a couple summers ago the irrigation (original to the 1970s build) was on the fritz and conditions were a little iffy. It's hard for me to recommend the 45- minute drive from the city solely to play golf here. But if you're also going to Pace Bend State Park or some other landmark out this way and will be in the neighborhood with some curiosity and time to kill, it's a fun couple hours. Good news for Willie fans is there's plenty of merch in the clubhouse.
By now I have played most of the private clubs around town. Here's how I'd rank the top ones: Austin Golf Club >> Austin Country Club >> UT Golf Club (the new Short Course gives it a great edge) >> Spanish Oaks >> Hills Course at the Clubs of Lakeway.Texas golf packagesFROM $197 (USD)SAN ANTONIO, TX | Enjoy 2 nights' accommodations at La Cantera Resort & Spa and 2 rounds of golf at La Cantera Resort - Palmer Course and La Cantera Resort - Resort Course.FROM $247 (USD)AUSTIN, TX | Enjoy a minimum of 1 nights' accommodation at Horseshoe Bay Resort and 1 round of golf on your choice of either the Apple Rock, Ram Rock, or Slick Rock Courses.
Wolfdancer Golf Club, one of Texas' best resort courses
Wolfdancer is the best public course in the market you can play without a resort stay by a pretty significant margin. It may be located at a family-oriented resort, the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines, but the course itself, one of Arthur Hills' best, is a players course all the way. Few approach shots are straightforward, and the apporach into the long par-4 2nd, with a creek and elevated green, takes no prisoners. The par-3 6th hole has an infamous, four-putt-inducing green. For the average golfer, the main appeal to Wolfdancer is the expansive natural terrain. It's a homes-free, sprawling site on gorgeous Texas topography with a mix of high prairie ground, tumbling ridgeline holes and finally a closing stretch that plays along the Colorado River. Outside of Black Jack's Crossing, I haven't set foot on a more naturally awe-striking golf setting in the state. (Green fees: $89-160)| My Full Course Review
You're in Austin, you need to play a Crenshaw design (and his other local works, Austin Golf Club, and nine holes at Onion Creek, are fully private). Crenshaw-Cliffside is one of Coore-Crenshaw's earlier works and was recently renovated. Cliffside's shaping and routing feels totally different than the two Fazio designs at the resort. The greens are a show-stopper: huge and gentle but tricky to read. A drivable par 4 and delicate par 3 bookend back-to-back par 5s on Nos. 15 & 16 for great excitement. As the C&C firm is known for, their layout brings about as classic of a routing to a very severe piece of Hill Country terrain as humanely possible, and it's even walkable, not to mention $60 cheaper than the two Fazio courses at the resort. (Green fees: $145-225)
*Resort Stay Required
The newest of the Barton Creek courses, Fazio Canyons is also the most exclusive-feeling, located about a mile away from the main resort. It is very much a Fazio member-pleaser with big fairways and greens and just about everything right in front of you. Creeks and rock outcroppings wind through the layout, and there are a handful of sharply elevated greens. The front is pleasant but the back nine ramps up with more elevation change. The 18th hole is a par 5 that goes straight downhill and two new Austin skyscrapers frame the horizon. Even though ratings panels tend to put this first among the four Barton Creek courses, that's probably more a result of its exclusive ambiance than the actual variety and thrill of golf holes, so I've got it third at the resort. (Green fees: $165-285)
*Resort stay required
Of all the public/semi-private golf courses on the perimeter of town, Star Ranch is typically the favorite of the bunch thanks to a fun, but not excessively penal course design by Roy Bechtol and Carter Morrish, and a residential component that is generally less intrusive than some other north suburb neighbors. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the club had an immensely popular "all inclusive" rate that included range balls, lunch and space-available replays. For now, they offer a $22 replay (space available). (Green fees: $52-74)
West of town near Lake Travis is the city of Lakeway, which is a big golf town thanks to the Clubs of Lakeway's 72-hole private club. Falconhead is the local public course here and, opened in 2003 and designed by PGA Tour Design, a challenging one that is kept in upscale shape. The man-made, hovering 8th hole green is an eye-catcher, as are the bizarre, rectangular grass formation in a few of the bunkers. But it's a rolling piece of land with some exciting shots and nice scenery. | Full Course Review from 2012 ($75-89)
The newest course in the metro area (until the private Driftwood course debuts in Spicewood), Kissing Tree is located in San Marcos, another college town, about 35 minutes south of downtown on I-35. It's part of a brand new 55 & up community but the golf course, managed by Troon, can be played by anyone. You should do it, because it's buckets of fun with three short par 4s and some very scenic holes, especially on the back nine. Scratch golfers may balk at the back-tee yardage of under 6,600 yards, but for the vast majority of us Kissing Tree is plenty of golf with some fun birdie holes. (Green fees: $80-89)| Full review: the new Kissing Tree Golf Club
If you're here in the summer, combine 18 holes in the morning followed by some toobing on the river (my favorite drop-in point is at Don's Fish Camp).
I go back and forth between which is the best all-around muni: Jimmy Clay or Morris Williams. Ultimately, while Mo Willy might have some stronger holes, its perennially inconsistent conditions make it difficult for me to give a full-throated endorsement to visitors. Instead, I'll direct them to Jimmy Clay. This quiet parkland course dating back to the 1960s borders the McKinney Falls State Park and to me the layout has the ideal amount of trees and roll to the land. It received new greens a few years ago and as of the spring of 2021 also has new irrigation. The par 5s are a highlight, capped by the 16th, which is a beautiful risk-reward hole with a tee shot up and over a little crest. As you stroll over it, you see a small green guarded by a pond short and a tree right. You'd be wise to go for birdie here, because the 18th, narrow with ponds and trees, is the scariest finish in town. It's a very pleasant walking course and I prefer it to the tree-less Roy Kizer next door (Green fees: $28-35) | Review: Golf at Clay-Kizer, Austin's Mega-Muni
There isn't much actual "ranch" land these days in the emerging tech corridor northwest of Austin. But Avery Ranch, a semi-private facility in a huge residential development, has some natural scenery thanks to the adjacent Brushy Creek Trail. The layout has five par 3s and five par 5s, respectively, adding to the birdie opportunities, and has an exciting and scenic finishing hole playing along Lake Avery. (Green fees: $65-85) | Full review from 2012
I play here more than any Austin course. There are better all-around courses and yes, it is several decades overdue for a face lift. But the story of Austin golf runs straight through Lions, and there isn't a more charming place to play. When it opened to the public in 1924, it made the sand-green, funky layout at Austin Country Club primitive by comparison. It's the first desegregated golf course in the south and a place that inspired the usually quiet Ben Hogan to put on a comedy act (there's a detailed account of this in Kevin Robbins' bio on Harvey Penick). The course would later be a place where local studs Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite would cut their teeth locally. Today's townie sticks duke it out in the legendary annual Firecracker event. The layout is just 6,000 yards and full of awesome oak trees, doglegging fairways and tricky greens (everything breaks towards the lake). It rewards those who can shape it both ways or punch out boldly. It's always busy but pace has improved since they implemented 10-minute tee time intervals and eliminated fivesomes due to Covid-19. If Crenshaw's renovation plan is seen though, Lions is poised to become one of the most coveted muni rounds in the country and will vault up this list.
It's also very conveniently located if you're staying downtown and anchors a very fun day on the west side combined with Deep Eddy Pool and some neighborhood bars and restaurants. I hope you can at least find time for a twilight round here. (Green fees: $28-35)| Lions anchors a day well spent on Austin's west side