Springtime in Austin is typically a festive time. The most festive, actually, thanks to SXSW and, since 2016, the WGC Dell Match Play. It's a wonderful time of year in Central Texas, especially when the bluebonnets pop along the highways and hillsides.
The spring of 2020, of course, was anything but. SXSW was canceled and the Dell Match Play and all of the live music and events locals and tourists love. One of the country's hottest tourist destinations was shut down. COVID-19 affected Austin's golf courses, especially the City of Austin's municipal facilities, which were ordered to close twice, once in the spring and once in the summer, for a total of about two months.
This spring feels different. Optimism is in the area as COVID-19 case counts drop and vaccines roll out. As for golf, over the last year, the local scene has done anything but hunker down. Rounds played are up, private clubs are slammed, and there are more golf holes opening in 2021 - something well-needed given the game's resurgence in this boomtown. Here's what's been happening in town since the golf world was here last:
Butler Park Pitch 'n Putt reopening in April
One of Austin's oldest golf courses is one of its smallest: Butler Park Pitch 'n Putt. And as of 2021, this little 9-hole urban jewel beside Lady Bird Lake is set to return with new management and a fresh look. Scheduled to reopen the week of the Masters following about a year under the knife, a new management group backed by considerable local golf and entertainment concept brainpower has invested $1 million into the 7-acre property. These improvements include new irrigation and drainage, as well as new Trinity Zoysia-turf greens shaped by Dan Proctor (who has considerable experience on the bulldozer for Coore & Crenshaw and also has his own designs with partner Dan Axland). Those who return to Butler Park will also notice a lot of brush clearing and tree management, which not only opens up the property but provides more airflow for turf conditions.
Ambitious programming and F&B is planned (including local chef Michael Fojtasek's renowned biscuits made popular at nearby Olamaie restaurant - and highly endorsed from your correspondent), but expect the legendary casual and welcoming vibe to remain, as well as the low green fees ($10-12) and clubhouse walls full of those thousands of patrons who have made an ace here throughout the years. In fact, the newly renovated course just yielded its first one:
Brand new Austin private club targets fall debut
No new golf clubs have opened in the Austin area since prior to the 2008 economic downturn (unless you count Kissing Tree Golf Club, located 30 miles south in San Marcos in a new 55& up community). That's changing in a big way as of this fall when Discovery Land Co. opens up Driftwood, a private club and residential community south of town near the famous Salt Lick BBQ restaurant. As of this spring, 11 holes of the Tom Fazio design are sodded and the driving range and short game park is complete. Private clubs are humming with member play right now and a demand for more memberships in the area is very real. Real estate is also hot in Austin, and this high-end property reports 25 new homes currently in design review.
Future of Austin's oldest golf course debated
Just about a week before COVID-19 shut down Austin last March, the city's Parks & Recs department held a meeting about the muncipal, 9-hole Hancock Golf Course. They reported that the course was losing money despite recent renovations, and had been instructed by the city to find a way to make sure the property is not a drain on the golf enterprise fund, or else other alternatives for the land or an outside management company might need to be considered.
But a funny thing has happened since then: golfers are playing Hancock at a considerable clip. Rounds are up 82% year-over-year from September 2020 thru January 2021 and revenue is on track to be well into the green in 2021. A local group is calling for the 45 acres to be transformed into general parkland, something the city estimated would cost roughly $200,000 to upkeep annually, far greater than any recent annual shortfall as a golf course. The group has about 3,400 signatures calling to transform it into parkland, paltry in comparison to the roughly 20,000 annual rounds played here.
Despite the fact that golf carts have not been allowed at Hancock since COVID-19 hit and the pro shop remains closed (all golfers pay at a paystation at the first tee), the facility is thriving in its current state. The city has sent out several surveys to residents over the past year and held meetings with neighborhood leaders, and the majority of respondents have indicated a desire for the property to remain a golf course (though many have said they are not interested in the NGF's recent proposal to reconfigure the property to include a practice center with a driving range).
The Parks Department is scheduled to present to City Council this summer at which point the council will possibly vote or provide guidance on Hancock's future. For now, it looks like a fortuitous time for Hancock, established in 1899 as the original Austin Country Club, to see a huge surge in popularity from local golfers.
The latest on "Save Muny"
Perpetually endangered and historic Lions municipal golf course continues to endure in Austin on a month-to-month lease from the landholders, the University of Texas. Negotiations are ongoing between the university, the Save Muny Conservancy and the City of Austin. One item coming in the near term is the goal to extend the Save Muny Historic District another two years - that was a district created with the help of State Senator Kirk Watson the last time the Texas session met in 2019. Its renewal could help provide more time for the ongoing negotiations between the parties.
Rounds at Lions are up 24% from Sept 2020 thru January 2021 - pretty impressive considering the course is already one of the state's busiest. 9-hole and evening golf is popular and junior golf programs and rounds are surging here, and there is a project to create more hitting bays at the small driving range. Part of the renovation plan put forward by Ben Crenshaw several years ago calls for expanding the driving range into an extensive practice facility.
The Muny Conservancy continues to raise money through grants and private donations, and those with a love of historic, municipal golf are encouraged to make a donation. Donations of $100 or more will score you a Save Muny lid. $500 or more gets you even more swag. Donation details here.
Morris Williams receives new restaurant, practice green
There's been a lot of focus on Hancock and Lions amongst the munis, but municipal Morris Williams Golf Course, located just east of the University of Texas, has enjoyed some incremental improvements over the past year. Golfers may have noticed an enlarged practice green at the end of 2020. That's not all. They've raised the nets on the driving range in order to allow drivers once again (it had been irons-only for several years after too many balls were getting beyond the range). There are also plans for two more practice greens in the works in 2021.
Inside the clubhouse, there is a new F&B vendor: Fairways Cantina. Formerly a pretty basic grill, it now has mixed drinks and a Mexican-inspired menu with indoor and outdoor seating.