As the world's best come to Austin Country Club for the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Brandon Tucker ponders the fate of the club's original site that dates back to 1899.
AUSTIN, Texas — I've played golf at over 600-plus courses in over two dozen countries, but I don't have to travel very far to play one of the worst holes I've ever seen.
I just have to head less than a mile from my home to what's left of the original Austin Country Club and play the par-4 9th at Hancock Golf Course.
Despite playing just 249 yards, it's a semi-blind, uphill tee shot that doglegs gently left to a green located steps from the access road and sits below a cluster of low-hanging power lines. The best play off the tee is to aim right of the fairway that funnels into the maintenance shed and hit about a 225-yard shot at the practice putting green. If someone is actually practicing there, Plan B is to lay up to the top of the hill, leaving an awkward half-wedge into a very shallow green.
This mess of a hole might best explain in part why 9-hole Hancock, despite being the smallest of Austin's municipal golf facilities, is the greatest drain on the city's golf enterprise budget. Based on a 2016 City of Austin briefing, Hancock loses the most money (close to $70,000 in 2016), while the rest of the courses hover around the break-even point.
Founded in 1899 as the original Austin Country Club, the state of today's layout is a lackluster combination of a short course but one that isn't all that easy or fun to play. I've taken novice players out there and watched them struggle. There are forced carries, blind shots, overhanging trees and shrunken, sloping and elevated greens. When the ground is baked out in the summer, mishit balls tend to roll out until they settle under a tree or in Waller Creek. Avid players bemoan the slow greens and outdated design.
A square, 45-acre parcel surrounded by a neighborhood, the course on occasion becomes a makeshift general park. Pedestrians walk along cart paths or cut through the middle of the property to get to Hyde Park or the Hancock Center. A neighbor lets their chickens onto the 7th hole in the evenings. Other neighbors play fetch with their dog in the fairway while oblivious to golfers. Joggers on the path that encircles the property sneak up on golfers playing from the elevated 6th tee box.
Hancock simultaneously embodies where golf needs to move towards in the 21st century: a small footprint, relaxed vibe and a multi-functional recreational space, but whose primitive bones prevent it from being widely appealing. Across the country, municipalities are facing decisions to either close or modernize their old courses. Sooner or later, Hancock will have to go one way or the other.
Truly making the place relevant and fun again for golf may prove to be a complicated endeavor.
In boomtown Austin, where central real estate is in high demand, developers and YIMBYs advocate paving over Hancock (or just about any place) for mixed-use development. The back nine of the course was given over to development decades ago, shortly after the club turned the property over the city. Today that land is a strip mall anchored by a bustling H.E.B. and a failing Sears. (The country club's second home from 1950-1984, public Riverside Golf Course, is owned by Austin Community College.)
Revive Hancock or Save Muny?
It's impossible to talk about the future of Hancock without considering the whole of Austin's golf scene and in particular the cloudy future of its most beloved course, Lions Municipal. It opened in 1924 on land deeded to U.T. and quickly lapped the private club. Hancock, not Lions, is the closest golf course to U.T. campus, which is notable, because U.T. is a rare, major public university with no golf course of its own accessible to students or faculty or alums (U.T. Golf Club is private and well west of town). During the Kite-Crenshaw years, the Longhorns played at the new Morris Williams just east of town by the old airport.
Lions is another course that is a few decades overdue for a facelift. But it's not wise to renovate a course that might not be around soon, and its future has been uncertain for awhile. Local legend and designer Ben Crenshaw has presented a plan that would restore this course magnificently to a level that would make it a true "destination muni." Its ceiling is higher than the historic and revamped Brackenridge Park in San Antonio. Local activists continue their efforts to save this historic and beloved parkland that was the first desegregated course in the south. But the university, despite reportedly engaging in talks with city leaders, hasn't expressed any public desire to do so.
Lions is nevertheless one of the busiest courses in the state, whose immense charm covers its warts. The land gently slope towards Lady Bird Lake and is full of live oaks. It's a captivating at just 6,000 yards and requires shaping the ball in both directions, a @ClubProGuy-caliber punch-out and savvy short game. Visitors or locals can play golf in the morning, head to a nearby watering hole after like Maudie's or Hula Hut, then bathe in the historic Deep Eddy watering hole in the afternoon.
Purely from a townie golfer's perspective, to lose Hancock would be a shame. But to lose Lions would be a travesty.
The City of Austin has invested in its golf product in recent years despite an enterprise fund that by the city's 2016 calculations is close to $2 million in the hole. They put over a half-million dollars into Hancock in 2012 on irrigation that included a switch to reclaimed water. "Mo Willy" received a renovation in 2013 that included a new clubhouse, regrading some fairways, and enlarged greens to accommodate all the foot traffic. In a curious move, the city purchased Grey Rock Golf Club in 2014, a semi-private Jay Morrish design within the Circle C residential development in southwest Austin. The Clay-Kizer super-muni facility also renovated and expanded the driving range and built a new restaurant and Jimmy Clay has the best greens of the bunch these days.
The most recent update at Hancock was the installation of a pay station. The course is now walking-only from Monday-Thursday for $15.
The city courses have by no means been neglected. But in the case of Hancock, nothing has succeeded.
Some potential outcomes for Hancock
My hopes for Hancock hinge on whether the city and and U.T. can come to a long-term agreement on Lions and if Crenshaw is permitted to work his magic in an extensive renovation there.
If Lions is ultimately saved, it might make sense to renovate the Hancock clubhouse and convert the golf course into general parkland and divert the resources to the remaining five golf facilities — all of which are in different parts of town and have products that are quite solid.
But if Lions were to vanish when the lease expires in 2019, Hancock's pinched routing might be best served with a total re-imagination as a junior and beginner-first facility, and let the better players go to Mo Willy and Clay-Kizer. Hancock's modest acreage can barely contain the present-day 2,600 yards. Reducing the yardage to closer to a par-30 layout in order to create interesting holes with larger greens, no steeply uphill or blind shots, few, if any forced carries and a better short-game area should be the goal. There is a relatively large piece of usable land right next to the clubhouse that I've only seen used to store materials like piles of sand or piping.
There is so much golf brainpower in Central Texas (From Crenshaw and Kite to short game guru Dave Pelz to local and regional golf course architects), that it would be easy for the parks department to receive an expert's pro bono input on how to re-engineer the grounds and possibly save some room for more multi-purpose recreation opportunities (at present, there is an outdoor basketball court, small soccer field and an events clubhouse that hosts yoga nights and more). It would be wise to examine the Winter Park renovation, in particular.
Another intriguing option is that across the street, the historic Perry Estate was acquired by Auberge Resorts in 2017 and will transform into a luxury boutique hotel. Would they be willing to invest in the park on behalf of their guests?
Meanwhile, at Riverside Golf Course, there's pro shop chatter about Crenshaw lending his services to restore the Perry Maxwell design to its former glory. The routing has been changed a bit over the years to accommodate the growing community college campus, but there are still some excellent holes out there.
Any movement however seem to be on the back-burner while the city holds its collective breath over the fate of Lions. Hopefully there is enough patience at city hall to buy more time for little Hancock. Every few years, property developers kick the tires on the city's appetite for development on these prime acres. One year, sentiments on the dais may change.
That's the bittersweet reality of being a public golfer in Austin right now. So much tradition and readily available brainpower in golf, and yet not enough community will thus far to truly #SaveMuny, revamp Riverside, or salvage what's left of Hancock into a beneficial and more importantly, self-sustaining muni facility.
For now, all Austinite golfers can do is enjoy them in their imperfect states, ponder the possibilities and hope time doesn't run out.