SAN MARCOS, Texas -- As first impressions go, the new senior community of Kissing Tree in San Marcos, Texas, makes a memorable one. Once you pass the guard gate to the welcome center and golf course, it's immediately evident that this isn't your usual retirement community.
It has a fresh, colorful vibe that doesn't suggest that these are your sunset years, but maybe merely just a new chapter to your life. The welcome center has a bar, pool tables, video games and jukebox. Outside, there are horseshoe pits, bocce, a putting course, and dedicated courts for pickleball, which may be the fastest growing sport in America.
There's also a food truck, in case you're looking for something a little more adventurous to go with the craft beer they sell at the bar. And then there's the new Kissing Tree Golf Club, a Gary Stephenson design that wasn't built for the 1 percent who can play U.S. Open courses, but for golfers young and old, scratch to 36 handicappers. Although it's just less than 6,600 yards from the back tees, the golf course, which is operated and maintained by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Troon, isn't a pushover. Going low will require golf skills, but to get around and have fun, you just need a set of clubs.
This isn't your sleepy retirement community; that's for sure. Kissing Tree, developed by Calgary, Canada-based Brookfield Residential, is located across the highway from the largest outlet mall in Texas, smack-dab in the middle of the fast-growing Austin-San Antonio corridor.
Kissing Tree is meant for the last half of the Baby Boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) and the next generation of seniors, which will be eligible to live at this 1,332-acre development in less than two years that is just starting to get built out. For the most part, the residents here are buying two-bedroom patio and ranch style homes that run between $280,000 and $311,000. They gravitate toward yoga and healthy eating, spend more time outdoors than indoors and probably know how to operate a smartphone almost as well as their grandchildren. They are comfortable around folks of all ages, including the 30,000 students at nearby Texas State University, and have no problem floating down the San Marcos River on an inner tube if the weather is warm and the mood strikes them. At Kissing Tree, they also have the entire Texas Hill Country as their backyard playground.
Brookfield officials say the homes are "custom-built with a Texas attitude... making the most of its Hill Country location and view." It refers to its community as lifestyle for those "55 and better," not 55 and older. And that area where you'll find the pickleball courts, bocce, bar, pool tables, hiking trails, etc., is known as "The Mix."
The name, "Kissing Tree," is derived from a famous oak in San Marcos. It's where the famous Texan Sam Houston delivered gubernatorial speech in 1857 in front of a mighty oak tree and famously kissed several of the female attendees on the cheek after the speech, creating a bit of a local legend. The oak tree, however, isn't on the golf course. In fact, trees aren’t the predominant feature on this wonderful design, that features plenty of views, large undulated greens and wide fairways. There are few bunkers and water hazards and the option on all 18 holes for players to run the ball onto the putting surfaces.
"Take a look at golf courses in Scotland. They make you play with imagination, as the game is played on the ground and under the wind. That is what we need to do in America."
While the golf course is an amenity for the seniors who live in the community (seniors have opportunities to buy into memberships and get special rates), the course is also open to the public. In fact, it's the first new course to open to the public in Texas in a half dozen years.
That public play, of course, is crucial for revenue, so Stephenson, who is based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, had to design this golf course with all players in mind. And while not every golf course has to be everything for everybody, this is one that really did need to meet these criteria, and it does.
First of all, from the back tees, you'll find out that the second hole, a par-3 over water, will require the ability to carry the ball 170 yards or more. Yet, if you play it from the Forward tees at 99 yards, you can avoid the water altogether and run it up on the green.
That theme is repeated throughout the golf course. Play it forward, and the course is not only shorter but also friendly to your golf ball supply. The greens are surrounded by closely mowed grass, which means if you are 10 or maybe even 20 yards off the green, you can probably putt. You might not get it close, but you can probably find the green that way.
Stephenson said the late, great Byron Nelson, with whom he once collaborated with on a design in Idaho, inspired him when he told him that too many architects design courses that force players to fly the ball to the greens over hazards.
"The average player, especially the senior players like me," Stephenson recalled Nelson saying, "cannot play those shots. Take a look at golf courses in Scotland. They make you play with imagination, as the game is played on the ground and under the wind. That is what we need to do in America."
The ninth ends with a risk-reward short par 4 that has a green well guarded by water right and long. And the par 5s are mostly reachable in two if you play the right tees, especially on the 14th which tumbles downhill the whole way.
Hard to get bored
The views on this course (which isn't walkable because of the distances between a handful of greens and tees) are also amazing. There are several tees where you can see half of San Marcos as well as the natural rolling topography of the course.
And then there's another feature that doesn't exactly scream senior golf. The golf carts are equipped with the Shark Experience (developed by Greg Norman, which you can read about here). It provides golfers with music and entertainment options as well GPS during their rounds. While many golfers simply like the serenity of nature, there's certainly a growing segment that doesn't mind following other sports or listening to tunes while they play their favorite sport.
Additionally, Kissing Tree offers an extensive short-game area, fully grassed driving range and a putting green. Kissing Tree is a Certified Audubon Sanctuary Course.
The clubhouse is probably still a year away. In the meantime, Troon has been operating out of the welcome center, where you'll find those craft beers as well as a nice food menu, pool tables and flat screens. Not a bad temporary clubhouse, to say the least.