My top 10 public golf courses in Texas: Big state, little list

Although only two golf courses in Texas made the latest Top 100 public list by Golf Digest (TPC San Antonio AT&T Oaks Course at no. 68 and Omni Barton Creek Fazio Canyons at no. 69), the list of quality public courses in Texas is probably as long as any state in America.

After all, Texas is a big state, so there's a lot of golf – more than 800 of them actually, around half of which are open to the public. Every market has its fair share of quality public venues and I can honestly say that I've sampled the best golf courses in every part of the state over the last 30 years – from El Paso to Lubbock to San Antonio/Austin to the major metropolitan areas of Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, where I've lived pretty much the last 20 years. As a golf writer and avid golfer, I've probably driven a half million miles in this state looking for great golf experiences.

My personal top 10 list probably differs a little from some other lists because I put a premium on two important characteristics – how much fun was it, and would I want to play this golf course over and over again. Scenery also plays into the equation, of course, and several of these courses, including my top venue, certainly don't lack in that department.

Here then, is my personal top 10 from the Rio Grande west down to the Gulf of Mexico:

1. Black Jack's Crossing, Lajitas

It's remote, but well worth the trip to Big Bend country because, there's nothing like Black Jack's Crossing and the Lajitas Resort.

Located in a spectacular mountain setting about seven hours west of San Antonio, there are at least seven elevated tees and views from every direction that go on for 50 or 60 miles with great views of the valleys and Rio Grande. At 7,400 yards, Lanny Wadkins created one heck of a championship test, but with four sets of tees, most anyone can play it. And if you stay at the Lajitas Resort, you won't find a more peaceful setting, coupled with plenty of other outdoor activities, great food and hospitality.

2. Butterfield Trail Golf Club, El Paso

This is perhaps my favorite Tom Fazio design and one of the best values in the country with green fees less than $50. Owned by the El Paso International Airport, you can literally fly into town, stay at an airport hotel and never need a rental car for a perfect weekend golf getaway.

With as much as 55 feet of elevation change, Butterfield Trail Golf Club offers a variety of well crafted holes with hardly a flat lie. At more than 7,300 yards from the back set of tees, it's also all the golf you want, with large, foreboding fairway bunkers, undulating bentgrass greens and plenty of lengthy holes.

3. Omni Barton Creek - Fazio Canyons, Austin

Although it has four quality golf courses, Barton Creek's Fazio Canyons might be the best of the lot. As the newest, it's bigger than Fazio's other course, the highly regarded Foothills layout, so it's spread out a little more but still difficult if you play it from the back tees.

With plenty of limestone, elevation changes, rolling fairways and a sense of isolation, the Canyons Course is one of the most serene golf experiences in the state.

4. Rawls Course at Texas Tech University, Lubbock

If you're a fan of Tom Doak, the Rawls Course at Texas Tech University is your course. But like Butterfield Trail and Black Jack's Crossing, it's away from the major metropolitan areas of Texas.

Doak took a flat piece of land and built much of the course below grade, so you have the illusion of more elevation than is really there. Certainly links-style in nature, it's a wonderful walking course with greens and tees close together and some pretty interesting blind approaches and par 3s. It's especially challenging when the wind is blowing, which is most of the time in the Panhandle. GolfAdvisor raters named it the best course in Texas in 2014.

5. Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course, Humble

If this former Redstone course flowed a little better, I'd have it ranked higher, because it's a wonderful collection of holes. My only issue with the Tournament Course at Golf Club of Houston, which sits on 450 acres, is the distance between the first green and the second tee, and 17th green and 18th tee, which makes it difficult to follow the players during the PGA Tour's Shell Houston Open.

With that said, the par-4 18th is one of the best finishing holes on tour, and the course is one of the best-conditioned (designed to give players a preview of the Masters the following week) in the country.

6. Omni Barton Creek - Fazio Foothills, Austin

The original course at Barton Creek, the Tom Fazio Foothills Course is simply one of the prettiest courses in Texas.

Opened in 1986, the course can be stretched to just more than 7,000 yards. But most impressive are the views, water features, rock formations and even caves. The course was also the original home of the Champions Tour's Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf.

7. Pine Dunes Golf Club, Frankston

Located about two hours or so southeast of Dallas, Pine Dunes Golf Club really is the quintessential best-kept secret in the state, though its quality hasn't escaped state rankings (the Dallas Morning News has it ranked second in the state among public facilities).

Originally nine holes, architect Jay Morrish did a redesign that included nine more holes when the course opened in 2001. With no homes and no distractions and always in good shape, the nearly 7,200-yard course really is somewhat reminiscent of Pinehurst, Augusta and maybe even Pine Valley with its pines, pine straw and more than 75 conventional and waste bunkers.

8. TPC San Antonio - AT&T Canyons Course

Although the other course at the TPC San Antonio, the AT&T Oaks Course, hosts the PGA Tour, it's the Champions Tour host, the AT&T Canyons Course, that I like best.

The reason? It's more fun and a little more imaginative. There are blind shots, wider fairways and a better variety of holes than the AT&T Oaks Course, and it certainly plays a little easier. Plus, there's more elevation change as architect Pete Dye and consultant Bruce Lietzke took advantage of the hillier site.

9. La Cantera Resort - Palmer Course, San Antonio

Sitting at one of the highest points in the Alamo City, the 6,926-yard, par-71 Palmer Course at La Cantera Resort, one of two 18-hole layouts here, has hundreds of feet of rise and fall, affording great views of San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country.

It also has its own magnificent clubhouse, which overlooks the scenic 18th and ninth holes. The ninth is a dogleg right that plays over a cascading creek, and the 18th is a long, downhill par 4 that drops some 200 feet and plays to a green over a series of ponds and streams. Eating at the Palmer Grille in the clubhouse is highly recommended.

10. Cowboys Golf Club, Grapevine

Cowboys Golf Club, a wonderful Jeff Brauer design, formerly owned by Jerry Jones, is Dallas Cowboys all the way, from the trophy-cased clubhouse to the Cowboys logo painted on the fourth fairway to Dallas Cowboy-like cheerleaders there to serve you on the course and the halfway house.

Plus, the green fees are all-inclusive, minus liquor. So you can have breakfast and lunch after the round and perhaps enjoy the Cowboys on TV. But not to be lost is the terrific 7,000-yard layout in great condition with plenty of interesting doglegs, tree-lined fairways, deep bunkering and big greens.

Best of Texas: Honorable mentions

Coming up with my top 10 was anything but easy. I especially wrestled with the last few spots, so I'd like to list a few honorable mentions here.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has several courses that I would put in the second 10, including the TPC Four Seasons, Texas Star, Old American Golf Club and The Tribute.

The Houston area also has several that merit consideration: 36-hole BlackHorse, the Tradition Course at Cypresswood, Timber Creek in Friendswood, Meadowbrook Farms and 27-hole Woodforest Golf Club just north of The Woodlands, which year in and year out, has some of the best greens in Texas.

Others worth checking out include The Bandit in New Braunfels, Apple Rock at Horseshoe Bay and The Quarry, La Cantera's Resort Course, Brackenridge Park and TPC San Antonio's AT&T Oaks Course.

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
Commented on

Hi Mike,

Can you recommend 4 top public courses that I could play with my ladies in the San Antonio area. Our handicaps are from 12 to 18. Thinking of going there sometime mid January, otherwise I'm also considering West Palm Beach, Florida to play golf.

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Commented on

This list is more name dropping than enjoyable experience. Only Frankston and Lubbock keep you from sounding like a chamber of commerce brochure or an elitist trust fund d-bag. I hope you have other parts of your life where you find depth and substance. Stray from the highway and the 5 star hotels and get some real dirt in the grooves of your clubs. Yes, I know the accommodations at Frankston are rough. I gave you credit for that one.

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When Mr. Baily he got his free round at TPC San Antonio-Oaks he must have shot a 125 and got charged for his beer by the cart girl!Folks, here is the truth, TPC Oaks isn't easy but ranked #14 in the most recent Golf Digest ranking of Texas best courses (moved up 11 spots since last year)  and it also ranks in the 2015-16 Greatest Public Courses in the nation.. and Mr. Baily ranked it as an honorable mention BEHIND The Bandit?

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Mr. English, Mr. Bailey (with an 'e') here, if you're going to lower yourself to personal insults (at least mine is based on you misspelling my name; yours is just made up). My scores have nothing to do with how I rank courses, and I can assure I shot  way less than 125 when I played the Oaks Course. I explained my criteria -- memorable and fun is what I value. With 25 years in the golf business, I don't need to rely on Golf Digest or any other publication to tell me what I do and do not like. The other course at TPC San Antonio is more enjoyable and more memorable. And The Bandit is a heck of a course as well. Oaks is a great test for the Tour pros, but wedging out sideways from greenside bunkers is not my idea of fun. I like many of the Shark's designs, but this isn't one of my favorites. A good course, but a little too much work.

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Living in SA I have been privileged enough to play the Oaks no less than half a dozen times. You are spot on with the difficulty of the course with every elevated and hard green to hold with any iron. And the rough?!!  Everytime I play that course I respect the tour pros even more. The canyons is definitely a more enjoyable course to play, but aesthetically the Oaks is right up there with LC Palmer (as far as in the SA area) where I am a member of. 

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The Bandit is a heck of a course as well."  Amen.

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My top 10 public golf courses in Texas: Big state, little list