When less is more: post-Harvey golf at Palmilla Beach Resort on the Texas coast

The new shorter verson of Palmilla Beach Golf Club in Port Aransas, Texas.

PORT ARANSAS, Texas — Golf is being redefined at Palmilla Beach Resort and Golf Community on the Texas coast.

Not too long ago, the resort near Corpus Christi had a 6,821-yard, par-71 layout. Designed by Arnold Palmer Golf, it was the closest thing to a real seaside links design the Lone Star State had, given that it was perched above the beach, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

The trouble is that it was only doing 20,000 rounds during a 12-month season. It was losing money, big-time.

Then came Hurricane Harvey in August of 2017.

It'd be a stretch to say that the devastating storm with 140 mph winds and coastal flooding was a blessing, but after it destroyed the golf course (especially the greens), it gave the owner of the resort community, Red McCombs, pause to rethink how he wanted to rebuild.

So the brass at McCombs Properties asked their golf course operator Troon Golf why they were losing money. The answers were pretty simple: Golf isn't booming (800 courses had closed in the last decade nationwide), and Palmilla Beach is somewhat isolated, separated by a ferry on one side, where visitors coming down from Houston would travel, and a bridge on the other side to Corpus Christi. Avid golfers weren't coming to the island; instead it was families and tourists, looking to enjoy the beach or maybe even fish a little perhaps. Golf would never be a priority for the vast majority of the island's visitors.

So with the help of Troon, Palmilla Beach came up with a new business model. They looked to golf entertainment complexes like Topgolf and ForeGolf in Lubbock, Texas, to convert what they had into a golf course that took less time to play, was more fun for all players, yet retained the seaside links look of the old course. They added a fleet of Golf Boards as an option for players looking for an even more fun way to get around the course.

"Fun, affordable family entertainment and great food and beverage," is the way McCombs Enterprises' Gregory Carr summed it up. "You make your money off the food and beverage not the golf… We're not a golf course with a restaurant, but rather a restaurant with a golf course."

So they reimagined the golf course to appeal to a wider variety of people and elevated the quality of the restaurant. The new golf course soft-opened in the spring of 2019 (with an official grand opening on June 1). Golf shirts and golf shoes, both sold in the golf shop, aren't required (many players can be observed playing barefoot), and neither is four to five hours to play the course.

A smaller version of the former course

The new course, redesigned and built by Troon's agronomic team has been reduced to nine holes and it covers just 2,431 yards from the back tees. In addition, Troon added three more holes that Palmilla beach calls the Loop, with holes that range from 80 yards to 115 yards. The two courses can be played separately or together with green fees that reflect both. An 18-hole putting course is also in the plans with construction slated to being this summer. The driving range was also modified, and practice areas were enhanced.

The new shorter version of the old course was basically accomplished by eliminating the nine holes that were across the main street that used to divide the course. Some of the remaining holes were shortened, and the new ninth, a 205-yard par 3, that points to the west, is a completely new hole.

And while the fairways of the "old" course, which opened in 2008 as Newport Dunes under the original owner, were already grassed in saltwater resistant paspalum, Troon took the opportunity to cover the new greens with Platinum paspalum, given that the old mini-Verde greens were killed by the seawater and subsequent inability to water them afterwards with anything other than brackish water.

The result is a beautiful short course in pristine condition that takes 90 minutes or less to play. And yes, it's still plenty challenging to good players. The par-32 course, with the ever present breeze coming off the gulf, will test your ability to flight the ball and hold the ball against the wind, especially on the 410-yard par-4 fifth that usually plays into a stiff breeze that not only makes the hole play long, but also exacerbates any left to right shot, forcing most players to take aim in the native areas left of the fairway off the tee.

Golf for all

The course, however, has three sets of tees. The back set is the "Palmilla" tees. The middle tees are called the "Beach" tees, with holes ranging from 127 yards to 287 yards. The forward tees, with holes 81 yards to 256 yards, aren't referred to as the "ladies tees," but rather the "Fun" tees. This is an important distinction, Carr said.

"They play just 1,485 yards, and anyone can play them," Carr said. "We wanted to remove that stigma. This is about bringing more people to the game."

In other words, the Fun tees are perfect for any player who wants the play a shorter course, women, seniors, juniors and even better players who want to work on their short game or just see how low they can go.

And while maintenance costs aren't cut in half at Palmilla Beach, operating the course does take few resources. For example, the course only has 24 golf carts right now. If and when play increases to a level that the resort needs more carts, more will be ordered, Carr said.

In the meantime, the shorter course allows players to come out early or late and still have most of the day for vacation activities.

Notice the "Fun" tees at Palmilla Beach Golf Club. The last two holes are just 81 yards.

Is this the new model for golf courses? While 18-hole golf courses aren't exactly passé yet, the definition of the standard golf course could be changing. At Palmilla Beach, you can play all 12 holes in less than two hours or play the nine-hole loop twice for an 18-hole experience (replay rates off the base $40 green fee are available).

In an interview during the recent PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, Seth Waugh, CEO of the PGA of America, said golf leadership needs to rethink the future of the game.

"I think protecting our parents' game, our grandparents' game isn't where we need to be," he said. "We need to figure out what the game needs to look like for our grandkids in creating an atmosphere of change and innovation while respecting everything about the game that we love. "

Indeed, these changes seem to be coming slowly but surely at places like Palmilla Beach Resort.

Dine and relax after golf

A bigger hit than the golf course, however, may be the course's restaurant, the Black Marlin Grill, which survived Harvey and has become even better in the last couple of years.

Most evenings May through September, there's a wait (reservations are recommended) for good reason. Chef Gail Huesmann and her team have an ever-changing menu, offering local seafood dishes, salads, steaks and desserts that are among the best on the island. Huesmann, in fact, has been to the finals of the World Food Championships three years in a row, and also owns (with her partner Vita Jerrin) a highly acclaimed gelato shop on the island.

The restaurant made it through Harvey without too much significant damage. When power was finally restored to the island in late 2017, the Black Marlin Grill in January 2018 was one of the first restaurants to reopen on in Port Aransas, even before grocery stores. As the island recovered, the restaurant served its 3,000 residents, who had few other options to eat. It even lowered prices. The community has never forgotten that, so it remains popular with locals and visitors alike.

Another strategy after Harvey was to start building new homes. Starting at around $600,00, the new townhomes and stand-alone cottages have been selling as fast as they're being constructed. More than 30 have already been constructed post-Harvey with plenty of new homes under construction.

The good news for visitors is that almost all the homes are available to rent. Some of these luxurious furnished units are even available with modified golf carts, perfect for exploring the beach and town, where you'll find plenty of local eateries and dive bars.

During the summer, they start at around $700-800 per night, but many of the homes are over 2,300 square feet and include four bedrooms, a full kitchen, multiple living areas and a third floor with plenty of bunk beds for children. Two families could easily share one home.

More affordable options are available at other rental properties around the island as well as local hotels, such as the Red Roof Inn, Hampton Inn and the Best Western.

Mike Bailey is a former Golf Advisor 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. He has also been on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.
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Commented on

I worked as an assistant pro at Newport Dunes during the "dark" struggling days. The reason the course failed was that IT DIDN'T GIVE ANY REGARD TO THE LOCAL PLAYERS. There are only a handful of public golf options in Corpus. At least ten times a day, locals would ask when me when checking in "are there ever going to be any locals rates?" I also saw splashy ads for high end rich golfers from Dallas or Houston showing a private landing strip and a boutique hotel and spa, which never saw the light of day. It failed from short sightedness. The word gets around when a course won't be locals friendly. I loved playing the 18 holer. It did have drainage issues, mainly on the back 9. A shame it was butchered.

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Commented on

Hello, Palmilla Beach Golf Club, did you just quote me $40 for nine holes? Ahahhahahaha! Whew, sorry but I'll pass. I'll call some other time when either, A). I'm insane, or B). you've rediscovered your sanity.

Commented on

William, this is part of the reason there is a stigma surrounding nine-hole golf courses in general. Most people expect them to be goat tracks, but this course is well thought-out, beautiful, on the coast and in excellent condition. It's a resort course... Maintaining a golf course properly is generally very expensive. If this course were 18 holes, especially if it were located on the east or west coasts, it would be a $125 course or more to play. Forty bucks is more than fair for the quality of these nine holes. Now If it had bad greens, no grass on the fairway, then maybe a $15 or $20 green fee might be warranted, but that's not the case. The budget, even for nine holes, plus the three-hole loop, range and practice areas, is probably still well over a million dollars per year. At $40, it takes more than 25,000 rounds a year just to cover maintenance costs, much less staff employees.

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That is not a bad price for a quality course, but as you said, the East coast or west coast could be well worth $125 for play. That may be so, but there are a few other courses in excellent shape around that you can play for less than $40 for 18 holes. It is not really what they think it is worth, but what is the area going to produce. I have played the course before Harvey and it is very nice, but a shortened course for double the money is going to make it worse for them in my opinion.

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When less is more: post-Harvey golf at Palmilla Beach Resort on the Texas coast