AUSTIN, Texas -- What makes Austin and San Antonio such great cities? Part of the secret sauce are the peaceful lands to be found just outside of town: the Texas Hill Country, home to rolling hills, ranch lands, wineries, a smattering of charming small towns and an assortment of golf courses for every budget.
This most unique little sliver of Texas, located west of Austin and north of San Antonio, boasts rocky, almost desert-like terrain, elevation up to 1,000. Barton Creek Resort -- home to a Top 100-ranked Tom Fazio design as well as two other signature semi-private layouts -- earns most of the publicity. And near Lake LBJ, four-course Horseshoe Bay Resort offers high-end private and resort courses, while nearby Escondido is one of central Texas' top, exclusive splurges.
But that's only half of the appeal to golfers. The many small towns around here also offer very casual -- yet unique -- golf courses of their own that cater to a mix of blue collar locals and city day-trippers. And the best part? All of these courses are rated among San Antonio's and Austin's top plays by GolfAdvisor raters.
So if you're in one of these cities, take a short road trip. Maybe do a little antiquing, hiking or wine tasting along the way. Here are some affordable, yet all-too-charming ways to tee it up in the Hill Country.
Delaware Springs Golf Course in Burnet
About an hour's drive northwest of Austin is Burnet, home to Inks Lake State Park, a popular camping and fishing spot, as well as one of the state's great municipal courses, Delaware Springs G.C.
The designers, Dave Axeland and Dan Proctor, are relatively no-names to the golfing public, but the golf industry knows them well. They shaped Sandhills for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw and also designed Wild Horse in Nebraska, one of the top less-than-$50 plays in all of golf.
The course is set in pleasant, scenic Hill Country terrain, with a little spring-fed creek running through it and loads of Hill Country charm. One caveat: It's the centerpiece of an emerging residential development, so hopefully five years from now it still feels as rural.
Vaaler Creek Golf Club
Named after war veteran Jack Vaaler, Vaaler Creek Golf Club is one of the Hill Country's newest courses, opened in 2009.
The course is located near Blanco, a 2,000-resident town about equidistant from San Antonio and Austin on Highway 281, where summer months welcome visitors to the spring-fed Blanco River for a cool dip. Vaaler Creek features a very playable, rolling and unique design. This combination lends itself to some of the area's top ratings on GolfAdvisor (currently no. 1 at 4.59/5.0).
River Crossing Club
Just a few miles south on the same Highway 281 road as Vaaler Creek is the River Crossing Club, another modern facility opened in 2001.
A semi-private club, a striking clubhouse and facilities accentuate a very scenic and rolling layout designed by Larry Hawkins. The TifEagle greens, however, steal the show and make for some of the Hill Country's finest putting surfaces despite a green fee that's a fraction of nearby Horseshoe Bay or TPC San Antonio.
Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Golf Club
If you've ever had an eye on the Hill Country, you've heard of Fredericksburg, which is home to the National Museum of Pacific War and a main street home to a wealth of art, shopping, beer gardens and more.
In recent years, the town has upped its golf game, too, revitalizing Lady Bird Johnson Golf Course with a $2 million renovation in 2012. It's paid off, as the course is currently a Top-5 play in the Austin area by GolfAdvisor raters.
Lighthouse Country Club
Located just a sniff off of Lake LBJ in Kingsland, one of the top boating spots in the Highland Lakes, Lighthouse Country Club is a revamped layout with new ownership that totally overhauled the bankrupt facility in 2011. Formerly Packsaddle Golf Course (named after the Packsaddle Mountain, which looms over the course), Lighthouse boasts a very pleasant and extremely well conditioned layout for a very affordable price.
Certain holes on the front nine play almost desert-like, while others are equipped with water and mature trees that lend plenty of shady spots during summer months. For weekenders, Lighthouse has added condominiums and great clubhouse dining.