East Texas' Blaketree National humbles the best
MAGNOLIA, Texas -- In this era of hectic daily-fee golf (despite a continued trend in declining rounds), Blaketree National's pine forest setting is about as peaceful as it gets. Deer, quail and blue herons are more common than golfers here, it seems. Homes aren't in sight, and you won't hear honking horns or traffic. Being at peace with your golf game after this experience, however, could be another story.
The par-71 course is almost 7,300 yards long from the back tees with small greens, lots of bunkering, daunting water hazards and thick, forested walls pinching the fairways. The course record is a remarkable 66 (10 birdies and five bogeys) set during a college tournament last year, but subpar rounds at Blaketree National are almost as rare as a white Christmas here. And that's just the way, it seems, that former owner and co-designer, the late Thomas W. Blake, envisioned it decades ago.
"Mr. Blake had two mottos," says Sam Chapman, Blaketree's first and only head golf professional. "Never let them figure it out the first time, and No. 2 was to make 'em leave wanting more."
In that respect, Blake most certainly accomplished his goals. Figuring it out the first time is nearly impossible. And after being humbled, you'll definitely want another crack at it.
But one word of warning for first-timers: Check your ego at the door. Any golf pro will tell you to play from the proper tees, but Chapman really means it at Blaketree National. And it's not about pace of play. At 10,000 rounds a year, that's not even an issue really. If you're not scratch or better, think carefully about playing the whole golf course.
"I don't tell them that to be disrespectful," says Chapman. "But they will enjoy the golf course more if they play the proper tees. I can't tell you how many times I've seen good players come back with their tails between their legs and nobody breaks 80."
To understand how and why this course is so penal, you have to understand its origin. Blake, who used to hang out with the likes of Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and Jimmy Demaret, was an accomplished player himself. In the late 1920s and early 30s, he was a standout member of the University of Rice golf team and later played in the British Open as an amateur.
Meanwhile, he forged a fortune as a corporate lawyer and businessman in the oil and gas industry. He acquired the 175-acre Sandy Ranch in 1937 as payment for legal services and always dreamed of building a golf course on this site a few miles north of Magnolia. In the early 80s, he started to do just that, hiring the renowned design team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to help him realize his vision. Eleven holes were routed and then came the oil bust, and it all came to a halt.
Blake would have to wait until he was in his 90s to resume the project, but this time he would finish the design himself. He was no doubt amused to see good players befuddled at what he created. At that time, he had no intentions of opening the course to the public -- or even to a large private membership -- so he built a golf course with no breathers.
Blake died during the autumn of 2001. Sadly, he spent his last few months unable to enjoy what he built. A fall earlier that year left him wheelchair bound and in pain. A month after his death in October, the course opened with little fanfare, but soon started to get a small, but loyal following that has been growing through word of mouth mostly.
"Mr. Blake didn't see too well at the end of his life, so he did a lot of the green contouring with his feet," said Chapman. "In today's era of modern green building, there is no gimme hole on this course. Well, gimme a headache, maybe."
And this is the essence of Blaketree. Bring your best game and then some. A little luck wouldn't hurt either.
Remember the earlier reference to the back tees? The approach shots here are tricky enough with a 7- or 8-iron -- severely sloped small greens guarded by lots of bunkers and water -- much less coming in with long irons and fairway woods from the tips. And if the green speeds are high, three-putting would be the norm.
But you only get those long difficult approach shots if you can bang out accurate three-bill drives. Poor drives leave only lay-up shots.
There are six par-4s of 440 yards or longer, and the par-5 18th is 657 yards. The most punishing two holes are the 483-yard, par-4 ninth and 491-yard, par-4 12th.
The home hole of the front side features an uphill blind tee shot, and once you get to your ball (assuming you hit it perfectly right down the middle), you might not like what you see. That's because even with a 280-yard drive, you're still faced with a 211-yard approach shot to small green guarded in the front and right by water and a large bunker on the left. Laying up, as many have found, might be your best chance for par and avoiding big numbers.
The 12th is even harder, mostly because it's a little longer and tee shot is even more uphill (elevation changes like this, by the way, are uncommon in Southeast Texas). What you're left with is another large lake with a sliver of a green on the left side and the forest left of that. Again, if you can't hit 220-yard approach shots with pinpoint accuracy, consider one of the other three sets of tees.
Chapman's favorite hole, the 458-yard par-4 fourth, requires the same kind of power and precision. The fairway wraps around a large lake to the left. The 150-yard fairway pole looks much closer than it actually is. Anything hit left of it is almost surely wet and because the tee shot is all carry over the water, hitting it into the hazard means three off the tee. When you do find the fairway, you're looking at another narrow, undulating green with water on the left and trees on the right.
And that's the theme -- scenic, but very tough golf holes. But as difficult as this course is, it shouldn't overshadow the experience of playing golf on a tremendous piece of property. It might not be Augusta National, but it's about as close as you're going to get (without the super-manicured conditions of Augusta) in East Texas.
"The first time you play it, you'll probably shoot at least six or seven shots over your handicap," says Blake. "There isn't a dull hole out here."
Or a dull moment.
Stay and Play
Thomas W. Blake built a four-bedroom cottage just off the first fairway and probably would have added more units had he not passed away. Each room has its own bath and the cottage offers a full kitchen and great views of the course. It's $1,000 a night for eight players, including golf. Four players can share the house for $600, including golf. Call the shop for more information.
From North Houston, take I-45 north to The Woodlands. Turn left (west) on FM 1488 to Magnolia. Make a right on FM 1774, then a right one mile later on Dobbin Road (FM 1486). The course is six miles north on Dobbin Road.
December 2, 2003