Falconhead takes flight in Austin

By Brent Kelley, Contributor

BEE CAVE, Texas -- The land on which one of Austin's newest golf courses sits, west of town, had been owned by the Spillman family since the 1840s. The name of the development, for which the golf course serves as the centerpiece, reflects the heritage: Falconhead at Spillman Ranch.

There's another part to Falconhead Golf Club's name, and it reflects something else. From the Spillman family to the PGA Tour family, Falconhead is the first "PGA Tour Signature Series Course" in the United States.

"We are," an assistant pro told a customer, "like the little brother of the TPC courses."

Well, maybe more like the step-brother. The PGA Tour does not have an ownership stake in Falconhead, and has no operational involvement. But the course was designed by Chris Gray, Vice President and Director of PGA TOUR Design Services, Inc., and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem was in attendance on opening day.

Director of Golf Jimmy Terry has no doubt the Tour's seal of approval will mean big things for Falconhead.

"We're built and designed to host championship golf," Terry said.

Falconhead opened on May 30, 2003, adjacent to Bee Cave, a formerly remote outpost west of Austin. But Bee Cave is now a beehive of commercial and residential development. This is where Austin is growing as the well-to-do head for the hills -- and the new golf courses, eight of which have either recently opened or are under development. The land is rolling and heavily treed, crisscrossed by streams and creeks that empty into nearby Lake Travis.

It's perfect land for golf, and Falconhead appears to have made a perfect landing. Around a few unusual features -- more on those in a minute -- golfers will find a more traditional design that is challenging to the best players but eminently playable for higher-handicappers.

"It's really the only true Hill Country golf course in Austin that is public," Terry said. "Most of the other Hill Country golf courses that we have out here are kind of the high-end private clubs."

The terrain is not severe at any point, but is up-and-down throughout. Stands of cedar and oaks line many holes (and serve to disguise the cart path) but do not close the course off -- golfers can frequently spot other golfers on other holes.

Many holes play downhill from tee to fairway, then back uphill from fairway to green. That is, in fact, the distinguishing design characteristic of the course.

The design element that golfers will most vividly remember, however, is pretty specific: the 17th green.

"It's probably the most unique hole I've ever seen in my life," said Terry.

No. 17 is a beautiful par-3 hole, 184 yards from the tips, with two ponds and three waterfalls. You've seen that sort of hole before? Don't worry -- this one isn't the same old story.

That's because the green is cantilevered so that half of it sits out over ... thin air.

"There's putting green, you're standing out on the green and there's nothing under you," Terry said.

There's actually water under you, but the surface of the pond is about 10 feet below that part of the green overhanging it. The hole's landscaping is meant to mimic Hill Country washes and draws.

"As it ages, it's just going to get better and better and better," Terry said. "It's a pretty unique and special hole."

It plays uphill from the tee, so if a shot is just short of the green, the golfer must watch as his ball falls past the ledge and into the water. A golfer may choose to bail out left, but it's difficult to get the ball on the green that way without a good cut shot.

"It's the kind of hole where everyone stands there and hits balls until they get it on the green," Terry said. "It'll be interesting to see how many balls come out of that pond when we go in there clean them all out."

The cantilevered 17th isn't the only unusual feature at Falconhead. While the course has just 26 bunkers, they contain 80,000 square feet of white sand. And several of those bunkers also contain long, rectangular troughs, thin strips of grass sloping down to a center filled with more sand.

It's a striking visual effect and one that most golfers seem to enjoy, at least until they get into one.

The troughs are put to good use on No. 16, which along with 17 and 18 form a terrific closing trio.

The par-4 16th is only 306 yards from the back tees, a mere 258 from the middle tees. But one of those unusual bunkers starts about 50 yards from the green and runs up the left-hand side of the green, while another cuts across the fairway at about 30 yards out, fronting the green. Anyone trying to drive the green must carry the cross bunker, but a drive struck too well might roll off the back of the green, which slopes down into a gully.

The signature 17th is followed by the par-5 18th, a 562-yard, uphill dogleg right. It's a nice closing hole, but it also offers one of the few missteps in the design. Falconhead's driving range is right of the 18th fairway, with only a narrow strip of mounding separating the two. A slightly wayward drive on 18 might wind up on top of those mounds, or on the driving range itself. And range balls are common finds in the 18th fairway.

Stay and Play

Developers hope to add a resort hotel to the Falconhead property, but that is likely a year or more away.

Falconhead does not yet have any official stay-and-play relationships with area hotels with set golf packages being offered. But most of the major hotels in Downtown Austin can hook you up with a round of golf at Falconhead, and are only about 20 minutes from the course.

The Mansions at Judges Hill is a boutique hotel with a gourmet restaurant seven blocks from the Texas Capitol Building. It's more affordable than you'd expect with rooms starting at $129.

Closer to Falconhead -- just down the road, in fact -- is Mountain Star Lodge. Another smaller hotel, with only 40 rooms, Mountain Star Lodge's rooms start as low as the low-$80s depending on season. Some rooms offer private balconies or decks.

Many of the popular chains can be found along Highway 71, which connects to Ranch Road 620 about a mile from Falconhead.

Mansion at Judges Hill
1900 Rio Grande
Austin, Texas 78705
(800) 311-1619

Mountain Star Lodge
3573 Ranch Roach 620 S.
Austin, Texas 78734
(888) 263-2010

Dining Out

No visit to Bee Cave is complete without stopping at Rosie's Tamale House. "It's been an institution forever in Bee Cave," said Terry. The Tex-Mex legend is about a mile from the course, near the Highway 71/RR 620 intersection.

Hudson's on the Bend, also on RR 620, serves Southwestern specialties and few specialties whose origins we're just not sure of. If you've ever wanted water buffalo enchiladas or smoked alligator ribs, Hudson's is your place.

And one more on RR 620: Calame's Canyonside Dining, a Caribbean seafood and steak house.

Fast Fact

Falconhead Golf Club is the first golf course to be designated a "PGA Tour Signature Series Course."

Brent Kelley, Contributor

Brent Kelley covers Texas, the Gulf Coast Region (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and West Florida) and Florida.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Falconhead Golf Experience

    HD wrote on: Nov 11, 2010

    The course has changed directions. Hotel plans replaced in favor of dense, low-priced mini subdivisions . Homes are offered under 1400 square feet. The first such development lines the entryway to the clubhouse. The second backs up the driving range. It is not an exceptional golfing experience, but on a positive note, the low-end housing should make golf more accessible to low-income players.