Bring a map and a strong stomach: High Meadow Ranch a true Houston golf find
MAGNOLIA, Texas - When you see the sign touting "Tomball, population 9,809," you think you've made a mistake. When you make a turn into a gas station to check and notice the cows grazing a little farther down the road, you're sure of it.
But no, the Mobil man insists. Keep on going. Past the woman in the garish Uncle Sam costume, complete with glitter-sprinkled top hat, waving for cars to stop at the super pawn shop.
And, don't you know it, pretty soon you're turning onto a long, windy road, and there up ahead is what looks like a big white ranch house surrounded by golf carts.
You've arrived at High Meadow Ranch Golf Club.
It's in a small-town area in Houston's shadow that can't decide if it's country or city. New developments are popping up, drawn by Compaq's nearby headquarters, but the barns and stables are still holding on.
There's no confusion inside High Meadow's clubhouse, however. You're given a hearty welcome whether you're a visiting software salesman or an old ranch hand. The woman behind the counter's so nice you want your parents to adopt her as your sister. She tells you to be sure to come back to the golf course on your birthday for a free round.
What is this, a Bob Evans or a golf club? A free sundae on your birthday, sure. But free golf?
But High Meadow is just getting started. This course also offers concerts - small country acts, mostly, but still - at its cozy outdoor pavilion many Friday nights.
This isn't some high-falutin' country club with more money than it knows what to do with, either. It's a very public golf course you can often get on for under $50.
All these extras quickly set you to wondering about the quality of the course itself. It's the cynical, and golfer-logical, thing to do. They've got to be overcompensating for something, right?
Wrong. The first design by PGA Tour journeyman and Texan David Ogrin is actually pretty inventive in parts and a worthy play throughout.
"It's one of my favorites," visiting San Jose golfer Connor Sloan said.
"You can really let loose with your driver, but then you get challenged on finding the right target on the big greens. Plus a lot of people still don't seem to know about it, so it's not as crowded as some of the other courses closer to the city."
High Meadow is about 40 minutes from downtown Houston, close to the Compaq complex, and still not easy to find. Its own Web site warns you not to use Mapquest because the course access roads have not been registered with the county.
When you do get out there, you'll find tall trees flanking large but well-guarded greens. It's woodsy enough that you might worry if the mosquitoes have lyme disease but not so forested that you'll forget you're in the Houston suburbs. Nice houses dot the course here and there.
The first hole is typical of Ogrin's approach, a 388-yard par 4 where you have a lot of room to spray it off the tee. You'd better put yourself in a decent position for the approach shot, though: There's a little ravine drop - filled with mud, mostly - about 40 yards from the green.
And High Meadow's greens are big enough to host weddings. Golfers just content to find the green will be staring down a number of long, curving putts - if their ball doesn't go skidding off one of the ridge greens into a bunker on the first one.
"I don't think I've ever had so many three-putts in my life," local John Abraham said, shaking his head.
High Meadow can catch you off-guard like that. The place is anything but high-anxiety in atmosphere, lulling many a golfer into a false sense of security. But the super-friendly staff isn't going to be out there to help you hit that 5-iron in the woods.
And you'll find yourself in some battles. The sixth, a 377-yard par 4, has you shooting down to the fairway and then steeply up to a raised green, a pure punchbowl effect. No. 9 gives you a true two-level green - some two-story houses don't have this much definition - at the end of an almost unfairly long 254-yard par 3. Another par 3, No. 11, puts two trees right in your way off the tee.
It's like Ogrin is trying to make you pay for the 400 tournaments and 14 years it took him to finally win a Tour event.
By the time you get through with No. 10 - a 530-yard par 5 with big tuffs of grass in the middle of huge, fairway-dissecting bunker areas - you might be throwing up your hands. This is the eighth-rated handicap hole?
Of course, you'll also be smiling.
High Meadow is one of those hidden finds that can make a golf trip.
It's not in pristine condition. The fairways are a little faded; the greens could be greener. But the price is right, a lot of resort palaces could learn from the service, and the course itself is just plain fun.
There is plenty of room here and Ogrin takes advantage of it, stretching the course out to 7,370 yards from the tips. Some of the touches are silly, like the club's insistence on dividing the track into three six-hole loops, the Forest, the Pine Barren and the Signature. In reality, the loops all feature the same type of scenery: Texas woods. It does give you an excuse to stop at the clubhouse one extra time for a beer, though.
And most of the touches do ring true. Like Ogrin using the one lake at his disposal to maximum effect by wrapping a mammoth par 4 (488 yards) around it and tucking away the green. It gives you the chance to hit a heroic second shot. Or to just go splash.
Fun needn't be formal.
Staying in the neighborhood of High Meadow means sticking to fast food or chain restaurants. You're better off taking the drive into the city's Galleria shopping area. Some of Texas' best restaurants can be found in this spread-out strip-mall zone.
Bistro Moderne (713-297-4383), in the slick Hotel Derek, was named one of Esquire top 10 new restaurants of 2005, and it doesn't disappoint. Crab salad and bouillabaisse are highlights of the simple, French-accented menu. But skip the rabbit unless you really like rabbit - I've had better.
For an even simpler menu and an even surer option, hit Goode Company Barbecue (713-522-2530). Befitting a place with picnic tables under an awning and a barbecue museum next door, Goode serves up some of the best 'cue you'll ever eat. Look past the ribs to the brisket, the tastiest meat on the menu, and pile on the not-to-be-missed potato salad.
Stay and play
If you love shopping, the Westin Galleria puts you right in the sprawling Galleria mall. That's right in - the hotel's actually connected to the mall. You'll pay to be steps away from satisfying your Jimmy Choo jones, though. We're talking $299 standard room rates in the wintertime.
Aim to catch an Astros game? The Inn at the Ballpark is right across the street from Minute Maid Field. Yes, it's called Inn at the Ballpark. This is no little motor lodge, though, but a new four-star hotel.
If you're looking for a date while you chase birdies, High Meadow Ranch has a regular Mixers Social Club with events every month.
May 24, 2006