Houston National Golf Club: A manly monster that makes traditional Texans squirm
HOUSTON -- They like things big in Texas. That's what everyone tells you, and it doesn't take long to see that it isn't just a marketing slogan.
The pickup trucks are huge. If you don't have an extended cab you might as well be driving a Geo. At restaurants, the portions are so large you wonder if they're trying to feed you and Drew Carey. The scandals are so epic they have to rename major league ballparks over them (Enron Field? What Enron Field?).
So it's no surprise that the golf courses are beasts. Trying to drive some of these greens will put hair on your chest, and maybe tear the rotator cuff in your shoulder. Pee Wee Herman has a better chance of being called a man's man in an old Texas saloon than you do of playing John Daly at most of the Lone Star State's yardage monsters.
"My favorite is when some guy from California comes here thinking he's some great golfer and he can't understand why it's taking him so many shots to get to the green," local golfer Bo Decker said. (Texas is also the runaway leader in guys named Bo.)
"You haven't played a long course until you've been to Texas."
There's a delightful little irony in all this: One of Texas' longest courses is a layout even many locals can't quite get a handle on. Tip your 20-gallon hat to Houston National Golf Club. This 27-hole course in the northwest part of town is a Texas-sized behemoth.
Houston National's North and South nines add up to a whopping 7,578 yards, longer even than grip-it-and-really-rip-it Redstone, the course PGA Tour players loved as the Houston Open's home. Of course, you could just play the West and North courses. They add up to a mere 7,337 yards.
You want length? Houston National comes in at over 7,000 yards from its second set of tees, no matter what combination of nines you play.
This club's manhood seems pretty secure. So why do some Texas golfers like Ken Douglas call it "a sissy course," practically spitting out the words?
Because Houston National's different. Especially for a Texas course. It doesn't have pink flags or anything like that. But it is a links-style design in a land where trees - big trees, of course - rule. It usually plays into some stiff winds, and it forces you to think your way around.
It's capable of tormenting short and long hitters alike.
And, well, that can offend some Texans, who are used to letting loose with their shotguns and the high-tech drivers with equal impunity.
"What's the point of having a 650-yard hole if you've got all these little pot bunkers all around it?" Douglas asked.
It's actually 640 yards, the ridiculously long par 5 eighth on the South course. The pot bunkers clustered on both sides of the fairway about 300 yards in are there to give golfers pause. As if the forced water clear about 100 yards from the tee and the two-tier green at the end of it all weren't enough to have on your mind.
OK, the Houston National dubious are right about South's No. 8. It's an absurd hole.
But most of this Von Hagge, Smelek and Baril design is an inventive delight. If something that's kicking you in the teeth can be called a delight. And Houston National will do that.
It will also give you an experience in Texas golf like few others.
As soon as you get into North No. 1 - the starting point for many rounds - you know Houston National is a different kind of character. Rolling hills stretch out before you. There are no trees in sight. The wind's kicking up at your back. If you don't adjust to where it's blowing, you can just watch your drive go. And go.
Into the road.
Aim left and a wayward shot can get funneled back down into the fairway. End up right and you're looking at a serious punch-out from the tall grass back up over a hill. This is just the first example of how course knowledge and thinking are going to have a huge impact on your score.
The fun (and the double gulps) really begin on No. 2. At 612 yards, this is only Houston National's third-longest par 5, but the utter lack of trees makes it seem longer. The green looks like an island in the distance. The dogleg left is so severe that the green actually does jut out on its own peninsula, complete with two bunkers guarding its sides, ready to gobble up your skidding approach shot.
Now your Houston National round is really on. North No. 6 has so many little bunkers, you feel like you're swinging in a minefield. South No. 9 seems to have a green hanging in the water, and your round will likely be hanging on edge as you blast up to it from below a hill.
You want Texas big? Look at those numbers on your scorecard.
Houston National Golf Club: The verdict
If Houston National relied on distance alone it would just be an obnoxious bully. Instead it gives you opportunities to try all kinds of gutsy shots, testing your nerve as much as your driver. (The 132 slope rating for North/South combo is anything but inflated.)
That said, some of the distances are downright daunting. You'll find yourself hitting 3- and 5-woods off the tee on long par 3s that all seem to play right into the wind.
You don't play Houston National seeking a career round. You should play it for a unique take at an affordable price.
As much as you can get lost in the wide-open links look, you will not forget you're in a bustling area with more modern Texas bravado than old Irish charm. There are houses along most of the course - big houses, of course. On North No. 7, so many neighborhood dogs barked in unison as I stared down the bunker-wrapped green from the tee that, for the first time, I wished for my own Steve Williams enforcer caddie.
The tone in the clubhouse is much friendlier. Houston National's staff clearly loves golf and golfers. During this trip, the clubhouse attendant invited a golfer out to play a few holes for free, even though an earlier rainstorm had officially closed the course.
Manners are big here too.
May 19, 2006