Play Houston's Panther Trails for wildflowers and closing holes

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Panther TrailsHOUSTON, Texas - If you're planning a trip here to play the Panther Trails golf course, now is the time.

Not that Panther Trails at the Woodland Resort, just north of Houston, is a bad place to be during the fall or winter: Houston gets the same balmy weather Galveston on the Gulf Coast does during those seasons.

But, to see Panther Trails in full bloom, you should see it when the wildflowers bloom. The course got an extensive makeover in 2002, and more than 3,000 pounds of wildflower seeds and native grasses were planted to jazz up tee boxes and other areas, and to serve as natural buffers.

The course itself is not a bad resort course to play any season. It was originally designed by Robert Van Hagge and opened in 1975. Roy Case was called in to re-design it two years ago and the result is basically a completely different scheme.

They moved 135,00 cubic yards of dirt and 25,000 tons of sand. They replaced the mutated Bermuda with ultra dwarf Bermuda, installed USGA built greens, spiffed up the drainage and irrigation system and added new cart paths and wood bridges. Lakes were moved and bunkers renovated. This aging babe stayed under the knife a while.

The result is a very pleasant resort course, not too demanding, that winds through a fairly quiet, fairly ritzy neighborhood that is one of the better known areas in this part of south Texas.

"He made some significant changes," said Panther head pro Bill Craig. "Not a hole out here stayed the same, except for No. 6."

Not surprisingly, the redesign changed the personality of the course.

"I think it's now more of a target course than it used to be," Craig said. "It plays at a decent length, but you can't take driver out and bomb away on every hole. It gets kind of narrow."

Oh, go ahead and try, you know you will. Like on No. 8, a 322-yard, dogleg right par-4. You know you're going to try to cut the dogleg and hit the green, but if you miss, there's big trouble, as in most risk-reward situations. Actually, if you can hit a power fade here and clear the bunker, you'll have a short wedge home.

Or No. 14, a 529-yard par-5 that most guys will take a crack at in two. Same with No. 9, another long par-5 with a nearly 90 degree dogleg at the right.

"Just about everybody can get there in two," Craig said. "If you can hit it 200 yards in the air, you can reach it."

But, for the most part, you'll be pulling out smaller ammo.

"You have to manage your game here," said Jim McMichael, a low-handicapper who has played the course often. "You really have to play this course, otherwise you can get in trouble."

The verdict

Panther Trails is more interesting and demanding than its sister course, The Oaks.

Panther Trails has greens with more movement and multiple tiers - and a two-tiered fairway to boot - and more elevation, though it's essentially a flat course.

Both courses wind through a residential community, but at least the houses aren't of the cookie-cutter variety; some are architecturally interesting, and most are set fairly far back from the course. The only real intrusion comes when a handful of holes get too close to a busy highway.

The most challenging section of Panther Trails is its four closing holes - a long par-5, two deceiving par-4s (including the 18th with its island green) and a pesky little par-3 over water on No. 17.

The course is a decent deal for the rates: $63-$73 weekdays and $73-$83 weekends.

Stay and play

Panther TrailsThe Woodlands Resort and Conference Center is located north of Houston, where you can still see coyotes leaping across the interstate. The resort makes a big deal of being environmentally sensitive, as do most modern resorts, but this one has miles of biking and hiking trails throughout the woods to back it up. Hard to believe there's that much green space left in the Houston sprawl, but there it is.

The resort caters to the corporate crowd, with more than 60,000 square feet of conference space, business centers and the like, such as high-speed Internet access and handy modem connections at your room desk.

It has a fitness center and extensive spa services, where the ladies can get brow arches, eyebrow or eyelash tints and glycolic peels, along with the usual massages, saunas, steam baths, etc., for both men and women.

There's action for the young buckaroos, too: a "forest oasis waterscape" with water slides and underwater murals.

Dining out

The Woodlands has four restaurants and a lounge: The main dining room features an "exhibition kitchen," exotic breads with special dipping sauces and fresh-baked pastry.

Spartilo offers Mediterranean and the Glass Menagerie has American food and sits on the shores of Lake Harrison. The Cool Water Café is more casual, and the Watermark Bar and Lounge is where you go to drink.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.


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