Houston's Tour 18: Where Amen Corner's a replica but the golfing fun is real
HOUSTON - Rae's Creek could use a bath. The "azalea" bushes seem a little sparse. Yet when your buddy is searching for his Pro V1 among the shrubbery on the mound behind the green, it's a kick nonetheless.
This golf course is a long way from Amen Corner, but it's as close as many average folks, and even some outrageously rich ones, will get to Hootie Johnson's Georgia treasure. You're in Texas, playing the replica course that gave birth to the genre: Tour 18.
When Tour 18 opened 13 years ago, touting its copies of "America's greatest 18 holes," it was groundbreaking enough to draw lawsuits from courses like Pebble Beach and Pinehurst. Four years of litigation resulted in the required use of terms like "replica," "simulation" and "inspired by" in course literature and advertising - but not in any changes to the track itself. Thus was the small cottage industry of replica courses born.
Stepping onto the first of them can transport you - not just to holes you've never played, but to holes you never will. Tour 18 has the only Amen Corner left that's close to the original lengths and play Bobby Jones envisioned. Hootie's determined makeovers and frenzied toughening of Augusta National in recent years have actually given Tour 18 some unexpected cachet.
"This is more like Augusta was than Augusta [is] these days," vacationing golfer Tim Sancer said, laughing.
That's the real thrill of Tour 18. The replica course charms most with the holes that have gone from copies to originals do to modern circumstances. Las Vegas's Desert Inn Golf Club may have been torn down, but it's 10th hole - a 518-yard par 5 from the mind of golf architect Lawrence Hughes - is here in Houston.
More often than not, though, people are lured here by the faux Georgia trio. The only course with more than one hole featured, Augusta National's Nos. 11, 12 and 13 are redone here in order as Tour 18's fifth, sixth and seventh.
"Amen Corner," Al Hunton of Lexington, Ky., said when asked what he was looking forward to on Tour 18. "I'll never have an opportunity to go out there and play it. This is as close as I'm ever going to get."
It would take some heavy squinting or an awfully vivid imagination to think this is very close at all. For one thing, if Augusta National's fairways and greens ever looked this faded or worn Hootie would probably order a groundskeeper shot. Or at least locked in a room with Martha Burk.
Then again, Tour 18 is a course you can often get on for around $55 in prime-season prime times. The conditioning's decent to good for that price range, although it won't bring to mind Jim Nantz whispering reverently by a towering pine.
Not that Tour 18 is devoid of charm. There are plenty of neat touches.
A small, understated stone slab reading "Now Entering Amen Corner" appears as your golf cart rolls toward Tour 18's fifth tee. It even has a towering white Augusta-replica wooden leader board, where the results of the previous Masters stay up for a year. (On this play Tiger Woods was still beating Chris DiMarco in a playoff.)
Tour 18 goes as far as filling its Amen Corner bunkers with white sand (though it's not quite Augusta-brilliant white). But the best thing about this replica is the shots it forces you to try.
Standing on the fifth tee, all you can see is the crest of the big hill you have to get over. The green that you know is tucked away by the water from all those Masters TV viewings is but a rumor, just like it is for the pros every April. Taking a shot and sprinting up the hill to see where it lands is a pleasure. Ditto for trying to pick enough club to clear the faux Rae's Creek on the Augusta No. 12 replica without overdoing it and ending up in those pink bushes posing as azaleas.
The other hole that seems to get everyone jazzed at Tour 18 is the re-creation of Sawgrass' 17th island green. This closes the front nine at Tour 18, and while it loses some of its drama by being shoehorned into the course, you'll still see a parade of intimidated golfers hitting pop shots into the water.
Fixate on the rock-star holes at Tour 18, though, and you'll miss out on the course's best. Tour 18's No. 2 - a replica of Bay Hill's narrow-fairway, curving-around-water par-5 sixth - brings risk-reward drama. With the emphasis on risk. The kind of risk skydivers take.
"Everyone wants to drive the water," Tour 18 General Manager Mike Shoelen said. "Where really it's a hole where it pays to play it safe. If you hit 5-iron, 5-iron, 5-iron in, you should be able to get out of there with a nice par. But no one's doing that. Everyone wants to play John Daly.
"Heck, John Daly can't even drive that green anymore."
Shoelen laughed. Just another case where Tour 18 takes you back. Sometimes it's more fun to play the fool.
In a Houston area with a number of good values but few must-plays, Tour 18 is a course to work into any golf trip. The flat ground of Texas can make some of the replicas a stretch, but the setting can stand on its own. Tour 18 is set off from the road on a large expanse of land with no houses in site. In fact, the copy of La Costa's fourth tournament hole (No. 8 at Tour 18) is arguably more serene than the house-crowded real thing.
Throw in a staff that actually seems interested in customer satisfaction (on this on-and-off rainy afternoon, rain checks were given without any haggling) and you're in for a relaxed experience.
At least until you tee it up. Having replicas of 18 of America's top golf holes can make for a taxing day, no matter what that benign 129 slope rating seems to say.
"I like Tour 18," local regular Remigo Flores said. "But it can be tough. There are no easy holes. They're all big-time holes."
Part of the interest lies in what Tour 18 designated as big-time. Playing No. 17, a replica of Oak Tree's eighth, is liable to make you appreciate Pete Dye's touch even more. Taking a shot across the water on the simulation of surprise entrant Disney World Magnolia's par-3 No. 6 and landing in the front bunker shaped like Mickey Mouse's head, complete with the big ears, can make you wonder if more courses could use a little silliness.
Tour 18 makes you think and smile. Nothing fake about that.
Tour 18 is out by George Bush Intercontinental Airport, but you're not that far from the Galleria district. This is the direction to head: Some of Texas' best restaurants can be found in this spread-out strip-mall zone.
Bistro Moderne (713-297-4383), offering a simple French menu in the slick Hotel Derek, was named one of Esquire's Top 10 New Restaurants of 2005, and it doesn't disappoint. The crab salad appetizer and the bouillabaisse are particularly tasty, but stay away from the rabbit (unless you really like rabbit).
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 barbecue you'll ever eat. The brisket is the tastiest meat on the menu, and the potato salad is not to be missed. Yes, this is a place where potato salad wows.
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.
If you 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.
Tour 18 is 6,782 yards from the tips, fueling the argument that the longest monster holes are no architect's best holes.
April 11, 2006