Olympia Hills recovers from early stumbles

By Brent Kelley, Contributor

UNIVERSAL CITY, Texas -- Olympia Hills Golf & Conference Center entered the San Antonio market with a bang in 2000.

The course quickly developed a reputation for a scenic layout featuring holes cut through the hills and trees on the city's Northeast side, some with dramatic elevation changes.

And Olympia Hills earned recognition in Golf Digest's annual best-of rankings, placing 4th nationally (No. 1 in Texas) in the "Best New Public - Affordable" category.

But Olympia Hills earned another reputation, too, one that in some circles still plagues it: spotty conditions. Reaction in San Antonio to the new golf course depended, in large part, on what kind of shape it was in for a golfer's visit. "Love it" meant catching it on a good day; "leave it" meant showing up when the greens were thin and low parts of the course soggy.

The two faces of Olympia Hills were on display in 2001 when the course lured the Hooters Tour for an event, only to have to put a temporary green into use during the tournament.

It took a new face at Olympia Hills, Douglas Borow, to help turn things around. Now, the course is back on track, thanks in good measure to general manager Borow's previous experience upgrading several courses in the Chicago area.

"We'd done a lot of modifications to the facilities I was at," Borow said, "and I was brought down here to make improvements to the existing design and layout."

Olympia Hills sits off Interstate 35 in Universal City, one of San Antonio's bedroom communities. It's a municipal course, owned by Universal City but managed by Kemper Sports.

The course was designed by Baxter Spann of Finger Dye Spann Design Group. Spann said when the course opened that golfers would find "some breathtaking holes and an encounter with some of the largest, most picturesque live oaks in Bexar County."

The course features naturally undulating topography accentuated by manmade mounding alongside fairways that frequently snake through trees and across or around rocky creek beds.

And with improved conditions, Olympia Hills has become one of the most popular stops with San Antonio golfers. That may be because it offers a taste of the "wow factor" found at the city's high-end courses, but for a green fee that is "right smack in the middle of the San Antonio market," in the words of Director of Sales Jamie Wisecarver. At the time of this writing, rates were $49 on weekdays and $59 on weekends.

Borow put the blame for the course's earlier conditioning problems on drainage and shading issues.

"When they originally designed the course there were some small issues regarding some of the creeks and the way they were redirected, and controlling some of the water flow," Borow said.

Those drainage issues, coupled with thick tree cover that limited the amount of direct sunlight, led to too much moisture in some greens, particularly Nos. 2 and 9, making it difficult to keep the grass growing. Those two holes had temporary greens in place for much of the course's first three years of existence.

"We just redistributed that (drainage) in a lot of the areas, which took a lot of the dampness out of the grass and allowed them to dry out and grow some more," Borow said.

The course also cut down a handful of large trees around greens on Nos. 2, 9 and 12, allowing more sun to feed the turf.

Current conditions are much-improved. Temporary greens are long-gone, and the hardest-hit greens show little sign of previous troubles.

Wisecarver characterized Olympia Hills' conditions as excellent for its price range.

"If you hit the fairway you're going to have a good lie," Wisecarver said. "If you hit the green you're going to get a good putt. The bunkers are all raked.

"We feel that we have a layout and a golf course that is as good as any course in town. Now, the conditions may not be as good. Our course is manicured, but it's not like the La Canteras, which cost $125. You're paying (for those conditions)."

One aspect of Olympia Hills that nearly everyone in San Antonio agrees on is this: The front nine is better -- or at least more eye-catching -- than the back nine.

The difference in "feel" is obvious. Nearly all the front nine holes play through thick trees. Two par 5s -- No. 2 and No. 6 -- are tight holes that snake through the trees and between hills. The two par 3s are great ones. No. 5 plays from an exposed, elevated tee box to a tree-framed green about 50 feet below. No. 7 is more than 200 yards from the men's tees, playing downhill to a well-guarded, sloping green. The 474-yard, par-4 No. 8 features a 50-foot drop from tee to fairway, rivaling the more famous "Cliff Hole" across town at La Cantera for view.

The back nine can leave a golfer feeling that the course just, well, ran out of steam. It's a good nine with some excellent holes; quality isn't the issue. Context is. The back nine is much more open, with several holes nearly treeless; homes -- and the highway, in one spot -- come into view. And most of the holes are comparatively flat.

Taken overall, Olympia Hills' 18 holes are a good mix of difficult and easy; spectacular and solid. But the contrast between the front nine and back nine stands out.

The course continues to grow, though, with the recent addition of the Joe Caruso Golf Academy. One permanent and one temporary building will be added to the course's practice area to house Caruso's learning center. Caruso brings more than 300 clients to Olympia Hills, many of them top high school or college golfers, and a few who are on the Futures Tour.

Wisecarver said Olympia Hills would begin marketing the Academy heavily once the buildings were in place.

For now, Olympia Hills continues to capitalize on its improved conditions to draw San Antonio golfers.

Said Borow: "I always boast that we have a very upscale layout and design, but offer the best price for the product in the San Antonio marketplace."

Stay and Play

Olympia Hills does not have stay-and-play arrangements with any area hotels. To find a place to stay while you play, there are several options.

First, drive along Interstate 35 in the Northeast part of San Antonio. Notice the many hotels along the highway. Pick one.

Second, head up IH-35 to New Braunfels, about 15 minutes north of the Olympia Hills exit, to find your hotel. New Braunfels offers access to another popular mid-priced golf course, The Bandit. If the kids are along, check the schedule at Schlitterbahn, regarded as one of the best water parks in America. Shoppers can drive another 20 minutes north to the outlet malls in San Marcos.

Third, head for Downtown San Antonio and find a room on the famous River Walk. If you're lucky -- if it's not a busy tourist weekend -- you might find a room overlooking the river. Hotels on the river are more expensive; to save a little money, check into hotels that are off-river but Downtown.

To learn more about the River Walk and lodging options, visit the Paseo del Rio Association's Web site, paseodelrio.com.

Another place to play: Retama Park Race Track, across the interstate from the Olympia Parkway exit. Live horse racing is offered through much of the year, with simulcast racing offered yearround.

Dining Out

Olympia Hills' dining room offers a full menu for breakfast and lunch. Chef Michael Goetz is known for his pastries and desserts, and the chili and barbecue come highly recommended.

Just a couple exits north on IH-35 is The Forum, one of the largest outdoor shopping malls in Texas. There are literally dozens of restaurants here. Fazoli's Italian Restaurant and Louie Ledeaux Cajun Seafood are two of the best; chains represented include Macaroni Grill, Sea Island and Outback Steakhouse. For your coffee fix, The Forum has a Starbucks with a drive-through.

Rudy's Country Store & Barbecue is on Interstate 35 just north of Olympia Hills. Its motto is "the worst barbecue in Texas," but don't worry, they're just funnin'.

A great hole-in-the-wall Mexico food joint in the neighborhood is Bee's Mexican Restaurant at 3975 Perrin Central Blvd.

Fast Fact

Named fourth-best new affordable public golf course in the U.S. by "Golf Digest" in 2001.

Brent Kelley, Contributor

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

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