The Palms at Pleasure Island makes drive to Port Arthur well worth the effort
PORT ARTHUR, Texas -- After nightfall, Port Arthur is an a endless city of lights. Not exactly Paris, these lights shine on industry, not glamour. With daylight, it's a daunting maze of pipes and tanks and fire. Ever wonder where all those petroleum products come from?
Port Arthur is a working town on the southern tip of the Golden Triangle, which also includes big brother Beaumont to the north and Orange to the northeast on the Louisiana border. On weekends, downtown Port Arthur can be so quiet you wonder if all the people who work in those miles of refineries actually live somewhere else.
Port Arthur, which has produced the likes of former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson and late blues singer Janis Joplin, isn't exactly a tourist destination and doesn't bill itself as one. Yet, for those with a rugged sense of adventure who don't mind roughing it at the Ramada or Motel 6, there are treasures to be discovered. Among them is a golf course, which opened last spring and offers a backdrop you're not likely to find anywhere else in the world.
At nearly 7,000 yards from the tips, The Palms at Pleasure Island, built on the banks of the Sabine-Neches waterway, offers as good a test as you'll find in Southeast Texas and is arguably the best course in the Golden Triangle. Yet, The Palms found peril almost from the beginning. Built and designed by its first head pro, Johnnie Barlow Sr., local golfers didn't exactly flock to play it. That comes despite ringing endorsements from native sons Marty Fleckman and Bruce Lietzke, who were there for the grand opening tournament.
No doubt, The Palms' original $40 weekend fees were too rich for local blue collar linksters accustomed to $18 rates and low-cost "country club" memberships. And attempts to market to Houston 100 miles to the west were only mildly successful.
In the meantime, there were bills to pay, (despite the modest estimated price tag of $1.75 million) and revenue wasn't pouring in for the original partners who leased the course from the Pleasure Island Commission. Fortunately, the Commission worked out a deal, took over the golf course, and to step up rounds, it lowered green fees at the end of 2003. For just $25 on the weekends, you can now play The Palms, including cart. Locals are responding, and The Palms future appears bright.
The first thing you'll notice when you drive up are the namesake palm trees, which were imported from Florida and bear the names of those who donated to pay for them. It immediately gives the course a tropical feel. The spacious Spanish style clubhouse looks anything but municipal with its well-stocked golf shop, big screen TV and outside decking to view the ninth and 18th holes.
The course itself is a blend of marshes, native grasses and elevation changes perched against the backdrop of a ship channel that routinely allows the slow passage of tankers, freighters and barges. There are four holes right along side it, and if you hit a big enough hook and you might possibly send a Titleist to Russia.
"It's really neat when the Navy ships come through to the Port of Beaumont," said assistant Adam Wallace, who has spent his whole life in the Port Arthur area. "You won't find that on any other golf course.'
But even without the backdrop, the course stands well on its own. Superintendent Bryan Jackson, who also now serves as head professional, prides himself on conditioning and has maintained the Palms to country club standards. They didn't overseed this past winter, so Jackson is forecasting a spectacular spring transition.
Jackson expects 2004 to a banner year for The Palms, which he considered far and away the best course in the area.
"I'm going to see to it, through course conditions and publicity," says Jackson. "Our conditions will definitely set us apart from the rest."
And so does the course.
Anything but a pushover, The Palms requires thinking off the tee, precision approach shots and your attention on the greens. No two holes are alike and there are 43 bunkers. The Palms bears little resemblance to the former Pleasure Island golf Course that once laid on three-quarters of the land of the present course until it closed down in 1980.
With four sets of tees, the Palms plays 6,906 yards from the tips with most of the holes running parallel to the ship channel. One exception is the par-3, 14th, the shortest hole on the course, but one of the most difficult. At 128 yards with some kind of wind always present, club selection and trajectory control are critical, not to mention accuracy. The small green is guarded by wetlands to right and front and mounding to the left and behind.
The front nine eases you into the round, but you'll soon find out with the par-5, fourth, a 600-yarder, that The Palms has teeth. The sixth, the No. 1 handicap hole, is 452 yards with an elevated green. If played into the wind, good players will be hitting fairway woods on approach shots.
The 12th, a 415-yard is perhaps the most scenic hole, with the channel behind an elevated and well-guarded green and the Sabine Lake to the right.
"That's my favorite hole on the course," says Jackson. "The green sits up on a 50-foot peninsula and the view is spectacular."
The 17th is a drivable par-4 hole at 300 yards, but a lake all the way down the right side and fairway bunkers 50 yards in front of the green make it a risky proposition. And the 461-yard par-4 finishing hole is as tough as any. You'll need a big tee shot for a reasonable approach to a green that's fronted by a water hazard.
Laying up on the approach is the best strategy for many. But before you do that, you'll need to drive to Port Arthur. It's a shot worth taking.
Stay and Play
There are several chain hotels and motels available in Port Arthur just a mile or two away from The Palms, but for those who want to be right there, you might want to try the Cajun Cabins on Pleasure Island, less than a mile from the golf course. There are 17 cabins available and rates start at $67.50 a night for two people, $10 for each additional adult. Weekly rates are $184. Call (409) 982-6050 for more information or reservations.
Other places to play
The Golden Triangle isn't exactly a golf Mecca, but you can experience a number of decent courses at bargain prices.
Just 13 miles up the road from the Palms on Highway 73 toward Houston is Belle Oaks Golf Club, a semiprivate club opened in 1955 and created by Ralph Plummer, the same architect who designed Champions in Houston. Course conditions have deteriorated over the years, but new management, headed by part owner and head pro Jerry Honza have vowed to restore it to its former grandeur. 15075 Country Club Dr., Beaumont, (409) 796-1312
Bayou Din Golf Club opened its original 18 in the late '50s and in 1993 added a new links nine that's worth the trip alone. Located in Beaumont, the course is named for the Turkey Bayou that winds through the course. Small greens and tree-lined fairways present the most challenge on the original Bayou Course. The 12th hole on the original course features an island green. 8537 Labelle Road, Beaumont. (409) 796-1237.
The Palms' Barlow also designed Rabbit Run at Brooks Road. Opened in 1995, the par-70 is Beaumont's newest course and offers players a moderate test at under 6,300 yards from the back tees. Brooks Road, Beaumont, (409) 866-7545.
Also worth mentioning is the Pleasure Island Disc Golf Course just across the street from the Palms. (Frisbees instead of golf balls for those unfamiliar with the game.) Playing it is free and it's hosted several world championships.
Other things to do
You'll find Holly Beach just 25 miles east into Louisiana, plenty of casinos in nearby Lake Charles, and fishing, of course, is popular both on- and off-shore. You might also want to consider an airboat ride through the swamps. Call Super Gator Tours at (800) 241-6390.
A must-visit for anyone coming to the Palms is the Museum of the Golf Coast located across the waterway from the course. You'll be surprised to find out how many famous politicians, athletes and entertainers hail from the Golden Triangle. Besides, former Cowboys coach Johnson and singer Joplin, the area was home to "Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson (the Beaumont disc jockey who became famous with "Chantilly Lace" and died with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane crash), Texas Rangers owner and media mogul Thomas Hicks and Babe Zaharias, perhaps the finest female athlete of all time. The two-story museum chronicles the entire history of the region, its natural beginnings, its oil history and the people who built it and made the area their home. Highlight is perhaps Joplin's psychedelic Porsche.
Admission is just $3.50 for adults and the museum is open seven days a week. 700 Procter Rd., Port Arthur. (409) 982-7000.
Photos courtesy of Port Arthur News photographer Brian Vincent
The Palms is about 100 miles east of Houston and 40 miles south of Beaumont. From Houston, take Interstate 10 east and take the exit for State Highway 73 into Port Arthur. Stay on 73 and continue over the 165-foot tall Martin Luther King Bridge to Pleasure Island. Follow the signs to the golf course.
The course features a functional range and quality putting green that fronts the ship channel. Green fees are $25 on the weekend, $19.50 during the week. Senior and junior rates are also available.
January 6, 2004