Wildcat Golf Club brings out the stars

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- Super Bowl week brings a lot of things to a city. In Houston, the first Super Bowl in 30 years meant the national spotlight with thousands of visitors spending millions of dollars at nightclubs, restaurants and other entertainment venues.

It also meant golf, and for mortals, finding a tee time took some work during Super Bowl week in the Bayou City, especially if you wanted to play somewhere near where the big game was played. The biggest golf party, undoubtedly was going on at Wildcat Golf Club, the Roy Case designed 36-hole daily-fee complex just a couple of miles south of Reliant Stadium as the Titleist flies.

With the first course opening in 2001, Wildcat has been sort of an unofficial home of the NFL's Houston Texans with its proximity to the stadium. It's not uncommon to see local Houston celebrities -- former and past athletes, TV personalities and the like -- play there because of the location. But they also play there because of the golf courses, both of which provide unique layouts to the Houston area and top-notch conditioning.

Visiting NFL players and celebrities -- which included Jim Plunkett, Barry Sanders, Matt and Tim Hasselbeck and Joe Theisman, who played in a charity event before the Super Bowl -- were no doubt impressed with Wildcat.

"Super Bowl week was a great week for us despite the (cool) weather," said Wildcat head pro Trey Birchum. "We had a number of NFL players out that week, and they all had nothing but good things to say about the courses, the facilities and the staff."

The former Redskin Theisman, by the way, was the best player of the celebrities. "He hung up a 75 on the Lakes," said Birchum.

Local residents have known for the past couple of years what Theisman and the rest of the gang found out. Wildcat, with green fees ranging from $57 to $69, is a good play. The original Highlands Course is unlike anything else in Texas, featuring plenty of elevation changes, uneven lies, 44 bunkers (mostly greenside) and scenic natural areas (more on that in a moment).

It's a course that appears harder than it really is with its forced carries and 40 varieties of natural grasses that seem to pinch fairways. But there's really more room than you think, says Roy Case. And if you miss a green, chances are you have a good chance for recovery. Case believes in that, providing ample opportunity to chip around the greens, which aren't difficult to read and always putt true.

The Lakes Course, as its name implies, meanders around water hazards on half the holes, features a few challenging, forced carries and fewer blind shots than its sister course. Although it may not look it off the tee, it's probably the more difficult of the two with more demanding approaches because of the 40 acres of water. Both par-72 courses can play from about 5,000 to 7,000 yards with four sets of tees, giving players plenty of options. It just depends what you're in the mood for.

Both courses also offer spectacular vistas because of their layout and location. The seventh hole on the Highlands and the par-5 18th on the Lakes are the two of the highest elevation points in Harris County, which is normally just a few feet above sea level. The two areas not only afford great views of the rest of the golf course, but Houston as well.

To the northeast is the downtown skyline and Houston's famed Medical Center. Due north is Reliant Stadium and the Reliant Astrodome (how soon we forget) and the Six Flags AstroWorld theme park. And to the southwest is the Galleria area, which to visitors often looks like downtown west. The close proximity gives the course a surreal backdrop.

The 421-yard, par-4 seventh is Birchum's favorite hole on the Highlands because of the approach shot. Players must hit a tee shot as close as they can to the native areas and ravine that sits about 250 yards from the back tee, then hit an approach shot to a green that sits 55 feet above them, making club selection and solid contact crucial. "It's one of the toughest approach shots in the city," says Birchum.

His favorite hole on the Lakes Course is the 429-yard par-4 14th.

"It has one of the best scenic views of any hole in Houston," says Birchum, who likes the Lakes Course a little better because it's more driver friendly. "You are looking at the Houston skyline to your right and overlooking all the lakes on your left. You play from the fairway down to a green that is 40 feet beneath you -- a beautiful approach."

A unique feature serves as a reminder of what Wildcat used to be. Wildcatters are oil field workers and old pumpjacks, some of which still work, can be seen on the Highlands Course.

The land later became a landfill for BFI, which leased it for golf course development. That's right; there's garbage under the course. That was Case's challenge -- to turn an eyesore into a jewel. In fact, says Case, if you dig a few inches into the ground, you might come up with a tire piece or two that serves as a nice drainage layer under the turf and topsoil.

But there's no need to worry. Deep divots won't unearth any trash -- just a fat shot and another chance to make amends.

The Verdict

Great conditioning, location and a splendid design make Wildcat a must-play for any visitor. Case did a nice job or restoring wetlands that were once native to the area, while maintaining the heritage of the property. There are a number of blind shots on the Highlands Course, so playing it for the first time can be a bit tricky. It's also easy to lose wayward tee shots on those holes since you can't see them land. The range is large with plush grass lies, but it is on the other side of the parking lot and requires a golf cart just to get to it.

Dining out

Wildcat's Vista Grille (a great prime location for watching the Fourth of July fireworks display over downtown) has some of the best burgers in town from a menu that also features chicken sandwiches, nachos, etc., and full-service entrees like roast beef, stuffed pork chops, barbecue, fajitas and seafood items for special events.

Because of Wildcat's location, eating options away from the course are limitless. Downtown is just 15 minutes away, and the trendy Rice Village, located just a couple of miles northeast of Reliant Park, is loaded with some of the best eateries in the Houston. Here are a few examples: Brian O'Neill's Restaurant and Irish Pub, 5555 Morningside Dr. (713) 502-2603.

Mi Luna's Tapas Restaurant and Bar, 2441 University Dr. (713) 520-5025.

El Mason Cuban Mexican Restaurant, 2425 University Dr. (713) 522-9306.

Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, 2525 South Loop West. (713) 665-3155.

Where to stay

Wildcat is in the process of finalizing stay-and-play agreements with some of Houston's top hotels, so call the course before you come to town. In the meantime, here are a few options within a few miles of Wildcat: Comfort Suites Medical Center/Reliant Park, 1055 McNee Road. (713) 668-1436.

Holiday Inn Astrodome at Reliant Park, 8111 Kirby Dr. (713) 790-1900.

Crowne Plaza Medical Center, 6701 S. Main. (713) 797-1110.

Residence Inn by Marriott Houston Medical Center 7710 S. Main (713) 660-7993.

Fast fact

Of Wildcat's approximate 60,000 annual rounds, more than 10,000 of those are from charity outings.

Mike BaileyMike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in Houston. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America with an occasional trip to Europe and beyond, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 25 years in the golf industry. Before accepting his current position in 2008, he was on staff at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Follow Mike on Twitter at @MikeBaileyGA and Instagram at @MikeStefanBailey.

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