Built on old dump, Wildcat recycles pleasure for Houston golfers

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

HOUSTON, Texas ­ You wouldn't ordinarily think pretty thoughts about a golf course built over an old dump, unless you were a garbage man, maybe.

That's what Florida architect Roy Case did with the Wildcat Golf Club here in Houston. He was handed a piece of property with a pedigree in Texas history; it was also the site of an oil field, set near a railroad junction.

In fact, pieces of old, rusted pump jacks, storage tanks and other unidentifiable, industrial detritus still litter the golf grounds. Before you start thinking toxic infestation, take the short drive from downtown Houston: this is one of the most scenic and interesting courses in the area.

It's one of only two courses in the city, for example. Forget the high-falutin courses in the ritzy suburbs ­ depending on the traffic, Wildcat is anywhere from a 10-minute to a six-week drive from downtown.

It shows what can be done when a city invests in a neighborhood restoration project.

"It's the ultimate in recycling," Case told Texas Golfer.

That it is, and a hilly one at that. When the course opened in 2001, Houstonians said "goll-lee" over the hills, unheard of in this part of the flat Texas landscape, just a short, pickup truck drive from the Gulf Coast.

Of course, Case and his cronies had to dig down through a 10-foot layer of industrial goop and move two million cubic yards of dirt to make it that way, so it isn't exactly following the natural contours of the land ­ but who would want to do that in an old landfill anyway? By the way, there is no lingering fragrance: the dump closed more than 20 years ago.

The hills provide views of the Houston skyline, from the Galleria to downtown, including Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. Not coincidentally, it is the "preferred" course of the Texans.

There are elevation changes as drastic as 100 feet, and the whole course winds up, down and through these here hills. Case mixed in a nice variety of uphill and downhill shots that ensure quite a few blind and semi-blind shots, both off the tee and to the green. There are very few trees.

That being said, the course appears at first glance much more difficult than it actually is. Most of the par-4s are more strategic than they are long: in fact, six are under 400 yards, but they keep you interested.

There are quite a few forced carries off the tee, but none that will cause more than a moderate fear factor. There are also some forced layups off the tee, unless you're 400 yards with the driver. Most of the landing areas are Texas-sized big,

No. 7 is an exception. A 421-yard par-4 from the back tees, you should lay up in front of a big ravine. The second shot looks almost straight uphill ­ you can barely see the tip of the flag ­ to a two-tiered, humped green that slopes sharply right to left. It's a difficult putt if you're not on the right side of the hole.

"That's a weird hole for me," said assistant pro Jim Murphy. "With the wind, you can sometimes hit a driver, but the ravine is 220 yards even from the blue (middle) tees. It makes for a tough shot uphill. That's definitely a hole you need to think about what you're going to hit off the tee."

The verdict

This is a first-class course that throws a lot of different looks at you, while still being imminently playable; most of the greens have extensive collection areas surrounding them, so you don't have to be laser-accurate.

It's a different course for Houstonians to play, with the elevation changes, but those who live in hillier terrain will appreciate it.

The back nine is a little tougher than the front, though seven of the nine front holes have forced carries of varying length ­ some tough, some not.

Most of the 44 bunkers are flat and gravelly. With Tif Eagle greens and Tif Sport fairways, locals say the course is kept in good shape most of the year.

Owned and operated by Redstone Golf Management, which also is responsible for Blackhorse, Houstonian, and Shadowhawk, the service is good as well.

Green fees are reasonable: from $15 for a junior super twilight rate up to $69 for regular weekend rates.

Stay and play

The Houstonian Hotel, Club and Spa is a centrally located hotel for golf in the Houston area, sitting on an 18-acre tract of land smack in the bustling heart of the city, adjacent to the Galleria and Memorial Park. The hotel looks like something an old, oil baron might have built to impress his missus. There are floor to ceiling wooded views, wood parquet floors, dark wood paneling and a roaring, gas fireplace in the big, comfortable lobby.

You can get a workout other than golf ­ the Houstonian Fitness Club and Trellis Spa is a massive thing ­ a 125,000 square-foot facility that has more than 30 certified personal trainers.

There are three pools, a rock-climbing wall, boxing ring, eight tennis courts and a full-court gym for basketball and volleyball. The hotel is also affiliated with the Redstone Golf Club, home of the Shell Houston Open. The hotel concierge can arrange tee times and transportation.

The hotel has 288 guest rooms, 32,000 square-feet of meeting space and all the up-to-date technology business types could want.

Dining out

Olivette is the Houstonian's main restaurant, serving American food ­ definitely try the Southwest salad with shrimp, but stay away from the mini-burgers - they are mini and few.

The Manor House is adjacent to the hotel, open daily for lunch and the Center Court Café is at the Houstonian Club.

Fast fact

If you like your golf teachers young, Matt Swanson, recently named one of the "top 10 teachers under the age of 40" by a major golf magazine, has an instruction school at the club.

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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