Dallas-Fort Worth fringe offers hidden finds for adventurous golfers

By Jason Stone, Contributor

Restless, die-hard golf bums in search of the next goat track play the game because they know that every now and then, whether it's by the grace of God, unbelievable luck, inherent golf skill, friendship, or whatever, golf turns surprisingly transcendent - something found in few other sporting pursuits.

Marketing firms and glossy publications push us to the newest golf Mecca, recommending high-dollar courses and ignoring the off-the-beaten path destinations. Consider the Dallas-Fort Worth area for example, a great golf destination with courses like the Cowboys Golf Club, Tour 18, The Tribute, TPC Las Colinas, and dozens of other "must-play" golf spots tempting hacks in search of the ever elusive golf orgy. However the wayward golfer welcomes the fringes, and it is in this spirit that the lesser-known DFW-area golf locales of Dennis and Farmersville should come into consideration when exploring North Texas' fairways and greens.

Farmersville, Texas (Pop. 3,118) -- Leatherwood Ranch Golf Course (972-784-7338, nine holes, par 34, 2,119 yards)

Not far from McKinney, but not totally established yet as a Dallas-Fort Worth commuter community, Farmersville is a quiet little town with quaint shops and historic buildings, and just far enough away from the hustle and bustle of Dallas to go unnoticed. In its early days, Farmersville was a railroad shipping point for cattle and cotton. Dallas will grow here eventually, but for now it's just a great little spot for the always-needed golf day trip at the immensely entertaining Leatherwood Ranch Golf Course.

Cal Merritt, a former real estate man, grabbed this 40-acre farm and rock quarry when times were good back before the real-estate crash in the late 1980s. The upkeep was a problem and he wasn't convinced that he was a cattle rancher, so following his passion for golf and building a golf course seemed like the perfect way to have some fun and make the place look pretty.

He's definitely succeeded with his new, self-architected Leatherwood Ranch golf course, which is located just past the Dairy Queen and opened for play in 1999. Here you can escape the city, avoid the crowds, and play for a fraction of what the big city courses charge ($22 for 18 holes with cart
on weekends). Consistently ranked as one of Texas' top 10 nine-holers, Leatherwood will surely grow in popularity over the years as the metroplex spreads and golfers find out about this little gem.

The design is impressively clever. It features nine holes made up of seven par-4 holes and two par-3 holes, highlighted by small, dome-shaped greens that are extremely firm. A creek that impacts play several times and a big rock quarry both add character to the layout. The quarry comes into play on the signature hole, No. 7, which offers the risk-reward option of hitting over the quarry or laying up.

There are no bunkers, but water comes into play quite a bit. The creek impacts play on holes 1-4. No. 6 has water on the left, and hole No. 8 sets up perfectly for a bad slice into the water. The hardest hole is the par- 4 No. 9 because of its 334-yard length.

The best part about the day at Leatherwood is the casual, laid-back atmosphere. As Mr. Merritt states, "Blue jeans are expected." His theory that "denim is one of the most practical pairs of pants to play golf in" is something that all of us country club pretty boys might want to consider every now and then.

Consider post-round festivities in Leatherwood's grill, which is cozy, overlooks the golf course, and is run by the attractive, vibrant daughter of the Merritt's. You'll enjoy the regulars as they partake in post-round revelry that includes cold beers and karaoke. The grill offers hamburgers and hot dogs on the weekends, along with homemade desserts.

For dinner, there is the all-you-can-eat Catfish Heaven (972-734-1960; 311 E. Princeton Dr.) conveniently located on the road back to Dallas in Princeton, or you can head to Lake Lavon and find The Cove Bait & Tackle (972-784-8944; 116 E. Hwy 380). Loaded with fishing photos from the lake, it's a good spot with local flavor for a deli sandwich and cold drink.

Dennis, Texas (Pop. 90) -- Sugar Tree Golf Club and 'The Retreat' (817-341-1111, 18 holes, par 71, 6,726 yards)

There's just not much to Dennis, a town that rests on FM 1189 about 15 miles southwest of Weatherford. The town's roots go back to an 1892 Brazos River bridge that gave reason for development, and the community grew to serve the area's farmers and ranchers.

Restless golfers in the DFW area know about Dennis because of the outstanding little Sugar Tree Golf Course that rolls along the river. Rural and off-the-beaten path, it is an affordable road trip destination ($55 with cart) worth the time for any golfer, especially if you have time to make a weekend of it by taking advantage of Sugar Tree's soon-to-be-famous "The Retreat."

Fort Worth area golfers know about Sugar Tree, but unfortunately the news hasn't spread much farther about this must-play golfing gem laid out on the banks of the Brazos River. Built by Phil Lumsden in the North Texas Hill Country, this is a course easy to fall in love with because of its unique character and small-town charm. Every hole is memorable, with magnificent old oak trees, 55 bunkers in play, water in play on most of the holes, lots of interesting blind golf shots, and quality, average-size greens that putt true.

No. 1 is one of the better holes, a challenging 402-yarder 4 with a creek along the left that cuts in front of the green. Hole No. 5 also stands out on the front, highlighted by the trees in the center of the fairway -- you'll need to pay attention to your tee shot on this long par-5 hole.

On the back the signature 210-yard No. 12 features a creek that runs from the left of the tee across the fairway, with a neat-looking water wheel by the green providing some country charm. On the 15th, an old barn that lies next to the fairway is another example of Sugar Tree's rugged character.

The La Quinta in town is brand new, and a good place to grab a quick bite is Baker's Ribs, but the only way to do Sugar Tree right is by renting one of their two houses on the river, called The Retreat , and bring your own food to make a weekend of it. The accommodations are available for $575 per night, and easily can sleep 10 golfers.

The best part is that the price includes a pristine, private six-hole golf course that allows for all sorts of creative golf games (try the blind shots over the houses), as well as river frontage for fishing and outdoor grill accommodations.

In town, the old-school meat market Hamilton'scan provide all of the meat you'll need. Suffice it to say that The Retreat is an option that truly makes Sugar Tree special.

Jason Stone, Contributor

Jason Stone is the author of The Texas Golf Bible, an 800-page golf/travel book that is the perfect inspiration for filling up the ice chest, spreading out the maps, throwing the clubs in the back of the truck, and heading down the road for a golf adventure.

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