Sprawling Houston has golf for those willing to risk wild traffic

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

HOUSTON, Texas - If you're in the unlikely process of planning a golf trip to Houston, bring your clubs, compass, global positioning system and enough food and water to last a week when you become desperately lost on one of its endless series of interstates, beltways, loops, boulevards and tollways.

Houston has this traffic phenomenon known as "reversible lanes" and more one-way streets than heaven or hell. Streets change names abruptly and re-emerge several blocks later with no explanation.

The city's traffic is among the worst in the U.S., according to the Texas Transportation Institute. It had an average of 58 hours of gridlock in 2002 and it's only getting worse.

When you're stuck in traffic, it's usually because of road construction. Interstate 45 has been undergoing major construction since the 1950s. There is no effective mass transit system: there are busses and trolleys but they are lost amid the constant sound of jackhammers and earth-movers.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the country and the biggest mess in the world, outside of Mexico City and Fallujah.

There are no zoning laws. That is not a misprint. It's painfully obvious when you drive around this schizophrenic, concrete planet - you have strip malls in residential neighborhoods and random skyscrapers suddenly materializing in front of you.

You have huge, car dealerships next to fancy hotels and erotic boutiques in staid, business centers. There is a downtown, a midtown and an uptown. There are two Chinatowns.

The metro area boats more than five million people, and the airport system is the sixth largest in the world. People started moving here during the Texas oil boom of the 1950s and they haven't let up.

Why? It's crowded and chaotic, it has some of the worst ozone pollution in the country and it's hot and humid as hell.

Yet, you find plenty of people who were born and raised here and have never left, and others who have moved here and say they will never leave.

"Everything is here," said bartender Susan Gillespie. "It's not like Dallas, all spread out. You get used to the traffic, I don't think it's that bad. And there's just so much to do."

Despite urban sprawl run amock, Houston does have a vitality to it. It's the hometown of David Koresh, Roger Clemens, Tommy Tune and ZZ Top, among others. You can eat out cheaper than almost any other city in the country.

It's officially nicknamed "Space City," but locals prefer "Bayou City," with four major bayous reaching into the city at various points. People here claim to be more down to earth than their big, snooty in-state rivals in Dallas.

That working-class pride is balanced with big oil money - you can drive right by the headquarters of Halliburton, just don't try to bid against them - and the high-tech aeronautical industry.

Houston isn't known for its golf, but the city did see quite a few courses go up during the golf construction boom of the 1990s.

"When I first got here in the 1970s, there were only two public courses," said Houston resident Tom Snell. "Now, there are quite a few, in every neighborhood."

Houston has some very nice, exclusive clubs, and at least 50 public courses worth playing, with a handful standing out.

Must plays

The TPC at the Woodlands Resort, 30 minutes north of Houston, is usually named one of the top 10 resort courses in the state. It's the former host of the Shell Houston Open and features stadium seating and two of the toughest closing holes, No. 17 and 18, in Texas.

The bad part is the club will revert to a private club the first of the year; officials are offering good deals to the public through December.

Tour 18 of Houston consists of "carefully simulated holes from some of the greatest golf holes in America."

No. 2, for example, is a simulation of No. 6 at Bay Hill in Orlando; No. 4 is a simulation of Inverness' No. 18, a 354-yard par-4 and one of the shortest finishing hole in championship golf; and 18 is inspired by No. 18 at Doral.

Blackhorse Golf Club features an "authentic" sand quarry that provides an interesting architectural touch. It's a dynamic feature that gives contrast to the sand, rolling fairways and oak trees that are scattered around the course.

The last four holes are particularly a quarry quandary. On the 560-yard, par-5 fifth hole, for example, a creek meanders through the center of the fairway, and the quarry runs the length of the left side and sneaks up behind the green. It's a risk/reward hole, but architects Peter Jacobsen and Jim Hardy obligingly lent a bail-out area to the right.

Redstone Golf Club is a big-hitter's dream. Of course, there is a catch. You can't be a drooling gorilla off the tee here. You have to be able to hit it relatively straight. Still, there won't be any layups off the tee - no baby 3-woods or sissy long-irons.

This is a man's course in other ways - no gimmicks like misplaced waterfalls, pot bunkers, railroad ties, split fairways, bizarre bunker complexes, greens that fall off into oblivion or the like. It's just 7,508 yards of mano a mano - a man and his driver.

Wildcat Golf Club was built over an old city dump and oil field. 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.

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.

Meadowbrook Farms, which Greg Norman has designed in Katy, outside Houston, is as different as night and day, as different as a bogey and birdie, yet manages to capture the essence of this part of Texas. That's because Norman was given a piece of lonesome Texas prairie with a line of trees running along on one side of a creek bed and told to go to work.

Solid seconds

The Oaks at Woodlands will soon be one of the resort's two courses available to guests, as well as the public, and it's a good fit. The Oaks is a pleasant enough course, just not very memorable; there really is nothing bad you can say about it, but neither is there anything truly memorable you can point out.

Panther Trails is a very pleasant resort course, not too demanding, that winds through a fairly quiet, fairly ritzy neighborhood that is one of the better known areas in this part of south Texas.

Off course

To get a true sense of Houston, take a free tour of the Houston Ship Channel on the Sam Houston Inspection Ship. It tours the upper seven miles of the deep water channel.

If interested in Texas history, you might visit the USS Texas, a dreadnought battleship, the last of its kind. The old battleship also fought in World War II, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. It's located across from the San Jacinto Monument and Museum, also worth a look.

For more modern attractions, try shopping at the Galleria or the Museum of Fine Arts, said to be the best public art museum in Texas. The Contemporary Arts Museum, at the corner of Montrose and Bissonnet, has no permanent collections, so what you see will depend on what it shows when you are there.

Dining out

Try Berryhill Hot Tamales in the River Oaks area; for the best Tex-Mex, or El Tiempo Cantina in Greenway Plaza; the Rainbow Lodge for a romantic dinner.

For breakfast, try 59 Diner near Shepherd Square and for the best burger, order a Buffalo Burger at The Mockingbird.

Stay and play

The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center is located north of Houston, where you can still see coyotes leaping across the Interstate. The resort makes a big deal of being environmentally sensitive, as do most modern resorts, but this one has miles of biking and hiking trails back in the woods to back it up. Hard to believe there's that much green space left in the Houston sprawl, but there it is.

The resort caters to the corporate crowd, with more than 60,000 square feet of conference space, business centers and the like, such as high-speed Internet access and handy modem connections at your room desk.

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

It 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.

Hotel Derek is a modern hotel three miles from the Houstonian, complete with shiny metal and glass, and techno music playing subtly in the background, as well as a video of a roaring fireplace in the lobby and in your room.

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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