Archeology and golf seek harmony in Menard, Texas

By Jason Stone, Contributor

MENARD, Texas -- The little ranch town of Menard (pop. 1,676) is deep in the heart of Texas, located just a short drive southwest of the state's geographic epicenter at Brady, and one of the last Hill Country hamlets before the big skies of West Texas open up around San Angelo.

First established in the 1700s as the Spanish mission of Santa Cruz de San Saba, Menard was a site of fierce Indian resistance and eventually became an early trading post on the northwest cattle trails. Today Menard County is a small, undiscovered town on the western edge of Central Texas. Although cattle, goats, sheep and hunting game are economic mainstays for the area, the community boasts a multitude of unique sightseeing activities and a quaint nine-hole golf course west of town known as the Presidio Golf Club

Named after the old Spanish mission on the back side of the course, the Presidio spans 25 scenic acres along the gurgling San Saba River, offering an extremely affordable, laid-back Hill Country golf excursion along with the opportunity to soak in some of Texas' earliest history by visiting the archeological excavations that reside on the property.

The course is fairly short, playing a tad longer than 3,000 yards, creating chances to play it safe off the tee with long irons or fairway woods. The San Saba River highlights the course, impacting play on holes No. 3, 4, 5 and 8, and creating a lush look to the rugged Hill Country terrain.

No. 3 is the most beautiful hole at Presidio, challenging even for a 310-yard par-4 because it rolls back toward the river and offers the risk-reward chance of getting close to the green with the tee shot.

No. 5 is one of the better holes, a 342-yard par-4 that is sort of a blind dogleg out of a chute of trees. The approach can get away from you with the river looming right.

And the now-famous par-3 No. 8 is notable not only for its hourglass shaped green 128-yards away, but also for its proximity to the archeological excavations of the old mission. Enjoy No. 8 while it lasts because there's a decent chance the hole could be moved to accommodate the exploration of the mission.

Kevin Eger, who fled the concrete jungles of Houston almost two years ago to head to the hills and run Menard's course, maintains an aggressive maintenance program that keeps the Bermuda-tiff greens in excellent year-round condition and generally has the course looking better than it ever has in its 50-plus year existence.

When asked about other features aside from the mission that made the course a fun play, Eger joked about the cowboy-rancher clientele, "They've been known to fire a 12-gauge shotgun now and then and get into some fairly intense card games" -- a detail that definitely adds even more charm to the little ranch course that is becoming increasingly popular with wayward golf travelers. Not just for the entertaining course and the historic charms, but also for the overall value, with $10 green fees, free pull-carts when available, and the always welcomed "no tee-time required" policy.

However lately there's been a bit of controversy in quiet Menard, and it has become clear that the historical site and golf course don't necessarily mix. This past summer professors, students, and volunteers from all over the state ventured to Menard with the hopes of reconstructing the presidio and finding clues that will tell the story of Spain's hopeful conquest of the Great Plains.

Over the years, groups as large as 450 amateur archeologists have literally dug into the property adjacent to the course, finding impressive remnants such as glazed Spanish pottery, crosses, musket balls, medallions, and numerous other signs of daily life from the fort that was abandoned in 1781.

In the process, a golf-cart path and holes No. 7-9 have been affected at some point, creating complications for the club's 36 members and visiting golfers.

"The ruins are a unique accent to the course, but it's tough to play golf around an archeological exploration", said Eger, who seemed confused as to how Menard County could allow the researchers free reign of the county owned property without consideration of how it might impact course operations.

"As much work as we put into the course, it takes a long time for the scars of excavation to heal," said Eger.

Ultimately archeologists will continue to push for funding and access to reconstruct the presidio even though the county cannot afford to move the golf course. And thus far the nonprofit Presidio de San Saba Restoration Corp. hasn't been able to raise the estimated $5-$10 million dollars it would cost to manage the entire project, which would also include the reconstruction of the fort.

The good news is that now that the excavation project and golf course are gaining notoriety, communications and processes are bound to improve, increasing the chances of both sides walking away winners. And despite the strains imposed on the course by the project, it's not enough to take away from the immensely entertaining experience of playing a few rounds of Hill Country golf near, where in 1758, some 2,000 Comanche attacked the mission, burned it to the ground, and signaled the beginning of the end of Spain's attempt to conquer the Great Plains of North America.

Post-round don't miss the chance to explore Menard and the surrounding ranch country. In town ask the locals about the legend of the lost silver mine before getting lunch to-go at the Branding Iron BBQ or the Tex-Mex Ojeda's. Cruise the back roads and picnic by the river at Stockpen Crossing Park on Highway 2092, which is just across the river from the golf course. Note the farms that provide hay for area ranchers, and the frequent clusters of old burr oak trees, some that date back 250 years.

If you don't fish in some of the great spots along the river, another option is to track down the other primary spot of historical significance, Ft. McKavett, where you can tour the old ruins before shuffleboard and beers at The Fort Trading Post, a crusty old watering hole next door to the state park. Hat Creek Cabins (866-396-3399) can put you up and provide just about any kind of outdoor activity you could want, and the Copperas Creek B&B (325-446-3289) has rooms and proximity to the state park at Ft. McKavett.

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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