Up-and-coming South Padre Island features a pair of very solid courses

By Mike Bailey, Senior Staff Writer

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas - If you've never been and always wondered what it was like on the southern-most tip of the Texas coastline, you might want to hurry. Time is running out.

At least if you want to see it before it turns into South Beach - Texas style.

Becoming like South Florida won't happen overnight but the once-unspoiled stretches of coastal bliss, where you could get a 25-cent taco or a $5 seafood plate and drive what seemed like endless miles without seeing civilization, is growing up.

Over the past decade or so, MTV has put South Padre on the map of fortune with its spring break "co-eds gone wild" coverage. South Padre has responded with condos, hotels and businesses that have sprouted faster than a goatee on a sixth-year senior.

And why not? The island and the region, which is located about the same latitude as Miami, offers a year-round tropical climate, has been largely undeveloped for the past 100 years and still provides some of the cheapest real estate in the country - though that's changing quickly.

New high-rise premium condominiums on the island, for example, can command $400,000. However, there are still plenty of bargains available, especially if you're willing to live inland a few miles.

There's also golf and a couple fairly new courses that deserve to be rated with some of the best in Texas. South Padre Golf Club, which is home of the Texas Senior Open, is one of them, and it gives Texas one its few true seaside links-style courses. The other is Tierra Santa Golf Club in Weslaco.

Located on the Intercoastal Waterway in Laguna Vista just a couple of miles from the beach, South Padre Golf Club is a 6,931-yard, links-style layout designed to play in a 15-20 mph prevailing southeasterly wind. Designed by Landmark National's Chris Cole and Stephen Caplinger, the course isn't a true links layout (meaning it's not nine out, nine in), but the holes were designed with prevailing winds in mind.

That means short holes are generally into the wind, the breeze helps longer holes, and medium-length holes are often played in a crosswind. Greens are generous for the most part, so you don't have to be perfect, but you do have to play smart, said head professional Miki Goodger.

"Most people don't realize that the wind can be your friend," said Goodger, who along with her husband, project manager Brent Goodger, started at the course a little more than seven years ago, a few months after the course opened. "They have this preconceived notion that it's difficult, but the golf course was set up for it."

Like any pro, Goodger can't emphasize enough the importance of playing the proper tees according to ability and South Padre offers three sets. With that said, don't get "egoed" into thinking just because you can hit a driver 260 yards or more, you should play the back tees.

Tee choice really has more to do with conditions and how consistent a player is, especially when it comes to trajectory and being able to shape a shot, say, to hold the wind.

In other words, if you play close to scratch, give the back tees a whirl. If you're not a 5 or less, move up a little; even at 6,300 yards, which is the length from the second set, South Padre is plenty of golf course.

A perfect example is the par-3 12th hole. At 133 yards from the back and 116 from the blue, it might not seem like much of a hole. But either way, downwind or upwind, it's a beast with the course's smallest green surrounded by natural wetlands and marsh grass.

Goodger said she breathes a sigh of relief anytime she gets a shot on the green or even on the fringe.

"I'm very pleased," she said during a round recent round where her wedge shot rested just off the green about 20 feet from the hole. Two other members of the foursome that day made double-bogey or worse on the hole.

But while No. 12 is a hole you want to survive, most of the others are simply to enjoy. The fifth hole is a great risk-versus-reward 335-yard par 4 (296 from the blue tees) that big hitters might want to try to drive. The bailout is the beach to the right, which can make for a naturally long and difficult uphill bunker-shot to the green.

The seventh is a short par 5 that provides another great risk-reward option. There's a small lake left of a two-tiered green and plenty of trouble behind the green, which brings up another feature that more resort type courses could stand.

At South Padre Island, many of the grass areas that pinch in fairways or greens are marked as lateral hazards, which make it more fun for first-timers and definitely speeds up play if players who hit into them aren't hitting provisional balls.

Water comes into play on about five holes, including the 18th, a 410-yard finishing hole with a lake protecting the entire right side and a bunker in the left portion of the fairway. A long, skinny green brings three-putts into the equation, so there's no let up, even if you hit the final hole in regulation.

One warning though: Should you play the golf course during one of the dozen times a year that a cold front blows though (meaning a north wind), throw your score out the window. That would be a good time for match play or Stableford. The golf course just isn't designed for it.

The other must-play

Tierra Santa Golf Club offers visitors a completely different experience than SPI Golf Club. About 45 minutes away on the other side of Harlingen, the wind isn't as predominant as SPI, but still a major factor in this traditional-style layout that offers generous fairways and plenty of variety.

Designed by Golfscapes' Jeff Brauer with input from Steve Elkington, more than 50,000 cubic yards of earth were moved to create waterfalls, lakes and rolling terrain. There are 68 bunkers, additional grass bunkers, plenty of palm trees and two waterfalls that round out the experience on a golf course that's always in superb condition.

The course stretches out to 7,101 yards and offers four other sets of tees. Wide fairways with reachable par 5s make Tierra Santa a Godsend for anyone who likes to air out the driver.

Here, you don't have to be a scratch player most of the time to play from the tips - as long as you can hit it pretty far. But the back tees are not recommended for players who aren't single digit.

On the other hand, the course can be set up to play more difficult. Director of Golf Patrick Tobin likes the flexibility.

"It can be a very fun golf course," Tobin said. "The greens are extremely large … but on the other hand, (for top tournaments) we can firm up the greens, hide the pins, move tees back and grow the rough."

One of Tobin's favorite holes is the 10th, a short par 4 that plays to a long green that slopes severely from back to front. When the pin is in the front, even with a wedge, it's a challenge because you have to keep the ball below the hole. When the green is quick, just two-putting from above the hole requires a deft touch.

"You have to be accurate with your wedge for any shot at birdie," Tobin said.

Water comes into play on 13 holes, including the 14th, a 610-yard par 5 that requires three good shots for mortal players. A lake that runs along most of the hole actually almost forces a 3-wood or less off the tee, making the next two shots anything but easy.

Water also comes into play on 18, a strong finishing par 4, where a hazard on the right is features an intricate waterfall that players see as they leave the clubhouse on the way to the 10th tee.

All-in-all Tierra Santa offers a good variety of holes, including one of the best par-3 collections you'll see anywhere.

Off course

Dolphin and Nature Research Center: (956) 761-7178 - Interactive look at sea creatures, including dolphins.

Gladys Porter Zoo: (956) 546-7187 - This 31-acre preserve has more than 1,800 mammals, birds and reptiles. One of the top small zoos in the country. Located at Ringgold and Sixth streets in Brownsville. Open daily from 9 a.m. to sundown.

Schlitterbahn Water Park: (956) 772-7873 - It isn't as extensive as the original in New Braunfels, which rates as one of the best in the world, but the South Padre version that opened in 2001 is plenty fun for kids and adults alike. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, Schlitterbahn's highlights include the new Sea Trek, a highly interactive marine life experience.

Laguna Madre Nature Trail - Next to the Convention Centre and Whaling Wall No. 53, the Laguna Madre Nature Trail is a 1,500-foot boardwalk that extends across four acres of wetlands.

Matamoros, Mexico - A half hour south of the island, you can bargain shop for silver, leather goods and handicrafts at vibrant Mexican markets. Traditional dining and historical museums.

Rio Grande Valley Bird & Butterfly Paradise: (956) 233-6402 - Located two miles west of Los Fresnos. Nature, birds and tropical gardens thrive in this walking paradise.

Places to eat

Blackbeard's (Seafood)
03 E. Saturn
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-2962

Bubba's Bar-B-Que
1313 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 772-8000

Jessie's Cantina (Mexican - great shrimp enchiladas)
2700 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-4500

Louie's Backyard (Bayside buffet)
305 Laguna Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-6406

Marcello's Italian Restaurant and Lighthouse Pub
110 N. Tarnava
Port Isabel, TX
Phone (956) 943-7611

Scampi's Restaurant & Bar (seafood, pasta and Tex-Mex)
206 W. Aires
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-1755

Sea Ranch (waterfront dining, fresh seafood)
1 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-1314

El Pato (fresh, authentic Valley Mexican food)
209 N Westgate Dr.
Weslaco, TX
Phone: (956) 969-1414

Places to stay

South Padre Island Golf Club and Tierra Santa have teamed with several quality hotels on golf packages. Call for rates and information.

Comfort Suites
912 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 772-9020

Sheraton Hotel and Condominiums
310 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-6551

Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort
100 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-5401

Radisson Resort
500 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-6511

Suntide III Condominiums
3000 Gulf Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (800) 847-5728

La Copa Inn Resort
350 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 761-6000

La Quinta Inn & Suites South Padre Beach Resort
7000 Padre Blvd.
South Padre Island, TX
Phone: (956) 772-7000

Fairfield Inn and Suites (offers golf packages for Tierra Santa)
1005 Fairfield Blvd at Expressway 83
Weslaco, TX
Phone: (956) 968-6700

Courtyard by Marriott
1725 West Filmore Ave.
Harlingen, TX
Phone: (888) 267-8927

Getting there

South Padre is about 400 miles from Houston and nearly 300 miles from San Antonio. Fortunately, from both, you can take four-lane highways most of, if not all the way, there. Once you get to Corpus Christi, it's a straight shot down US Hwy. 77, about 150 miles.

The main airport that serves the area is Valley International in Harlingen, about 20 miles from Tierra Santa Golf Club and 40 miles from South Padre. Southwest, Continental and U.S. Air provide routes that connect through Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. There's also Miller International in McAllen further inland, which offers flights from American and Continental.

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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