Mountain golf in Far West Texas is heaven on Earth
In places like Colorado, where it's common to brag about how the elevation helps your shot, designers have countered the benefit by lengthening the courses. And if you think about it, every time you have the chance to golf in a setting where altitude can help your game, you're on vacation playing five-star resort courses with outrageous slope ratings. Not in far West Texas.
In the remote, small, mountain towns of Alpine and Marfa, you can experience the benefits of altitude on "common man" courses that have been set up for average folk. What joy it brings to take your average golf game to a simple, straightaway course with minimal hazards and unleash a drive that might carry 12 percent farther!
ALPINE, Texas (Elev. 4,481, Pop. 5,488)
Located in the foothills of the Davis Mountains in northwest Brewster County, Alpine is sometimes referred to as the "Alps of Texas" and is unquestionably the region's cultural hot spot. Alpine is the seat of Brewster County, a vast mountainous area of 5,935 square miles that's the largest county in Texas and larger than the state of Connecticut.
Originally named Osborne, the town began in 1882 when railroad workers set up camp along a small spring-fed creek at the foot of what is known today as 'A' Mountain. To gain control of the springs as a source of water for steam engines, the railroad negotiated a deal with the Murphy family and changed the name to Murphyville. By 1888 the town consisted of three saloons, a hotel and boarding house, livery stable, butcher shop, drug store, and post office. Thankfully the residents petitioned to change the name to Alpine.
Today's Alpine is the hub of a huge ranching area, home to Sul Ross State University, and a jumping-off point for excursions into Big Bend National Park. Recent growth has been fueled by an influx of affluent retired people who take advantage of Alpine's ranking as one of the 50 safest and most economical places for retirement in the United States. The climate and remote location make Alpine a popular vacation spot.
Alpine Country Club (432-837-2752, 9 holes, par 35, 2,788 yards)
The Alpine C.C. is a charming nine-hole course that is routed around the pesky Kokernut Creek, which doesn't have much water in it, but is surrounded by a Grand Canyon-esque gorge that sucks in golf balls like a magnet.
This short course dates back to the 1940s and is highlighted by its greens, which are extremely small, dome-shaped, and in superb condition. Their unique shape means that no matter where they cut the hole, you'll never have a simple pin placement. The key is being aware that your bail-out area is always short of the green, enabling a chip from below the hole rather than from the side or behind the green. Chip shots that are close to being perfect, but not quite there, will skim by the hole and roll down off the green, often into a bunker, leaving a more pitiful predicament out of the sand.
The course layout has been modified recently, which most profoundly impacts the finishing three holes. Nos. 7-9 are difficult, particularly for first-timers. The par-5 No. 7 (formerly No. 3), is tough because it's impossible to determine how to negotiate the creek and its surrounding gorge. Lay it up close and be ready to hit a solid second shot to carry it. Hole No. 8 is either a challenging par 3 or a short par 4 depending on which nine you're playing. No. 9 is the perfect finishing hole-a tight fairway lined by danger, playing into a the largest green on the course with tons of subtle undulations.
Much of the charm comes from the natural-rock clubhouse that sits below the hills and beside the wide Kokernut Creek bed. In those hills to the east lie a few interesting houses that overlook the course.
Alpine's pro shop is closet-sized but functional, offering only the basic amenities and cold beers for $1.50. The bar next door has a rowdy edge to it that must be experienced by any traveling golfer.
MARFA, Texas (Elev. 4,688, Pop. 2,078)
Scenic, healthy, and absolutely remote, Marfa sits on a high desert plateau at an elevation of 4,830 feet, with the scenic Davis Mountains looming to the north. The climate is superb, with summer highs rarely reaching 90 and evening temps in the 60s. Originally just a water stop on the railroad, Marfa experienced its pinnacle in the 1940s and 50s, when ranching empires sprang up and Hollywood brought Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean to the El Paisano Hotel to film the movie Giant. Once labeled as one of the "10 Best Small Towns in America," Marfa has more to offer the wayward golfer than just the highest course in Texas.
Marfa Municipal Golf Course (432-729-4043, nine holes, par 36, 3,265 yards)
Playing the highest course in Texas is a special experience. Wide-open, firm fairways that enhance roll, shots that travel farther because of the altitude, and some of the best greens you'll ever play, this course is a must-play if you're traveling in this remote region. And while walking is highly recommended if you have time, an early morning round in a cart can be completed in less than an hour.
In terms of hazards, water comes into play on two of the nine holes, and the common Bermuda rough can be thick in the summer. There are not a ton of trees, but what's there is mature and there seem to be just enough to get in the way if you stray from the middle of the fairway.
Like Alpine, the greens are dome-shaped, immaculate, and by far the most challenging aspect to scoring well. If you're not an accurate iron player, and especially if the wind is blowing strong, play low-running shots that have the chance to roll on the green. As for a standout hole, the longish par-4 No. 9 might be the most difficult, only because of its length.
Out here you'll find some of the most remote golf courses in the world, and they're not of the typical upscale, daily-fee genres that are so often written about. West Texas is "off the beaten path" at its finest, and because no one has covered these courses, few people know about them. The beauty of playing the game in West Texas is that you don't have to fight the crowds and time seems to move at a slower pace. You notice wildlife you wouldn't see on a high-dollar city course, the fees are unbelievably cheap, the highways are desolate and you can hop from town to town on a golf adventure like no other - all positive aspects that negate the fact that you're playing a course of lesser condition.
One word of caution: The locals are proud of their communities and golf courses (deservedly so), and are sometimes wary of big city travelers who they perceive as "foreigners." One course manager in particular surprisingly displayed this type of bitter attitude. In general, small-town hospitality is a given in this part of the world, but if you're unlucky, don't let it negatively affect your experience or impressions of the golf courses.
Stay & Play
Alpine If your timing is right, catch a baseball game at historic Kokernut Field , which sits on the banks of the creek of the same name and is adjacent to the golf course. Or explore the craggy west Texas mountains 26 miles south on TX 118, where the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area offers six-mile drive-through tours that give you the chance to see the rare desert bighorn sheep. The Reata gets the headlines with its fancy Southwestern cuisine, but the savvy traveler joins the locals at La Casita for tasty Mexican food. If staying, go old-school funky at the 1912 Holland Hotel , where the fourth-floor penthouse sports a rooftop deck. Don't forget your earplugs: the train rolls by all night long.
Marfa Check into the newly restored 1930 Hotel Paisano (866-729-3669) and take a gander at the plush suites that hosted Hollywood during the filming of Giant. Grab a bite to eat on the patio downstairs, or mosey over to the lively Borunda's Bar & Grill (432-729-8163), just down the street from the original Borunda's where James Dean ate a few meals (now a gift shop).
Carmen's Café is a tasty breakfast spot, Mike's Place is the place for burgers, and Patsy's Thunderbird can fill you up with home cookin.' After supper, cruise into the eclectic Marfa Book Company for some wine and intellectual stimulation, then take a late-night drive to find the mystical Marfa Lights, now viewable via a brand-new visitors center east of town. Other accommodations include the Holiday Capri Inn (432-729-4326) and the Arcon Inn (432-729-4826), a quaint B&B on N. Austin St.
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. For more information visit texasgolfbible.com.
January 14, 2005