Panhandle serves up Bermuda Triangle of Texas golf
LUBBOCK, Texas -- Described as one of the most perfect plains regions on earth, the Llano Estacado rises from the rugged sprawl of the Caprock into the High Plains, the perfect place for road trippers seeking space and endless horizon, but not traditionally considered the most ideal golf destination. However one of the true highlights of any High Plains tour should be the wild nine-hole golf courses scattered across the Texas Panhandle.
Towns like Jayton, Floydada, Friona, Darrouzett, and McLean generally have only a few thousand residents and mostly seem more like living ghost towns than active communities. Drive through Friona at 4 p.m. on a brisk afternoon, or wander through McLean on a 30 degree morning with 40 mph winds, and you'll be able to taste the loneliness.
Here in the northwestern-most corner of Texas, sometimes referred to as the Big Nothing, Lubbock and Amarillo are the only cities with a significant population. As for golf, there are 49 golf towns, 73 golf courses, and 945 golf holes, with more than 90 percent of the facilities open to the public. Of the 49 cities, few have populations of over several thousand or anything beyond a single nine-hole golf course. And you won't find many sand bunkers - the high winds would just blow the sand away.
All told, the Panhandle region serves up an impressive 39 nine-holers and some of the most affordable golf in Texas. One recent High Plains fandango led to a few very interesting small-town golf experiences.
Jayton, TX (Pop. 508) - Kent County Golf Course (806-237-4970, 9 holes, Par 35, 2,719 yards)
Jayton, the seat of oil-rich Kent County, is sandwiched between the towns of Aspermont and Post in the foothills of the Caprock. Zane Grey, the greatest storyteller of the American West, visited here in the early 1900s and used the setting for his novel The Thundering Herd. Grey, along with many other writers and artists, was attracted to Putoff Canyon 3 miles north of town. Today golfers from all around are attracted to this immaculate nine-holer that boasts well over 100 members, amazing for a town of only 500 people.
Owned by Kent County, this short course is better funded than other nearby city-owned facilities, which is most evident here in the quality, bent-grass greens. There are a few grass bunkers and homemade water hazards, and the design incorporates a scenic canyon as well as a few mature trees that can get in the way of wayward shots. The best hole is No. 2, which requires a macho drive across that canyon. The par-5s are short so the longer knocker has the chance for easy birdies. Watch out for the par-3 No. 5 on the west side of the course with deceptive undulations in the green.
For a mere $10, you can play sunup to sundown at Kent County, and the clubhouse has envelopes for paying your fee when no one is around. True adventurers might be interested in the course's camping facilities. If you pay to play golf, the accommodations are free of charge, including the showers and bathrooms in the clubhousesomething the stinky, wayfaring golfer can always use after a long day on a wind-blown course.
Floydada, TX (Pop. 3,617) Floydada Country Club (806-983-2769, 9 holes, Par 36, 3,165 yards)
Floydada, the seat of Floyd County and Pumpkin Capital of America, lies 30 miles east of I-27 as you head between Plainview and Lubbock. A charming little town surrounded by farms, this is one place you don't want to miss if you're touring the High Plains for golf.
The course is located eight miles south of town near the White River in Blanco Canyon, once a prominent trading locale for local Indian Tribes, whose remnants are discovered regularly by keen-eyed explorers. From the vantage point of the tree-shaded clubhouse that overlooks the canyon, it's easy to understand why twenty of Floydada's early citizens decided to donate $200 each to create the original Floydada Country Club, which ironically was void of golf and created solely as a fishing club.
With elevation changes of as much as 150 feet, this is an outstanding little course with greens as good as any in Texas. The design routes around a mesa and features a dry creek that runs through the middle of the course (home to a few wild turkey) but only comes into play after heavy rains. The best hole is No. 3 because of the elevated tee box built into the mesa, however No. 9 is a close second due to its pleasing view off the tee and challenging blind approach up the hill into the last green.
The historic Mott Creek Ranch (806-787-0592, mottcreek.com), once owned by the famous Matador Land & Cattle Company, offers bed and breakfast accommodations, trail rides, and ranch tours, and is the perfect place to set up shop for an early fall pheasant hunt and golf excursion.
Friona, TX (Pop. 3,812) Friona Country Club (806-250-3125, 9 holes, Par 36, 3,030 yards)
The Panhandle's eastern edge nudges against the New Mexico border, where the thriving metropolises of Muleshoe, Farwell, and Friona form the equivalent of golf's Bermuda Triangle (73 miles round trip) - a place to escape and have golf-fun without the crowds. Driving into Friona from the southwest, the green fairways and mature trees in the town's namesake Frio Draw make Friona seem like an oasis in the middle of the barren Panhandle farmland.
Mature willow, oak, and elm trees choke the fairways and squeeze landing areas down to as little as 30 yards. And while this isn't a long course, those trees, combined with a draw that winds its way through the layout, provide many precarious shots. After rains the creek fills with water, making the course a bit more difficult.
The large, immaculate bent-grass greens generally slope back-to-front, so it's wise to keep the approach shots below the hole. The course is void of sand bunkers, but grass bunkers are sprinkled throughout. The lush look of the course was impressive for a late October afternoon that followed a 26-degree freeze.
The hardest rated hole is the long, narrow, 400-yard, par-4 No. 6, known by locals as "the toughest little par-4 hole in Texas." However they'll also tell you that the par-5 No. 3 can sometimes play the toughest. While it's not long at only 468 yards from the tips, out-of-bounds borders either side of the fairway and the landing area is only about 40 yards wide. Suffice it to say that this is the hole that will destroy your round.
Interestingly, the golf course is the only place in dry Parmer County to buy beer, so don't be alarmed if you see 18-wheelers in the parking lot and truckers hustling for a pass to buy a cold one. If an early blizzard blows in and forces you to take cover, check into the Friona Inn (806) 250-2784 for the night.
Darrouzett, TX (Pop. 811) Darrouzett Golf Course (No phone, 9 holes, Par 27, 1,294 yards)
Borders have never meant much to towns like Booker and Darrouzett, which sit way the hell up there in the Northeast corner of the Panhandle - as far north as Las Vegas, Tulsa, Memphis, and Charlotte, N.C., and only some 900 miles from Texas' southernmost golf destination down at South Padre Island.
While very few know about Booker's nine-hole country club, even fewer know about Darrouzett's nine-hole par-3 track that surrounds the town's baseball park and winds through the city park. With holes ranging from 105 to 231 yards, the course has smallish bent-grass greens that are watered with reclaimed water, and surprisingly fluffy bermuda fairways that provide nice lies in case you chunk a few off the tee.
Ask for directions at the Darrouzett General Store, and then find the course a mile east of town, where you'll need to sign the registration book and slide your $5 into the slot of the baseball concession stand. For nostalgia have your picture taken by the "Old Buzzard Crossing" sign on the first tee.
McLean, TX (Pop. 811) McLean Country Club (806-779-2131, 9 holes, Par 35, 2,802 yards)
Established in 1901, "Muhclane" was once known as the "uplift city" because of a local ladies' undergarment factory, and was also the former site of a World War II German prisoner-of-war camp. Today McLean is a crusty ranch town that surprisingly exudes little charm despite its downtown restoration and nostalgic location on the old Route 66.
McLean's course is pasture golf at its finest, and the last sand greens in Texas. The "clubhouse" is a small shed that houses tools and scorecards, and sits just left of the No. 1 tee, which offers an impressive view of the sloping farmland- fairways that roll through the wheat fields below.
Only the good Lord waters the fairways, so the recommended play for most shots is a low, hard-running line-drive with whatever club gives you the best chance to execute that shot (punch 3-wood). The wind is relentless, gusting up to 25 mph on "nice days" and up to 60 mph when cold fronts loom large over the plains. It's nice that the holes are short.
The course has so much character that you'll be tempted to whisper to yourself in the lusty European accents made famous by many a British Open Championship.
As for strategy, swing easy and get the ball rolling on the firm fairways. For approaches, don't worry about pinpoint accuracy, but rather focus on just getting the ball into the 30-ft diameter "sand-pits." The sand greens are no longer hard-packed for roll, making it necessary to use the string at the pin to measure the distance to your ball before you roll the ball on a strip of outdoor carpet that serves as the true putting surface.
No. 9 is the best hole, a long par-5 that rolls downhill into one of the widest fairways in Texas, then chutes back up around a few trees to the course's only grass green, which was installed in recent years and is cut with a regular mower.
After putting out, take a deep breath and glance back for one last look at the landscape before moseying to The Red River Steakhouse (806) 779-8940 for post-round good eats.
November 2, 2003