Dallas Public Golf: Sensations at Last

By: Jay Flemma

Sister Mary Matthew was scowling at Pete Ogonowski with a glance of Amazonian fierceness…again. This time his high crimes and misdemeanors were to stick his thumb against his closed middle and ring fingers, extend his pinkie and forefinger into a "devil sign," and thrash his hair back and forth like a heavy metal star.

He was doing it, however, during her seventh grade social studies class at Our Lady of Lourdes elementary: hence, Sister Mary Matthew's umbrage. She bellowed like a wounded rhinoceros.

"Young man!? Why is the trouble always you?!"

"Hey, we can't all be overnight sensations," he replied, shrugging. Then he returned seamlessly to his KISS head-banging, or was it Twisted Sister?

Texans could easily do the same thing. They love sticking their thumbs against their middle and ring fingers and extending the other two. (I'd shout "Hook 'em Horns!" now, but Kelly Blake Moran and his friends might take that as a signal to invade Oklahoma.) They can also say, "Hey, we can't all be overnight sensations," when it comes to golf courses. But for Texas public golf, it's a case of better late than never, and late just kicked never to the curb with a resounding thud.

I can't tell you how many times Lone Star State golfers have said to me, "but it's pretty good for Texas," when describing some banal Texas layout. "Pretty good for Texas" used to mean anything that wasn't flat, straight, water-logged, or some combination of the above. Texas golf developed a reputation for such sameness: boring. Consider this: the last major championship held in Texas was the 1969 U.S. Open at Champions G.C., won by Orville Moody, and the one before that was Dallas Athletic Club. Even Nicklaus winning a major at DAC couldn't put it on the golf map. The best option for public players used to be a $220 round at Barton Creek in the Texas Hill Country, but despite the great terrain for golf, it was badly overpriced.

It's time to give Texas golf a second look, however. Several award-winning architects have built outstanding public courses that charge affordable green fees. Moreover, there are also some homegrown efforts that draw players from all across the state.

How 'bout Them Cowboys

Cowboys Golf Club (www.cowboysgolfclub.com) by golf designer Jeff Brauer is the brightest star, a Silver-and-Blue star in fact. This Dallas Cowboys-themed venue was, of course, the brainchild of team owner Jerry Jones. Despite the NFL theme, this course is much better than you'd expect. Brauer won a Best New Course award for his recent work in Minnesota, so you have to expect this work in his hometown, and for the hometown heroes - as they say in The Metroplex, "God's Own Dallas Cah-boize" - you'd expect a stellar effort.

That's exactly what he gave. A cerebral guy and a fearless experimenter, Brauer (see his section in Cybergolf entitled Brauer's Book - http://www.cybergolf.com/brauersbook - for his thoughts on golf course design) is part of the young crew of architects that revere old, classic architecture, take pride in craftsmanship and quality, and take chances to do something memorable and strategic. Now Dallas has a course unlike any other in Texas. Most importantly: "good job" to Jones for picking Brauer, and for letting him have a long leash when it came to designing the course. It's also a great sign that Jones wanted something natural (not tricked up), and that he wasn't demanding a U.S. Open venue. When you let a good architect go you get creative, natural and often inspired, interesting work.

Brauer designed an excellent, intelligent course over property that isn't the best terrain for golf. It's relatively flat, but Brauer is an excellent shaper and has great vision for golf holes. He made an interesting and varied course over otherwise flat land. Lesser designers would have struggled. It's an out-and-back routing. The greens have some good contour. Because Brauer employed broad, sweeping horizontal movement to many fairways, there are plenty of strategic elements, such as diagonal angles. On the par-3s he sometimes tests distance control (Nos. 3 and 6), and sometimes tests accuracy (14 and 16). Happily, Brauer doesn't rely on brute length to create interesting golf challenges and the shorter par-3s are a welcome relief from courses that overuse machismo and unbelievable length.

People can disagree on their favorite holes quite easily. The fifth is a great long par-4 with terrific horizontal sweep to the fairway. Eight is a terrific reachable par-5 with alternating shot requirements, draw off the tee, fade into the green. Fourteen is a short par-4 with a fairway swerving back and forth, and over a center-line bunker: it's a good par 3˝. Eighteen is a great summation of all that came before, with its diagonal line of bunkers bisecting the fairway.

Brauer's favorite hole is the par-3 third, all carry over water to a wide but shallow green. "The third was actually inspired by Mike Strantz, the architect who built Tobacco Road. I played The Road right before I designed a course in Minnesota and this one," he states energetically.

Suddenly, the usually jovial Brauer becomes nostalgic and respectful to the memory of his fallen colleague, taken at 50 by oral cancer. "Mike's work opened my eyes. There are a lot of ideas in Minnesota, at Cowboys, and in my mind for the future that would not be there had I not seen what he designed at Tobacco Road. For one, I like his huge, wide greens that test distance control. That hole [the 3rd] fits perfectly to the land at the base of that hill, so it's a tribute to him. It also gives the course a different look from other things in Texas."

He pauses for a moment to regain his momentum. Suddenly his face lights up and he smiles again. "That's the thing about Tobacco Road. It's an American original."

That pedigree puts Cowboys in some heady company. Fellow Texan Baxter Spann's Black Mesa is also heavily inspired by Tobacco Road, and that has been called by some one of the greatest public courses to open since Sawgrass. While Cowboys isn't perfect, it is, however, a standout design and a destination course for all golfers in Texas. Moreover, Brauer's a rising star and a bright mind. He's just hitting his stride. Players coming to Dallas should also try his Creekside Course at Indian Creek.

As an aside, I thought I'd be drowning in Cowboys gear, Cowboys fans, Cowboys glitter, Cowboys glam at the Dalas Cowboys Golf Club. I'm happy to tell every Pittsburgh Steeler fan out there - and the rest of you NFL fans: no way, it's all tastefully done. Think Tom Landry, not Hollywood Henderson. There are a few bits of memorabilia, but it isn't the "Emmitt Smith burger" and the "Preston Pearson driving range" and the "fifth hole brought to you by Leon Lett." It's tasteful and not overdone; it's a golf course, not a theme park, and that makes a huge difference right out of the gate.

Patrons will take the golf course more seriously. Well done, Jerry Jones. It's nice to see the Cowboys associated with grace and class again. The only nose-tweak is the star painted in the middle of the fourth fairway, but that's just there so one guy in your foursome can be T.O. and the other can be George Teague and they can recreate their "not in my house" moment while waiting for the green to clear.

Really, though, the experience is warm and friendly. Head pro Vic Rodanthe is a super guy, bright, affable, and sincere. He's a pro's pro. (He's an ex-Coloradan, so that explains it. He makes you feel like everyone is a star at Cowboys - a silver or blue star, to be exact). You can play golf a la carte for around $100. If you want lunch, balls, non-alcoholic drinks and use of the locker room all day - and we're talking all you can eat here - $165-185. It's high, especially for the recession, but not unreasonable; you get great golf, good food and nice digs. You can't play it every day, but it's nice to visit and 10 minutes from the airport.

Munster Mash

Next, get ready for the biggest surprise and the most heartwarming story in Texas golf. The second-best public course accessible to The Metroplex (that's the triangle formed by Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton) may be a tiny mom-and-pop course an hour north of Denton. Make no mistake: Turtle Hill (www.playtheturtle.com), has all North Texas golfers doing the Munster Mash.

In a sleepy burgh of about 1,500 called Munster, a pilot and cattleman named Dick Murphy routed nine primitive holes with minimal shaping and bunkering on two separate occasions, 1993 and 1999, to form what is the current routing of Turtle Hill Golf Course. The location is terrific terrain for golf: varied, hilly, and diverse. The amateur architect must have been practicing from his armchair because he routed interesting holes using some advanced and nuanced architectural tricks, frequently challenging the most severe parts of the property to get more interesting holes with minimal earthmoving.

This course is the textbook example of a hidden gem. It is loaded with character. The first thing you notice - because you can't possibly miss the 100-foot-tall turbines - is the windmills. They loom over the course, and on several shots, you'll see the blade's shadow rotate across your ball. "They are part of the idiom, the ethos," said Garth Thayer, a golfer from Dallas. "That's one way the course stands apart from the pack."

Yet, as you play, you're struck by how primal, how eminently natural, how holistic the whole round is. Several holes run along an electrified cattle fence that is emblazoned with lightning bolts and states in red, "WARNING - CATTLE FENCE IS LIVE!" On two occasions, side-by-side holes are terraced to keep the playing corridors separated naturally. Greens are mere extensions of their fairways, flowing seamlessly. So many holes are either short enough to be tantalizingly easy, yet dangerous if you miss (for example, No. 10), or long enough to require three shots to reach the green on a par-4 (15), that the course makes a great match-play site.

Some people love the stunning views from the back nine tee boxes (on two occasions you can see all the way into Oklahoma, only seven miles away); some people love the subtle strategic requirements (like the alternating shot requirements on the long par-5 seventh). Still others like the shaved chipping areas around the greens, which allow for several different recovery shots to be played. Turtle Hill seems to have something for everyone.

Recently, two Munster locals bought the course and the entire town rejoiced. Earthy, warm oilman Doyle Hess and country gentleman-lawyer Ronnie Phillips pledged to continue to refine the course and expand the facilities. Doyle repealed the previous owner's prohibition of alcohol. "Come on up, drink beer, light a bonfire, have a great time," he says with a wide, welcoming smile.

At a $37 rack rate and twilight $27, the course is a steal. There's great architecture, an old-school, classic feel, it's easy to walk, and it's fun, with many tempting, but dangerous holes With new condos on property, it makes a great weekend getaway for the boys.

"It's surprising how many DFW/Dentonites make the trek up here, even with so many public courses in the area that are much closer," said Lester Pawleczik, a 2-handicap golfer from Denton. "It's more interesting than the flat courses in the Metroplex and the price is a fraction of their cost. We love it."

"We're glad people are enjoying it," Hess adds, as he shuts down the engine on the dozer he's using to shape a new bunker. "It's a labor of love for us. Faith built this golf course, and I'm so glad people are having a good time."

Besides a new clubhouse in the offing and even more on-site accommodations, there is talk of building a second course closer to the oil rigs near the property. They could even name the two layouts the "Windmills Course" or the "Derricks Course," but that's just speculation for the future. For the moment, the future sure looks bright for this little mom-and-pop, dollar-and-a-dream course that shows the big boys exactly how good a golf course you can build if you keep it simple. This Turtle knows what the Hare found out the hard way: slow and steady wins the race.

Other Courses

At Pine Dunes Golf Resort (www.pinedunes.com) desert-golf specialist Jay Morrish got every golf architect's dream site when he was asked to design a layout over tree-covered expanses of sand dunes in Frankston, Texas. Sandy soil means fast and firm conditions that replicate the links conditions of the Open courses, so Morrish allowed for players to hit low running approaches as well as lofted clubs.

Reasonably priced and with some excellent architectural nuances, Pine Dunes is a favorite of Texans. Like his old partner Tom Weiskopf, Morrish loves optical illusions, so many bunkers that look greenside are actually 20 to 30 yards short of the putting surfaces, leaving a difficult long bunker shot. There are some devilish false fronts, and although the fairways are wide they also have subtle undulations, so flat lies are rare.

Two drawbacks keep it out of the top echelon of Texas public golf. First, there is a repetitive sameness to many holes - draw, draw, draw gets tedious after a while. Next, a blind pong on the 14th hole causes the course to lose one entire point in the rating scale. Worse still, the fairway slopes into it, making the hazard even larger and more unfair.

Even so, at under $100, the course is an excellent option for high-quality public golf in North and East Texas. It's worth driving the 1,000 minor roads it takes to get to Frankston.

Finally, no discussion of public golf would be complete without mentioning The Rawls Course at Texas Tech University in Lubbock (http://www.depts.ttu.edu/therawlscourse). It's completely on the other side of the state from Dallas, but it's arguably the best public course in Texas, and at $45-60 per round for a Tom Doak-designed golf course, it's a must play. Doak was still basking in the acclaim he earned from his masterpiece at Pacific Dunes and was looking for a different kind of challenge. He wrote on his website, "After Pacific Dunes, it was inevitable that the next site we had to work with would be a letdown, so we went back all the way to square one - a flat cotton field on the north end of Texas Tech's Lubbock campus, bounded by major streets, power lines and apartment houses."

Moving between 770,000 and 1.3 million cubic yards of earth in an effort to mimic natural erosion, Doak crafted an entirely different landscape and then designed the holes over this new canvas. Knowing the fierce West Texas winds could blow balls to Oklahoma, Doak designed the routing to take full advantage of this ever-changing natural defense. "It will play differently every day," he said proudly.

In the normal prevailing wind, both nines start downwind and finish right into its teeth. Long par-4s are frequently playing into the wind and have deep greens to accept low-running fairway metal and long irons, while the par-5 greens are small targets. Finally, we all know Doak loves contour-rich, character-filled greens. The greens here are quick, but not so fast as to outrun the contours and devolve into unfairness. They compliment the soft fairway undulations and sculpting well. Many greens are perched precariously on knobs, most notably at Nos. 3 and 8.

Lastly, bunkers are deep with sharp, steep faces. The sand is thick and, since the bunkers are often set well below the green, recovery shots play even longer and more difficult.

Although The Rawls course is nowhere near any other great Texas public layout, it is five hours from Black Mesa Golf Club in Santa Fe, N.M.; the two make an excellent combination.

Even if you can't make it out to Lubbock, Dallas has finally put Texas golf on the map. The Metroplex area bustles with museums, great pro sports teams, excellent food, and myriad other outdoor options. Getting there is easy, as it's an American Airlines hub. However, I recommend trading in the direct flight on that troubled carrier for a different airline such as Southwest. On my last trip to Dallas, American misrouted my clubs on the way out, (officials said they were held up because the divot tools in my bag were confused for some sort of weapon), and misrouted both my clubs and my clothes to two different locations on the way home. Not only did I have to play Cowboys with foreign clubs, the delay in retrieving my clubs and bags cost me an additional 12 hours getting home.

Nevertheless, Dallas is a pleasant surprise. Gone are the days of flat, straight, penal, cookie-cutter layouts. Now Texas is booming with one great new design after another, with more on the way. Way to go Texas. It took you long enough, but hey we all can't be overnight sensations.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.