Fire Destroys Almost Completed Clubhouse at UT Golf Club

By: Steve Habel

If there is, as it is said, something to the notion that buildings are made of more than brick and mortar and wood, then there is no way to judge the range of emotions being felt this week at the University of Texas Golf Club.

Members of the UT Golf Club, located in Steiner Ranch about 15 miles from the university's main campus in Austin, are trying to put the pieces and their hopes back together after a new clubhouse - which was about 70 percent complete - burned nearly to the ground December 26. No one was injured in the fire and the new clubhouse was the only building affected by the blaze.

Strong wind gusts fueled by a cold front that ran through the Central Texas area at midday fanned the flames, making it difficult for firefighters to fight the inferno. They worked to keep it from spreading, but little of the building - valued as much as $8 million - could be saved.

"With the wind gusting like it was at 20-25 miles an hour, it was impossible to do any more that we were able to do," said Dale Faust, with the Hudson Bend Fire Department. "The fire pushed and jumped its way throughout the entire structure."

For most of the afternoon, smoke from the fire was near the street level, and the wind was so strong and the heat of the fire so intense it caused more of the building to ignite.

Witnesses say workers were going about their day when, at about 12:30 p.m., flames broke out in the middle of the building. With high winds feeding the fire, the entire place went up in flames in a matter of minutes. Golfers out on the nearby course saw the blaze several miles away and called for help.

"We turned around and went 'Oh my God, there's a fire,' " golfer Diane Herbert said. "We were right there - it happened instantly." By the time firefighters arrived there was nothing they could do to save the building.

The golf course is in western Travis County near where Lake Travis and Lake Austin converge. The course and club are not owned by the University of Texas, although the university golf teams practice there. The course and facility were built and designed to be home for the Longhorns.

The 16,000-square foot clubhouse has been under consideration and then construction from the day the UT Golf Club opened its doors in 2002. The club's membership - which has used a small clubhouse that is little more than a pro shop and grill - anticipated getting into their new digs in the first quarter of the new year.

Work began about 14 months ago on the new structure. The two- and three-story building, which overlooks the 18th green, was to include men's and women's locker rooms, a 1,400-square foot pro shop, meeting space, a dining room for up to 75 people, and a private dining room for members.

The temporary clubhouse now being used - which sits right across a wide cement path from the new building - wasn't damaged, and team facilities for the Texas men's and women's golf teams (which sit at the far end of the course's driving range in a private, short-game practice area) also escaped harm. The club is scheduled to host an NCAA women's regional tournament in the spring, and it is not yet known how the fire will impact those plans.

Steve Termeer, the general manager and director of golf at UTGC, said only the concrete slab and some steel remained. Termeer said he didn't know what could be salvaged. "It's too early to tell right now," he said.

Roy Bechtol, the course's architect and a member since its opening, said he could see the fire from the patio of his home some 15 miles away and across Lake Austin. "I have never felt as helpless as I did seeing those flames and that smoke devour a structure we all have high hopes for at a facility we all hold so dear," Bechtol said. "This situation has provided a real test for our club's membership, but we will begin again."

Steve Habel is an Austin, Texas-based journalist. Since 1990, he has traveled around the globe covering news, business and sports assignments for various news bureaus, newspapers, magazines and websites. He also contributes to Business District magazine in Austin as managing editor and is the Texas football beat writer and a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated, the Austin-based magazine for University of Texas sports. Cybergolf's Southwestern Correspondent, Habel also writes a weekly golf column for The River Cities Tribune in Marble Falls, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Golf Writers' Association.