Floods Destroy Famed Ambush Course at Lajitas

By: Steve Habel

Continual rains, combined with a catastrophe local residents are calling a "500-year flood" of the Rio Grande River in September and early October, has resulted in the near-total destruction of the famed Ambush golf course at the Lajitas Resort in Texas.

Most days, the Rio Grande isn't particularly grand as it flows past the tiny town of Lajitas, which sits in a cradle of the river between the Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park in the desert of West Texas. It's normally shallow enough in spots that you could splash from Texas to Mexico, or vice versa, without wetting your pant legs above the knees.

But that all changed in September, thanks to the runoff from Tropical Storm Lowell - which dumped buckets of rain (reportedly as much as 8 inches within 24 hours) in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The water moved down the Rio Conchos and swelled the state's system of dammed reservoirs, the last of which is Luís León Reservoir.

As Luís León filled to capacity and the rain continued, Mexican officials authorized the release of excess water that ran down into the Rio Grande. Soon the river was a quarter-mile across, swift-running and 13 feet deep. The Rio Grande was at flood stage for most of the month. "I've seen the river at flood stage," said Texas State Rep. Pete Gallego at the height of the waters' rise. "But I've never seen the river like this."

Downriver, and past the flooded towns of Presidio, Redford and Ojinaga, sat Lajitas, directly in the path of water that could not be stopped. Thus began a disaster in slow motion, a drawn-out standoff with the river that the golf course would not survive.

"The slope over the whole layout falls only 2 feet," said golf course architect Roy Bechtol, who - along with his former partner Randy Russell - designed The Ambush at Lajitas. "There are no natural barriers to stop the river from flooding the course."

By the middle of September, only three of our course's holes were above water. "The back nine was entirely flooded for four weeks," said Terri Thate, a spokesperson for Lajitas and the resort's reservation manager. "The devastation was amazing. I have lived here for years, and I had never seen anything like that before."

The back nine of The Ambush course - which included the famed "international" hole that allowed players to tee up a shot in the United States and hit to a green in Mexico, and four holes on an island in the river, are damaged beyond repair.

Portions of The Ambush's front nine, most of which was also underwater, died because the flooding destroyed the course's irrigation system. Once the waters subsided, the grass burned up for lack of water (as ironic as it seems) in the arid desert landscape.

"We may have six or seven holes on the front nine that can be saved and reworked, and that is our current goal," said Edwin Lesley, Lajitas' president and chief executive officer. "We hope to have those nine holes back and playable by March 2009, and then we will turn our attention to the rest of the course."

Steve Smith of Austin bought Lajitas, which is some 300 miles from the closest major city, El Paso, for $4.5 million in 2000, invested $100 million into the resort and dubbed it "The Ultimate Hideout" because of its opulence, exclusivity and remote location. He hired Austin-based golf architects Bechtol and Russell to sketch part of the dream into The Ambush at Lajitas, a 7,042-yard, par-71 layout.

The resort (and especially the course) was well-received, but Smith was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2006 when he could not pay off a $12.5 million loan that came due.

Dallas businessman Kelcy Warren and Midland resident Tom Kelley bought Lajitas for $13.5 million at the end of December 2007, and started making huge changes, hoping to strip it of the exclusive image it once had. By all accounts, the strategy was working. Thate said that "at least five" tournaments scheduled for The Ambush at Lajitas were cancelled.

"The summers are pretty brutal out here, and we were all excited about the fall because we had so much planned and so many people set to visit the resort," Thate explained. "This is a setback for us, but we will rebuild the golf course because it is a huge asset and a drawing card for the area."

Some have whispered that Luís León was too full of water at the outset of the rainfall. Could it all have been prevented? The border and water commission says no.

"It's been said that this is a man-made disaster, with pointing fingers at the Mexicans," said Sally Spener, spokesperson for the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, the binational agency responsible for some of the Rio Grande's levees. "It was natural, due to incredible rainfall in the state of Chihuahua. The fact that there are dams on the Rio Conchos is a benefit, in that it can be controlled coming down.

"Unfortunately, there was too much water, and in order to maintain the integrity of the dam you have to do releases," Spener added. "There was no place else for it to go."

Now it is time to pick up the pieces in the desert, which - it is said - always claims its own.

Steve Habel is an Austin, Texas-based journalist and Cybergolf's Southwest Correspondent. 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. Habel writes a weekly golf column for The River Cities Tribune in Marble Falls, Texas, and is a member of the Texas Golf Writers' Association.