Laredo's New Course Offers Golf to 'The Max'

By: Steve Habel

Plenty of golf architecture firms (including many "big name" designers) answered the call for proposals to craft a proposed new municipal golf course in Laredo, Texas. These craftspeople were looking at ANY opportunity to earn a commission and construct a new golf facility in the United States, a rarity in a nation that has seen more course closures than openings in the past few years.

The Max in Laredo

The nod and $6.6 million investment for the site's infrastructure, 18-hole layout and maintenance facility went to Robert Trent Jones Jr. and his California-based RTJ II design firm. Landscapes Incorporated was paired with RTJ II to build what was ultimately became Max A. Mandel Municipal Golf Course, fulfilling the city of Laredo's vision to reality.

Jones' mission was to build a course that would make great golf available for an underserved market, to help grow the game for youth in south Texas and - quite frankly - shed a little positive light on an area that has been marred by the uncontained drug-related violence just across the river in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

The site, 270 acres situated 10 miles of downtown Laredo, was donated to the city by the family of the late Max A. Mandel, a local bank executive and economic visionary. Water was not an issue as the Rio Grande skirts the course's western boundary and could be tapped into at will for irrigation.

Routed along bluffs overlooking the Rio Grande and America's southern neighbor, the property encompasses almost a mile of riverfront. The course, which opened in fall 2012, has four holes adjacent to the water. It also incorporates deep arroyos, while weaving between 30-foot-tall mesquite and across open former farmland.

"We were able to create a golf experience on par with the best resort and private golf courses in Texas," Jones said at the October 19 grand opening of "The Max," as the facility quickly became known. "This course provides an enjoyable and memorable golf experience for the residents of Laredo and serves as a magnet to attract tourism to Laredo."

The city has historically served as a primary entryway into Mexico for tourists, but that flow has been stemmed substantially by crime and lawlessness from the "Narco Wars" across the border, along with an unfounded fear that such ugliness would somehow trickle across the river into the States.

Until the building of The Max, Laredo - a city of more than 240,000 - had just two local courses: the poorly maintained, Webb County-owned Casa Blanca GC near the airport and private Laredo Country Club.

RTJ II, with design associate Mark Voss doing much of the heavy lifting, fulfilled its goals by fashioning an exceptional municipal track that has returned a source of pride to the community. "People here who wanted to play golf and couldn't afford to join the country club were very limited," Voss said. "Golf leaders have focused on growing the game in places where it is underserved, and until now, Laredo and the surrounding area fit that profile."

The 3rd Green at 'The Max'

A Little Bit of Everything Offered

The par-72 Max provides an excellent balance of drama, playability and risk/reward in an exciting, enjoyable round of golf. At 7,069 yards from the back set of four tees, it features wide, inviting fairways throughout but tricky putting surfaces to complicate matters.

Two deep arroyos illustrate how the natural systems shaped the land over the centuries, depicting the pendulum swing between the extended periods of arid, dry weather and brief but intense rains typical of the region. The arroyos also serve as strategic and aesthetic elements on six holes.

Portions of the site were previously used for gravel mining and agriculture. The abandoned quarry left behind areas scarred from the natural state of south Texas, but the routing incorporates these disturbed sections to complement the region's stark natural beauty.

The course can be stretched more than 7,200 yards, yet Jones & Co. configured "courses within the course" on the back nine, which has returning three- and six-hole loops flanking an expansive practice facility. This concept allows The Max to provide instruction for all levels of golfers, especially beginners.

While the Rio Grande is not completely visible from all points, its presence is powerful. Views of the river exist and have been enhanced, with a half-dozen holes positioned immediately atop the bluff above the Rio Grande and nearby "vega" lands.

The 521-yard, par-5 third and 315-yard, par-4 fourth have the river and vega to their left, while the 462-yard par-4 eighth, 210-yard par-3 ninth and 422-yard par-4 16th are lined by the river on their port sides. The diminutive but dangerous 138-yard, par-3 15th plays directly southward to the river.

Max A. Mandel Municipal Golf Course in Laredo

The six holes that once housed agriculture and gravel operations add a lot of the length to The Max, most notably the 451-yard par-4 fifth, 608-yard par-5 seventh, 446-yard par-4 11th and 593-yard par-5 17th, offering a different feel with their openness and expanse.

"With the wealth of natural features at our disposal, all manner of hazards have been incorporated throughout the golf course, from native edges to elevation change to subtle slopes and contouring and finally to the formal bunkers - large and small - used sparingly," Jones noted.

The Max's opener can be a beast if played from the tips, which - at 454 yards - are 91 yards longer than the one-ups on this slight dogleg-right. Pay attention to a tree whose branches pinch the fairway on the 315-yard par-4 fourth; but its green can be attacked with precision and guts. The fifth heads uphill, then down and back up again to one of the course's most interesting green surrounds; all shots here are into the prevailing wind.

Two bunkers left and a runoff area on the right grab one's attention on the par-3 ninth, but once on the green it's hard not to peer across the river at the deep brush on the other side. Hey, that's Mexico over there!

The 553-yard par-5 10th asks players to decide to make a decision off the tee. The left side, which has rolling ground and unpredictable lies, offers a clear look at the distant green. The other - and safer - option is to the right, where you'll have to negotiate a shot over or around a tree in mid-fairway.

The 414-yard 13th is perhaps the most strategic two-shotter. The drive plays downhill toward an arroyo, but go too far and you'll face a downhill lie and a shot to an elevated green that slants front to back.

No. 14, a par-4 just of 322 yards from the way-backs, almost begs the player to take a chance at driving a green guarded front-left by a lone, deep bunker. But the fun here is found on the putting surface, which has multiple levels, a swale and a devious front shelf.

The 9th Green at 'The Max'

"Within each golf hole, a cerebral challenge is prepared from tee to green requiring golfers to choose from multiple lines of play to reach the final destination," Jones added. "Some holes present bold options, while other holes present more subtle decision-making."

The round's penultimate hole is a broad, right-bending par-5 that can be shortened when hitting across the venue's lone retention pond. As part of a brand-new course, the 17th is now played over a hog fence that borders its right side, but that option will disappear as homes are built in the future.

The Max's closer might be the best of the bunch, a 426-yard par-4 over a native area to a wide "S-shaped" fairway. The second shot to the shallow green is slightly uphill and all-carry across an arroyo, ending the round near the soon-to-be-completed clubhouse.

"As a facility primarily designed to encourage repeat play by the golfing community of Laredo, our intent was to offer players a continuous mode of discovery from round to round," Jones said. "Reduced to its simplest elements, the golf course constantly plays with the concepts of flexibility and variety."

He's right, and The Max lives up to its nickname. It's a welcome addition to the golf options of south Texas and the type of place that will draw folks back to the border.

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Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's world correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He also works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports, and is a contributing writer for Golfers' Guide and Golf Oklahoma magazine, Texas Links magazines and Golfers Guide. Habel's main blog ( features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another ( chronicles his many travels, including playing more than 600 golf courses since 2008. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.