Terrain Sets Stage for Two Tracks in San Antonio Suburbs

By: Steve Habel

As the Texas Hill Country to the northwest fades into the softer agricultural plains of the southeast, the landscape provides one final burst of sharp terrain, rock outcrops and ancient live oak trees, some of which stand hard against gleaming lakes and their assorted tributaries.

It is here, in the northeast suburbs of San Antonio, that you will find a pair of challenging and well-regarded golf courses routed through this natural stage built by Mother Nature. When you tee it up at Olympia Hills Golf Course, set in Universal City, or The Bandit Golf Club - just a few miles further north and west near New Braunfels - you will understand how good golf can be when course designers listen to the land as much as to the ledger's bottom line.

We played the two courses this summer, in the midst of a region-wide drought when the Texas heat nearly burned the area's tracks to a crisp. We are happy to report that in the two months since the Texas Hill Country has received substantial rain and that these courses - and the majority of the others in Austin, San Antonio and its encompassing suburbs to the north and south - are better than ever.

Olympic Hills GC

Grass is Always Greener at Olympia Hills

Built along the winding Cibolo and Selma Creeks, Olympia Hills Golf Course was created to take advantage of the dramatic environment. Designed by the Finger, Dye, Spann Design Group of Houston and opened for play in February 2000, the 18-hole, par-72 layout is owned and managed by the city of Universal City. The 6,918-yard course features distinctively different front and back nines and holes with drops of up to 60 feet and target golf challenges aplenty.

Seven of the holes at Olympia Hills are defined by the course's two creeks and three more are toughened by hazards created by the track's irrigation ponds.

Even in the hottest and dries times of the Texas summer, Olympia Hills is green, thanks to its use of treated effluent from Universal City for irrigation. Such use was a critical factor in the construction of the course because of the stringent government regulations and ground water-use restrictions in the Edwards Aquifer region.

Here you will find roadrunners dashing among the rock outcroppings and prickly pears. The course features dramatic elevation changes on Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 11 and 13. "At Olympia Hills, players get great golf, some breathtaking holes and encounter some of the largest, most picturesque live oaks in Bexar County," said Baxter Spann, the course's architect.

Early Morning at Olympic Hills

The golf course features Bermuda grass and four sets of tees. The layout boasts naturally undulating topography, man-made mounds and strategic placement of bunkers, as well as native South Texas vegetation and wildlife that can be seen throughout.

One aspect of Olympia Hills that nearly everyone agrees on is that the course's front nine is tougher - or at least more eye-catching - than the back nine.

Nearly all the holes on the front-nine play through thick trees. The two par-5s - Nos. 2 and 6 - are tight challenges that snake through oaks and between hills. The two par-3s are equally tough: No. 5 has an exposed, elevated tee box and a tree-framed green about 50 feet below while No. 7 plays to 239 yards and downhill from the back tees to a well-guarded, sloping green.

The 474-yard, par-4 No. 8 (ranked as the No. 1 hole by handicap) features a 50-foot drop from tee to fairway and tightens in the landing area before heading back uphill to the undulating putting surface.

The back nine is much more open, with several holes nearly treeless. Most of the holes are comparatively flat, but the side still has its teeth.

The best offerings here include: the 437-yard, par-4 10th, which descends into a bowl-shaped canyon of rock; the 396-yard par-4 15th, which nearly always plays into the wind and where your approach must be played over a huge pond; and the 445-yard par-4 finisher, where you tee off out of a narrow chute of trees to a rolling landing area before challenging a deep, three-tiered green.

In 2001, Olympia Hills was selected No. 4 "Best New Affordable Public Golf Course" in America by Golf Digest. Olympia Hills was the only course in Texas to make any of the magazine's lists that year. In May 2009, the USGA reassigned Olympia Hills a course rating of 74.1 and a slope of 139 from its back tees, making the track the second-hardest course by slope in the San Antonio area.

Olympia Hills also offers one of the premiere practice centers in the area. The center includes a full-length driving range with sculpted target greens and a 10,000-square-foot short-game area that includes a putting green, chipping area and a practice sand bunker.

The course's conference center is one of the area's most unique locations to host a special event, with breakout rooms ideally accustomed and situated for company retreats or luncheons or the all-important business meeting. Banquet services are available for larger gatherings, such as weddings and reunions.

For more information, visit www.olympiahillsgolf.com.

No. 8 at The Bandit

Risk-Reward, Elevation Changes Spice up The Bandit

Like the raccoon featured on the course's logo, The Bandit Golf Club is a mischievous track, thanks in part of a routing that calls for a little gumption - and a lot of confidence - to attack with its risk-reward opportunities and holes with steep elevation changes.

Nestled alongside Lake McQueeney just east of New Braunfels and operated by Foresight Golf, The Bandit was designed by Keith Foster and opened for play in 1997.

The Bandit is a tremendous mix of beauty and tenacity. From the back tees, the course plays to 6,928 yards with a handicap rating of 73.6 and a slope rating of 133. Thirteen of the holes bring water into play and, with 64 bunkers spread around the track as well, accuracy is at a premium. Several holes have elevation changes of nearly 100 feet and the Guadalupe River runs along the 14th fairway. Long Creek winds through 11 holes and can grab a ball at any time.

Foster, who also designed the award-winning The Quarry in San Antonio, has named each hole, in a small way describing the challenge ahead, i.e., Blind Date, Too Much Too Soon, Stonewall and R.I.P.

After fair warm-up holes on Nos. 1 and 2, your first chance to take The Bandit by the throat comes at the third, a straight and slightly downhill 520-yard par-5. Drive your ball past the two fairway bunkers left of the landing area and you will have a chance to go at the green in two. The green actually tilts from back to front in order to help the ball stop on the green.

The 18th at The Bandit

You can strike while you are hot on the 341-yard fourth, a par-4 that might be reached in one shot by big hitters. Every step of the way is downhill on this narrow two-shotter, which drops some 100 feet from tee to green. The putting surface slopes left to right and being below the hole here definitely has its advantages.

Play to the right side on the tough-as-nails fifth, a 403-yard par-4 where everything moves left toward Long Creek. It is challenging to stay out of the creek and even if you manage that you may still be on the far left (low) side of the fairway, behind a tree. Aim farther right than your eye and brain tell you, and fly the ball in the air as far as you can as contact with the ground and any subsequent roll scoops your ball left. After you reach the green, remember that the strange gravity on Courage Pass still pulls all putts toward the creek - including those that appear to break away from the creek and especially those that appear straight.

No. 8 - a 401-yard par-4 - is one of the holes where you launch your tee shot from a scenic height. The mound where the tee boxes are located is the highest point on the golf course and the area, offering a great view of the rolling hills and treacherous path that Long Creek makes as it negotiates though the course.

The 189-yard 11th might be the first time you can take a breath on The Bandit's tough par-3s. Usually the wind is helping slightly, and hole is more punitive than long. The 12th is a long (468-yard) downhill par-4 with a green protected on the left by an arm of Lake McQueeney water and right by a bunker. You'll have to carry the water to reach the green on the 185-yard par-3 13th, which is also uphill and ends with a shallow, sloped putting surface.

No. 17 (called "Stonewall") is a 148-yard par-3 with a 50-foot elevation change from tee to green. Long Creek runs in front of the green, so short is deadly, but going long grants you two bunkers and a ticklish blast out of the sand downhill toward the water.

The Bandit's 18th is considered by many to be the best finishing hole in the San Antonio area. A stunning downhill-then-uphill par-5 of 552 yards, the creek runs along the right of the landing and layup areas and then across the front of the elevated putting surface - which is tucked in the trees like an amphitheater. Play more club than the yardage calls for because the approach shot is uphill and the side of a hill on the backside of the green acts like a backstop to keep your ball in play.

Look for the little cemetery adjacent to the putting green at The Bandit. The first settlers came in 1868 and were from Hanover, Germany, and originally built a cotton gin on this site.

The front nine is very pretty and most holes require good club selection and course management. Water on five holes and natural hazards add challenge. The Bandit's back nine is outstanding and includes rolling hills, significant elevation changes, some blind shots, water on eight holes and multiple doglegs. A quiet, secluded atmosphere imbues the course, providing a true escape from the city.

The Bandit was listed as the 7th Best Public Course in Texas in 2006 by Golfweek magazine (it was the highest-ranked course in the San Antonio area) and earned a rating of four stars by Golf Digest. Outstanding course conditions and the top-notch service contribute to the thrill of The Bandit. From tee to green, from pro shop to grill, the entire staff at The Bandit does a wonderful job.

For more information, visit www.banditgolfclub.com.

Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the managing editor for Texas CEO Magazine and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns, and another (www.checkinginandplayingthrough.blogspot.com) on his many travels, which took him across the nation and to 105 different golf course in 2009. Habel is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America and the Texas Golf Writers Association.