HOT SPRINGS VILLAGE, Ark. -- Years ago an older friend of mine retired and moved to a land where there was virtually unlimited golf -- Hot Springs Village.
As far as I knew, he played into the sunset. But while there are still plenty of retirees in Hot Springs Village, it's hardly just for them anymore, as Hot Springs Village enters an era where the golf, and the lifestyle for that matter, is for all age groups.
As it turns out, two years ago, Troon Golf moved into Hot Springs Village and took over golf management, led by Director of Club Services Ray Metz, who has worked for Troon all over the world. With more than 250 courses worldwide in 31 countries and 37 American states, Troon is using its expertise to transform Hot Springs Village golf from its reputation as a retirement spot to a destination.
With nine courses, most of them of championship caliber and all of them maintained to the highest levels, as well as a variety of golf accommodations, Hot Springs Village is really a hidden gem of a golf paradise. And while it has more than 10,000 members through its property owners, there are 171 holes and plenty of tee times are open to the public.
In fact, the Hot Springs area, which is a popular destination spot, makes for an excellent golf vacation for couples, buddy trips and anyone looking to enjoy some terrific golf, grub and entertainment.
Experiencing Hot Springs Village
The first course in Hot Springs Village, which is about 45 minutes from Little Rock's Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport, is the DeSoto Course, which was built in 1972. While I didn't get to play the course -- which like all the others was designed by Tom Clark, Ed Ault and Associates -- I was exposed to something possibly even more important: the cuisine of Chef Johnna Westerman.
Having arrived on a Tuesday night, dining at Club DeSoto was my first stop, and it certainly made a great impression. After a variety of appetizers, I went with Westerman's famous pork shank, which was more like a fine beef short rib than pork, and I wasn't disappointed. There would be more good food on this trip, of course, but I'll get back to that later.
For this short journey, I got to experience a brief but great sample of the golf in Hot Springs Village. The next morning, it was off to arguably the area's best public golf course, Granada Golf Club, a 4,821-yard to 7,115-yard layout that truly is playable for all levels. With elevated tees, wide fairways, sparkling lakes and views of the surrounding Ouachita Mountains, there's nothing about this course that isn't enjoyable. The signature hole is particularly breathtaking, the uphill par 4 that plays alongside a creek that starts from a waterfall by the clubhouse.
The second course was 27-hole Isabella, which originally opened in 2000 with Arkansas native John Daly playing the inaugural round. The newest nine at Isabella, the Santa Maria Nine (yes, everything here is named after explorers and/or their ships), opened in 2006 and is the Village's last nine holes. Our particular configuration, which also included the Nina Nine, played to more than 7,100 yards from the back tees.
Like Granada, there are plenty of great vistas, wide fairways and bentgrass greens. And after a cool front moved through that morning, it was perfect fall conditions for our afternoon round on a course that features a mixture of long and short holes, including the ninth on the Santa Maria Course, a par 4 that plays 487 yards from the tips and into the wind on this day.
As for the other courses, we toured those. Most of them are like the ones we played -- generous fairways, great conditions and lots of great views. One exception is Coronado Golf Club, an executive-style course that's perfect for beginners or older players, but still fun for accomplished golfers.
Golf and so much more in Hot Springs Village
The best way to experience Hot Springs Village golf for visitors is probably through a golf package. Visitors can book a package that also includes a room at the local Embassy Suites or rent one of the many homes available on the 27,000-acre property. Rates are reasonable, too. A large, four-bedroom house that can sleep up to groups of eight can be had for less than $300 a night, and golf rates range from around $50 to $80 depending on the season (package deals cut down on this even more).
In our case, we shared a house with four bedrooms, each with their own bath. On the second night, Chef Elan Grenman from Granada Golf Club catered a prime rib dinner at the house (I got the first end cut). And like Chef Johnna, Grenman's reputation for putting together a wide variety of delectable recipes is widely appreciated in these parts.
Hot Springs Village also offers water sports on its many lakes, including water skiing and fishing, as well as tennis, pickle ball (a popular miniature version of tennis), horseback riding, hiking trails and other activities.
And then, of course, you can venture in the city of Hot Springs, which is actually a national park. Known for its historic bathhouses, the city offers great dining and entertainment, such as the Ohio Club, which opened in 1905. A hangout for such notorious figures as Al Capone, the club boasts a great history through Prohibition and beyond. Today, it's a great place to catch a variety of live music as well as one of the best Reubens anywhere in the country.
Other Hot Springs attractions include Oaklawn Racing and Gaming, which plays hosts live thoroughbred racing from January through April, the Gangster Museum of America, the National Park Aquarium, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum, Bathhouse Row and the historic Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa.