AUSTIN, Texas -- I play most of my golf while at home in Austin at munis. I love 'em, warts, slow play and all. But every once in awhile, I get a taste of the top shelf. This spring, four exclusive clubs, Austin Country Club, Escondido Golf & Lake Club, Bluejack National and Trinity Forest, made a little room on the tee sheet for my brand of riff-raff.
Each club is high-end (if you have to ask the cost, you probably can't afford it), but their experiences all cater to a slightly different clientele.
Should you be in the market for a top notch private club in Texas, or you've got a nice reciprocal club hookup, here's a recap of each:
The most established (by far) of the four clubs I sampled, ACC has a renewed spotlight as the home of the WGC-Dell Match Play. The townie rumor mill suggests $100k and about 10-year wait to get into the gates of what is undoubtedly Austin's "old money" club, thanks to its 1899 founding as Austin's founding golf club. That said, this is laid-back Austin after all, and the joint doesn't feel a stuffy as some other clubs I've visited around the country.
The club is at its third location, having moved to the shadow of the Pennybacker Bridge on Lake Austin in 1984. There isn't a more jaw-dropping setting visually for any course in the state of Texas that I've seen. I expected the Pete Dye at ACC design to be really hard and there is visual intimidation everywhere: forced carries, rock outcroppings, tons of bunkers, tough greens and the chance for the wind to whip along the lake.
But I walked off the course surprised how wonderful the routing was, with a mix of tough and (relative) breather holes. The par 3s are all on the shorter side from the amateur tees, and is there a more fun driving hole than the par-5 12th, where with a little wind at your back you can sail it 350 yards or more!
The boat access from Lake Austin makes ACC a place where golf is just part of the good life. A beautiful but understated clubhouse is sized appropriately, and the residential component is 30-plus years mature (homes range from $750k-3.5 million).
You could argue that the Dye design isn't the kindest to beginners, but when you consider there are few, if any clubs with more pedigree in instruction thanks to the Harvey Penick family and now long-standing pro Dale Morgan, I would bet the whole family's golf game would be in good hands. (Read Tucker's review of ACC.)
Like Austin Country Club, Escondido blends luxurious Hill Country golf and lakeside amenities. This Tom Fazio design isn't on the lake like ACC ( you have to drive down the road to get to the pool and boat slips and other water amenities) but rather on a pleasant and interesting piece of gently rolling Hill County terrain that is walkable.
The property's debut in 2006 carried with it all the hallmarks of ritzy new developments during this time: Showy amenities and an ensuing multiyear struggle to keep the lights on. Now member-owned, it appears Escondido has found its grove as a weekend getaway for Texas Triangle residents, plus some retirees and some residents. The Fazio design is very easy on the eyes with big, fast greens. Abundant wildflowers and bluebonnets during my spring round made it that much more pleasant.
What really sticks out at Escondido is the facilities. The clubhouse is remarkable and the men's locker room is among the very best I've seen anywhere, and the driving range and short game area is among the very best too (each stall on the range even has its own rangefinder.) Based on current sales literature, memberships are conveyed with lot purchases, so your land is your initiation fee (though you don't have to own out here to be a member).
Non-members can sample Escondido by participating in the Deve Pelz Scoring School, located on-site. (Read Tucker's review of Escondido.)
Sporting Tiger Woods' first domestic course design, Bluejack National is the most committed of these four private clubs I visited to juniors and families. The creation of The Playgrounds, a 10-hole, lighted pitch 'n putt, plus the "Frank" tees on the course also shorten the championship layout to a beginner-friendly length. Additional amenities, currently under construction, include kid-centric items like a mini-Fenway field and other sporting fields and games.
Of course, the adults are going to have a lot of fun here. Monthly dues include perhaps the best comfort station I've ever seen, Blake's Cottage, which has everything from a bartender pouring drinks to chili and even a board room if the mood should strike to make a deal after six holes. The goal is to create a high-end yet casual club. The high, but inclusive monthly dues include a "no-tip" policy with an emphasis on letting members keep their wallet away while on-site.
Located a solid hour north of the Houston I-610 Loop, Bluejack's task is luring golfers past a lot of other private clubs. But their amenities and atmosphere is unquestionably unique. In the year since I was last here, I was blown away at how many new houses have been built, both vacation cottages and full-time residences, and membership activity seems to be humming. (Read Tucker's review of Bluejack National.)
Like Austin Country Club, the appeal to Trinity Forest is its location minutes from a major downtown. It's also destined to host a PGA Tour event, the AT&T Byron Nelson, beginning in 2018. "Trinity Forest Golf Club was created explicitly to attract prestigious golf championships back to Dallas," reads the mission statement on the website.
The Coore-Crenshaw course design, shaped out of a former mine in the heart of dense forest, is demanding and, based on one loop around it, pretty complicated. There's a lot to digest standing on each tee and strategic options galore. Staff mentioned the average member handicap thus far is about a 7 and I'm not sure any 20-handicap would join here unless they were hellbent on getting into single digits fast. The practice facilities, though not quite done during my visit, will be world class. There's a short course that can be played flexibly so you can hit drivers and longer shots if need-be. I also saw quite a few golfers on Golfboards zooming around.
How Trinity Forest is received compared to Dallas National or other top Metroplex clubs remains to be seen, but local PGA Tour pros are already making themselves at home.
The Verdict: What club do I choose?
Let's assume that I've got the dough and invitation to join any of these clubs on a whim. Where are my dues going?
I think the total package at Austin Country Club is irresistible. It's lake access, pool, plus the fact I've got a soft spot for all things Harvey Penick, put it over the top. (Can I get on the waitlist now, and try and come up with the dough in meantime?)
Escondido is the most luxurious of the foursome, with stellar service, facilities and amenities. This would be a great place to be a national member and come here to enjoy the Hill Country and Lake LBJ for long weekends throughout the year, or retire and make it a permanent home.
From a pure golf course design perspective, I have to go with Bluejack National. It's shaped gorgeously, lots of fun off the tee and interesting around the greens. The total club atmosphere, casual but certainly first-rate, is tough to beat. I feel as if I'd be as comfortable out here with little kids in tow as I would be with business associates (although moving from Austin to relatively remote Montgomery would be quite a commitment).
Trinity Forest's golf-only offering would be really appealing to me if I was a serious, scratch golfer and already had another club elsewhere with a pool and family amenities.
I've got my eye on some other private clubs around Austin to potentially join one day. But for now, it's golf at the ol' Lions Muny, and I can't complain.