HOUSTON - While Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, even more daunting is the metro area. With more than 6 million people spread out over nine counties, Greater Houston is the fifth largest metro area in the United States with hundreds of miles of highways packed with traffic.
So when someone asks for golf recommendations, two factors come to mind: budget and location. Fortunately, when it comes to public golf in Houston, almost all of it is affordable. Here are a few recommendations by location:
Memorial Park and Houston proper
Like many big cities, the majority of public golf courses are located in the suburbs and Houston is no exception. There are however, a few good public plays inside the city limits.
The most obvious is the centrally located municipal Memorial Park Golf Course, a 1935 John Bredemus design (renovated in 1995 by Carlton Gipson) that plays host to the Greater Houston City Amateur. It also use to stage the Houston Open and there's even been talk that it might one day return there. But for now, it's a championship level course (over 7,300 yards) at under $50 with a cart. Tee times can be a little tough, but if you go out as a single or twosome, you can usually get paired up with someone without waiting too long.
Of the other seven facilities in the Houston Parks system, the one that has the most loyal following is Sharptstown Park Golf Course on the southwest side of town. Another former home of the Houston Open, conditions there in recent years have been above average, especially the greens, and fees are even less than Memorial's.
And just a couple miles from NRG Stadium and less than 15 minutes from downtown is 36-hole Wildcat Golf Club. Built on an old oilfield and landfill, architect Roy Case designed two golf courses that are complete different, the Lakes and the Highlands, which accurately describe the layouts. Usually in great shape, expect to pay a little more at Wildcat than you would for Memorial.
Road trip toward the coast
Located in Lake Jackson, if Wilderness Golf Course was only 30 minutes closer, I'd be a regular. Still, it's worth the hour and 10 minute drive south from the Galleria every once in a while. Rated among Golf Advisor's Top 50 nationally in 2015 and 2016, it's that good. Designed by Jeff Brauer, there are no homes at Wilderness, just a lot of good holes laid out over protected wetlands. One of those holes, the par-5 fifth, has a green that's 60 yards long. The rustic clubhouse is welcoming, as is the staff.
Also worthwhile and a little bit of a haul is Moody Gardens Golf Course in Galveston (about 50 minutes from downtown). This all-paspalum course (which survived seawater flooding from Hurricane Ike in 2008) was redone magnificently by Peter Jacobsen and Jim Hardy. With water on nearly every hole and the wind whipping off the beach, it can be a real beast.
Closer in is 27-hole Timber Creek Golf Club in Friendswood. Affordable and almost always in good shape, this Jay Riviere design is fun, affordable and a great place to hang out after the round with a full-service bar and grill and lots of friendly folks.
Timber Creek Golf Club
Northeast around the Shell Houston Open
The most expensive public course in Houston by far (the only green fee over $100) is the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston ($175 peak season, plus forecaddie tip). Designed by Rees Jones, the 450-acre layout is a heavily overseeded winter golf course set up to emulate conditions at Augusta National the week before the Masters. So the best time to play it is winter and spring, before or after the PGA Tour is in town.
If you're in town for the tournament, two can't-miss venues nearby and close to Bush-IAH Airport are Cypresswood and Tour 18 Houston. Cypresswoood is 36 holes, highlighted by the Traditions Course, a wonderful Keith Foster design that has played host to numerous professional qualifiers. Tour 18 is the world's original replica course, built in 1992. Its version of Augusta's Amen Corner is probably the best among all the copycat courses, plus copies of the island green 17th at TPC Sawgrass as well as holes from Merion, Oakmont and Pebble Beach, just to name a few.
Other top recommendations in the suburbs
Woodforest at Fish Creek
One of my favorite courses, just north of The Woodlands, is Woodforest at Fish Creek. Designed by Steve Elkington, this 27-hole layout, boasts the best greens in the Houston area, and I've never found evidence to doubt that claim. A little bit west of Woodforest on the south shores of Lake Conroe is La Torretta Lake Resort & Spa's golf course, which was greatly improved a few years ago by architect Jeff Blume. And a little farther south in Spring and west of I-45 is Augusta Pines. Brought to you by the same folks who built Tour 18, this former home a PGA Tour Champions event, has a combo Pinehurst-Augusta feel to it and a most impressive clubhouse. The course ends with a risk-reward par 5 to an island green.
The second most expensive public course in the Houston area is 36-hole Black Horse in Cypress, which is about a half hour northwest of downtown Houston. Also designed by Hardy and Jacobsen, the North and South courses are championship pedigree built through wetlands and forest. Part of the South Course was routed through an old quarry. Also, northwest, Houston National and Cypress Lakes are good plays.
Going west, there are a couple of good bets in Katy. The Golf Club at Cinco Ranch is a Carlton Gipson design that got renovated a few years ago and also a good value. While Meadowbrook Farms is a premium daily fee that was once destined to become private. It's also one of Greg Norman's better designs.
If you continue west another 15 minutes on I-10, you'll find River Ridge, another "worth the drive" golf course with plenty of interesting holes, good conditions and hospitality. With 27 holes, it never seems real crowded and the topography of this parkland style course is unique to Houston.
And finally, if you're willing to head east about an hour, check out Eagle Pointe Golf Course in Mont Belvieu. It might be the best value in the entire region. Local residents get ridiculously low rates at this wonderfully interesting muni, but visitors usually pay less than $40 with a cart. With rolling landscape, towering pines and holes along a river, it's well worth the drive and then some.