There are more than 750 golf courses in Texas. Many of them are well known, but some -- many of which are tucked away -- don't get the recognition they deserve.
Having lived in the Lone Star State for most of the past 40 years, I've had a chance to play a lot of golf here, and I have a few spots I loved to go to that aren't necessarily on the national or even state radar. Here are some recommendations by region.
San Antonio-Austin area
No doubt Brackenridge Park Golf Course, a terrific and rare A.W. Tillinghast design in Texas, is a must-play and perhaps a bit of a hidden gem for travelers to the Alamo City. But for my money, I like Willow Springs Golf Course.
Also a municipal and part of the Alamo City Golf Trail in San Antonio, Willow Springs dates back to 1923, and like Old Brack, it has a pretty fair history with an A-list of competitors that include Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.
Unlike Brackenridge, perhaps, Willow Springs has plenty of length, playing to more than 7,200 yards from the tips, including the longest par 5 in the city at 663 yards. There's also elevation change, lots of mature oaks and pretty good conditions most of the time. Plus, it's in a great location, just minutes from the Riverwalk, downtown, right next to the AT&T Center. Also, Willow Springs costs less than half of what it does to play Old Brack.
A little farther north, in between San Antonio and Austin near New Braunfels, is another favorite under-the-radar venue, The Bandit Golf Club. This fantastic Keith Foster design has some really cool holes with great elevated tees that make players feel like they're channeling John Daly. The 18th is an awesome risk-reward par 5 with a green that slopes severely from right to left toward a hazard.
And finally, a little north of Austin in Hutto, which is very close to Pflugerville (a couple of my favorite names for Texas towns), is The Golf Club at Star Ranch. It may be a little out of the way, but it's one heck of a nice facility and a fun golf course. Operated by Ricky Heine, former president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, it's always in great shape.
Dallas-Fort Worth area
When anyone asks me for a recommendation for an affordable DFW-area course that they'll really enjoy, I send them to play Grapevine's municipal golf course. Very affordable, Grapevine Golf Course has 27 holes, 18 of which were designed by Byron Nelson, on a beautiful piece of rolling property with lakes and mature oaks and pecans. D.A. Weibring, who renovated the course a few years ago, added the other nine, which is a little more wide open.
The DFW area is, in fact, stocked with good munis. Tierra Verde Golf Club in Arlington is another great choice. So is Texas Star Golf Club in Euless, as well as the 36 holes at Tenison Park that includes the historic Highlands Course.
But if you're looking for something a little more off the radar, head over to the gorgeous Sugar Tree Golf Club near Weatherford. Located right on the Brazos River, Sugar Tree has earned four stars on Golf Digest's list of places to play.
Another great option is Mansfield National Golf Club, just south of Arlington. Always in great shape and affordable (less than $50), this John Colligan design meanders around Low Branch Creek and mature hardwoods.
Like Dallas-Fort Worth, the Houston area has more than 100 golf courses open to the public, and most of them are pretty decent. Historic Memorial Park Golf Course in the center of town is a must-play, but I'm not sure it's that under the radar. After all, you have to get into a lottery to play on the weekends there.
For the hidden gems, head north and south. Just north of The Woodlands is Woodforest Golf Club at Fish Creek, a really good and well conditioned 27-hole layout designed by Steve Elkington. Although Woodforest has played host to Champions Tour qualifiers and other high-profile events the past few years and has been ranked on several state lists, I'm still not sure outsiders know about it. Besides a great layout, the course always has the best greens of any daily fee in the area. It's also building a new clubhouse, which should be open by the summer of 2014.
My pick south is all the way down on Galveston Island. The old muni course there got renamed a few years ago and redesigned. Named after its operator, Moody Gardens Golf Course is a really challenging and scenic all-paspalum course just a few hundred yards from the Gulf of Mexico. With water on about every hole, it can be a real beast in the wind, but it's always in terrific shape.
If you head east, though, check out Eagle Pointe Golf Club in Mont Belvieu, a very good Rick Forester layout that's pretty cheap to play and always in good shape. And if you keep going toward Beaumont, take a side trip to Rayburn Country in Brookeland. This very affordable (but somewhat blue collar) resort has a terrific golf course, which was recently redesigned by Randy Russell.
West Texas and beyond
It's no secret that Texas is big, so as you might expect, there are some finds in the outer reaches of the state.
If you make it out to El Paso, which is 800 miles west of Houston, you've got to check out Butterfield Trail Golf Club, one of the best municipal golf courses in the country. It's probably the most affordable Tom Fazio design in the country and arguably one of his best. Located on the airport grounds, this really big golf course is sort of a linksy parkland layout that belies its desert environment.
For the really adventurous, though, head to Big Bend Country on the Rio Grande and stay at Lajitas Resort. Lanny Wadkins redid the Black Jack's Crossing Golf Course at Lajitas, and it's nothing short of spectacular. Didn't think Texas had mountains? Think again. The vistas here are almost Grand Canyon like, and the golf course is super interesting as is the resort and its history.
And finally, if you're headed for the beaches, I've got two courses I think you'll like. Palmilla Beach Club, formerly Newport Dunes, is a really cool Arnold Palmer design that represents the closest thing Texas has to links golf, located right on the Gulf of Mexico in Port Aransas near Corpus Christi.
Or head farther down the coast to South Padre Island to play South Padre Golf Club. Although it's not right on the ocean (it's on Laguna Madre), it's close enough. Designed with the prevailing winds in mind, you'll get to play your knockdown shots and then some.