SAN ANTONIO -- The Valero Texas Open, held in San Antonio since 1922, has been contested all over town, from municipal Brackenridge Park to private Oak Hills Country Club and the sadly defunct Pecan Valley.
The two most recent hosts, each located off the 1604 Loop north of town, are alive and well. And aside from the fact that both properties have large resorts and 36 holes of golf, they're seemingly night-and-day.
Five years since the Valero switched venues, the TPC San Antonio is getting its groove as the host, while La Cantera is upping the ante.
So, why not play both? That was my plan one day this March leading up to the Valero.
Big changes underway at La Cantera Hill Country Resort
On the cart path to the first tee of the Resort Course at La Cantera, golfers pass "Champions Rock," a collection of stones engraved with the 15 winners of the Texas Open while it was hosted at La Cantera between 1995-2009 (including three with native Texan Justin Leonard's name).
Those stones aren't going anywhere, and the resort itself only has plans to solidify itself among the top central Texas golf resorts.
In November 2014, La Cantera closed its hotel for a major "transformation." The news was a bit of a surprise to me, considering the last time I stayed here, in 2011, the place hardly seemed tired. But such is the arms race in central Texas hospitality, and a full-on upgrade of the 550-acre facility is underway. It includes a brand new spa, all new restaurant concepts, public-area updates, enhanced pools and more meeting space. The hotel is slated for an April 6 reopening.
With the overhaul came the replacement of the resort's management company, changing hands from Westin to Destination Hotels (Troon Golf continues to manage the golf, however), which has a golf resort portfolio of just over a dozen properties. The only spillover of the renovation into the golf product at this time -- though there have been rumblings of a potential facelift coming to the course -- has been a new spa facility taking the place of the original first hole tee boxes. A new tee location, reducing the yardage -- from a max of 660 to about 580 yards -- will be completed before the end of spring.
The rest of the course, originally opened in 1995, remains vintage Jay Morrish-Tom Weiskopf. While the par-4 12th hole is easily the course's toughest hole -- bunkers left, gunch right and a shallow, elevated green perched above a creek -- it's penal nature is an aberration. The course is largely playable and a lot of fun, with some tremendous (and in the case of the roller coaster from Six Flags Fiesta behind the seventh green, wildly unique) views. The resort occupies a perch along some of San Antonio's highest ground, lending the course to a roller coaster ride of its own, full of rock outcroppings, elevated tees and greens. And the next door Palmer Course, which came later to the resort (and was rated Golf Advisor's top course of the week earlier in March), is even more rugged.
Combined, the two La Cantera courses remain easily among the best 36-hole combos in Texas.
TPC San Antonio and the JW Marriott Hill Country Resort
After ping-ponging around the PGA Tour schedule since it became the host in 2010, from a spot on the Fall Series to the Texas Swing, the Valero Texas Open is finding its zone on the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio.
The Oaks' early days were filled with notoriety: players calling the new, tougher Texas Open host "unfair" and Kevin Na's infamous 16 on the par-4 ninth hole.
A few setup and design tweaks in 2013 later, it's a key event in the lead up to the Masters and the fields keep getting stronger.
And it's only getting better for its members and resort guests of the JW Marriott, too.
Now that the Valero takes place in March, when Bermuda grass is usually still dormant brown, the Oaks is a rare Texas layout that overseeds wall-to-wall with Rye. Central Texas courses, often dry and brownish, rarely appear this brilliantly green and lush.
The Oaks boasts spot-on conditioning to go with a layout that has a timeless feel to it, full of oaks and gently rolling, walker-friendly land (the next door AT&T Canyons Course uses most of the land's sharper topography). The peaceful atmosphere, with the only building ever coming into view being the JW Marriott, help soften the inevitable sucker-punches to the scorecard.
And a few costly mishaps for any golfer not good enough to be in contention on Texas Open Sunday are inevitable. During my round, by the par-5 second green, I was chipping over and back a few times, balls running off and down into collection areas. Sure, it hit my usual number of drives deep into the gunch, but that happens at most courses. It's the shots around the greens here (and the many tough pin locations) that make it such a beast.
This is a course where unsure short games have nowhere to hide, and shots are most likely lost around the greens more than off the tee. But in any case, the Oaks still warranted a five-star rating from me on Golf Advisor.
Whereas La Cantera's two courses are open to the general public and offer dynamically priced tee times online, you have to be a resort guest at the JW Marriott to play TPC San Antonio, which has a membership. But the JW Marriott is a marvel to be seen, and the price to play the top shelf in central Texas is decidedly less than a lot of other golf destinations. A stay-and-play for two here, including a breakfast buffet, can be booked around $250 per person this spring.