PORT LAVACA, Texas — One of the most unique layouts in the Lone Star State, played by few and universally lauded by course architects and superintendents who have been lucky enough to pay a visit to the place, is for sale.
What's in store for the future of Wolf Point Ranch, a course built for one man on his family's ranch and located about an hour and a half southwest of Houston on the Texas Gulf Coast?
Since being revealed in the mid-2000s, the course has earned a stellar reputation among golf enthusiasts lucky enough to visit. Golf Club Atlas, a website dedicated to golf course architecture and respected by golf course designers, superintendents and other industry professionals, has ranked it among its top 100 courses in the world, despite its exclusivity. Renowned architect Tom Doak, known for his minimalist approach and links courses like Bandon's Pacific Dunes, says it has the finest greens in the state.
The Wolf Point legend began nearly 15 years ago when Alfred T. Stanger, a highly successful businessman and rancher, set out to build the golf course on his 1,600-acre ranch. Stanger died suddenly 2 1/2 years ago, and what would become of his course has been the source of speculation. But recently his widow Dianna chose to put the ranch, including the course and much more, on the market.
The asking price of $11.5 million includes the golf course and the entire 1,600-acre ranch as well as a small-but-new clubhouse (built specifically so Al's guests could continue to hang out once Dianna had dinner ready for the two of them back at the house), 7,200-square-foot hilltop home, 5,000-foot runway capable of landing a large jet and a climate-controlled hangar big enough for a half dozen good sized aircraft as well as a fueling station, and plenty of land to raise cattle or other livestock, such as the camels and llamas currently kept on property. (Dianna is the aviation expert in the family. She formerly ran the Palacios airport and is a licensed pilot, rated to fly jets.)
What could become of Wolf Point Ranch?
According to Republic Ranches Realtor Rick Doak (no relation to Tom), there have been interested parties, at least one of which has made an initial offer. (You can view the listing here.) New owners could make the course the centerpiece of a private club (there are no accommodations besides the main house at the moment, but there is certainly room to build). Port Lavaca is a small and somewhat remote part of the Texas coast, but with its onsite airport facilities, it is certainly accessible to a national audience.
And because it's on a large ranch with plenty of wildlife and habitat, the entire property could be set up much like Big Easy Ranch near Columbus 90 minutes away. Big Easy Ranch, owned by longtime Houston oil and gas executive Billy Brown, has an outstanding par-3 course designed by Chet Williams, also offers high-end hunting and fishing as well as a golf academy headed up by former PGA Tour player Hal Sutton. Wolf Point could be made into a similar operation and perhaps add offshore fishing excursions as well.
The golf course continues to be maintained by ranch staff and its 419 bermudagrass fairways and Emerald bermudagrass greens are in good shape. Doak said Dianna Stanger would entertain offers just for the course without the rest of the ranch. Either way, a new owner could introduce this course that's been largely secret to a much larger group of players.
Wolf Point's origins
Wolf Point Ranch, which is actually named for another nearby piece of property the Stangers own on Carancahua Bay, is the first solo design by Houston-based Mike Nuzzo.
Nuzzo will soon add another course to his portfolio -- Nine Grand at Grand Oaks Reserve in Cleveland, just north of Houston, when it opens this summer. And while Nine Grand -- which features a nine-hole regulation course, a nine-hole par 3 and nine-hole putting course -- is highly anticipated, Nuzzo will have a hard time ever topping Wolf Point, which has been referred to as the "St. Andrews of Texas."
In fact, it was the Old Course at St. Andrews that inspired Nuzzo in the initial design phase, based on Stanger's limited input.
"He didn't want to spend a lot of time looking for balls, and he wanted it to be challenging," Nuzzo recalled. "I immediately pictured The Old Course for him."
Stanger, who owned Electro-Methods, a jet-engine parts manufacturing company in Connecticut, moved down to Texas in part because he hated cold weather. He had given up golf for decades when his wife surprised him with a set of golf clubs as a birthday present. He soon started playing at a nearby public nine-hole course, Turtle Creek.
Not satisfied with the Palacios course despite enjoying the camaraderie with a new golf buddy he met there, he decided to build his own. Nuzzo, who got a call out of the blue from Stanger in 2005, initially thought he might just be designing a couple of holes, but soon learned that the millionaire rancher and businessman wanted a full 18-hole golf course he could enjoy every day.
After drawing up some initial proposals for the flat piece of land divided by a creek and covered with brush and trees, Nuzzo called Don Mahaffey, a golf course superintendent he had met at a Golf Club Atlas event a few years earlier, to see if he would if he would be interested in working on the project with him. After considering several golf course builders, Stanger proposed that Mahaffey just build the course themselves. And he did.
The course was cleared and shaped in stages over a couple years, and as holes were completed, Stanger would play those holes.
"Al gave us all the time we wanted to create," Nuzzo said.
Mahaffey, who is now president of Texas-based Greenscape Methods (later formed in partnership with Stanger), trained the ranch hands to operate the machinery to build the course and maintain it. To this day, just four ranch hands, including one who works just part time on the course, take care of the entire property.
About Wolf Point's golf course design
Because of the limited staff available at the estate, the course had to be low maintenance. Since Stanger would be playing it every day, Nuzzo knew the course needed to have great variety. To make it challenging, he gave the greens lots of movement. Find the wrong part of one relative to pin placement and a two-putt can be near impossible. And in respect for the environment, Nuzzo wanted to create a design that would blend into the natural surroundings.
There's also no range, though the first hole has a massive fairway and the tee is right next to the house. Typically, players just a hit a few warm-up balls on the long par-3 eighth hole next to the clubhouse, then move onto to the first.
"It was a goal to have as little visual disturbance as we could find -- no ball washers, irrigation controllers, cart path, or any other stuff (including signage)," Nuzzo said.
The scorecard lists the layout as a par 71, but there is no yardage. That's because there are no tee markers. You pick where from where you want to play. Generally, the tradition there is that whoever has the box, picks the teeing ground, and the options abound, from right next to the previous green to halfway to next hole and beyond.
As for variety, Nuzzo took everything into consideration -- routing, direction, orientation, hole types, hole length, green orientations, slopes, strategies, bunkering and shaping. "Yet all of it had the feeling of the same family or with a cohesiveness," he said.
"Whether it was an angle, strategy, feature or concept, there were bits and pieces from some of the great courses I had visited, and even one I hadn't yet," he added. "Seminole, National Golf Links of America, Royal County Down, Royal Melbourne, The Old Course. And they were softly blended into the existing site... There is even a little bit of the Palacios golf course mixed in at Wolf Point."
Nuzzo made use of Keller Creek, which runs throughout the property and along eight holes. They built a 12-acre irrigation lake, filled from the hole they used to create a hill for the main house, in the center of the property. A couple holes bump up next to it. For the most part, the course is meant to be played on the ground.
"It was a goal to construct the course so you couldn't tell where the fairways ended and the greens or tees began," Nuzzo said. "So before it was grassed everything blended together. The intent was that nothing looked artificial and the course would play whimsically. That was our goal, whimsy and organic."
Just six greens have bunkers tied to the greens surfaces and only six holes have two or more bunkers on them. Two par 3s have no bunkers at all.
"One of the last holes we built, the 7th, originally had a ton of bunkers drawn with a lot of earthwork," he added. "By the time we got to building no. 7, Don and I erased the drawn hole and worked on a concept more fitting with the site and also different from what was built already."
Nuzzo said he had tried to involve Stanger in the design process, but he never wanted to know more than how things were going. On one last occasion, though, Nuzzo asked Stanger about the routing of the course.
"Holes 15-17 could have been clockwise, as opposed to the counter-clockwise position they sit in today. The as-built 14th hole has the only forced carry immediately in front of a green. I described the option of having the 14th green on the same side as Keller Creek and that would switch the routing of holes 15-17. Al chose the forced carry and liked the extra challenge."
It remains to be seen how new owners might change the course. Depending on the size of the membership and who plays it, new ownership could add tee boxes or directional signage. As of now, you have to know where to go. When we visited the course, Nuzzo guided us around. Otherwise we would have been confused.
Stanger, of course, didn't need any guidance. He knew the course better than anyone else on earth, having played it hundreds of times. If all goes well, many more will come to know this course in what could be a fascinating future, to say the least.
Note: After Stanger's death, Don Mahaffey formed the Greenscape Methods Charitable Foundation to fund the Alfred T. Stanger Memorial Scholarship fund in honor of the late owner. According to Mahaffey, who formed a tight bond with Stanger while working on the course and beyond: "We hope to pass along some of Al’s encouragement to young people pursuing a career in golf. But the real reason I wanted to create this annual scholarship gift is so I can talk about my friend every year." For more information on the scholarship, click here.