SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Most golfers would probably be surprised to learn that military golf courses aren't just for the military. That's right; many of them are open to the public. They are funded by the Morale, Welfare and Recreation division of the U.S. Department of Defense, which could use the additional revenue to help offset costs. That fact is civilian golfers' good fortune because the vast majority of these golf courses are not only unique and enjoyable, but pretty affordable as well.
Like public courses, military courses run the gamut. Some are better maintained than others. Some are special, like the Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course at the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station on the island of Oahu Hawaii, or Eisenhower Golf Club at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
I recently played a historic military course in San Antonio: the 36-hole Fort Sam Houston Golf Club. It's walkable, inexpensive ($35-$45 for civilians, including cart), and has quite a pedigree. The course, at least in its original 18-hole configuration designed by classic architect A.W. Tillinghast, remains the only military golf course to ever play host to a PGA Tour event.
In 1950 and 1951 the Texas Open was played at both Brackenridge Park Golf Course and Fort Sam Houston Golf Club; afterwards it stayed at Brackenridge Park Golf Course , with the exception of 1956 and 1960, when it was played at Ft. Sam Houston over all four rounds. Over the years the course has also played host to collegiate tournaments as well as a U.S. Open qualifier.
While some base golf courses require calling up to a week in advance to receive clearance, civilians who play the Ft. Sam Houston Course don't even have to go through a gate to gain entry. The course is located off Harry Wurzbach Road, a major thoroughfare in San Antonio, right next to Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Military golf options are plentiful
All together, there are about 150 military courses throughout the world with the vast majority of them in the United States. They come under every branch of the service with the Air Force operating almost half of them, while the Army has the second most at 42 golf courses.
Fort Sam Houston director of golf Gordon Zambrano says getting the word out to the public that these courses are available isn't easy.
"We still get calls every day asking if we're available to the public," said Zambrano, who has been there nine years.
Fort Sam Houston's covered driving range.
The Fort Sam Houston Golf Course is one of three courses in San Antonio run by the Air Force (although Fort Sam Houston was an army base before base closures a few years ago). The other two in the Alamo City are Gateway Hills at Lackland AFB, where the Air Force conducts basic training for all new recruits, and Randolph (AFB) Oaks. The public has access to all three.
Fort Sam Houston's roots
Well before Tillinghast (who also designed Old Brack), the first Fort Sam Houston golf course was laid out in 1900 using coffee cans for holes. Twenty-seven years later, patients at Brooke Army Hospital (now Brooke Army Medical Center) built a nine-hole course behind the hospital.
The first 18 holes on the current site were built from 1935-'37. Designed by A.W. Tillinghast, the first nine was actually built by soldiers. Cost to play was $2 a month. Another nine holes were added in 1965, designed by Gen. Ralph Mace, and the final nine, designed by Ralph Plummer, were added in 1974. In 2007, the Kevin Tucker Group did a tee and green renovation. After the final nine holes, the course was reconfigured into two courses -- La Loma and Salado Del Rio.
John J. McCarthy Clubhouse.
Twenty years later, the course received a beautiful vintage clubhouse designed by Larson/Kramer of Chicago in 1994. In 1997 it would be named in memory of the late John J. McCarthy, the former chief of community recreation. McCarthy played a key role in getting the clubhouse funded ($3 million) and built.
As for the course, golfers who don't know any better would have a difficult time picking out the Tillinghast holes. The newer and old holes blend together well to form two courses that tip out around 6,800 yards. But under closer inspection, you can find Tillinghast's hands in the holes that are now the first nine on La Loma and holes 1-3 and 13-18 on Salado Del Rio. They are classic in every sense — push up greens with mostly subtle breaks, tees close to greens and thoughtful use of bunkers.
The military golf experience
No. 4 on La Loma next to the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery
For me, playing Fort Sam Houston was somewhat nostalgic. Having grown up as an Army brat (my father was actually stationed at Fort Sam Houston Army Base in 1968), I spent most of my youth on or around Army bases, going to the Post Exchange, Commissary and base recreational facilities. I didn't grow up playing golf, but I did spend time on a military golf course in Germany once caddying for my father. He was an awful golfer, so thankfully, that didn't dissuade me from taking up the game after college.
The military has changed quite a bit since then, and it's no more evident than playing Fort Sam Houston. Though there are security measures to be sure, you simply drive up to the clubhouse, check in at the shop and maybe grab a bite to eat from the Back Swing Cafe, which does somewhat resemble the mess halls I sometimes dined in growing up.
The golf shop is well stocked, and the club has an active lesson program. Getting instruction there is typically less than what you would pay at a civilian course, and the range is both covered and lighted.
As for the golf course, you won’t confuse the conditions with the TPC San Antonio, but it's still sufficient. Best of all, it's very walkable. Greens and tees are close together on pretty flat terrain. There are numerous water hazards, but only a smattering of bunkers. Most of the greens are of the push-up variety with just enough slope to keep it interesting.
Perhaps the most interesting and somber moment of the round came on the fourth hole of La Loma, which is one of the original Tillinghast holes. All along the left side, you can see the thousands of tombstones of the national cemetery, which is somewhat reminiscent of what you would see at Arlington National in Virginia. Many of those buried there sacrificed their lives during the World Wars, Vietnam, Korea or Mid-East conflicts. Many, of course, simply served their country and made it to old age and are buried there now.
A relative of mine falls under the latter category. So after my round, before it got dark, I visited his grave for a few minutes. On the other side, I could see the golf course, which certainly puts everything in perspective.