LAKE JACKSON, Texas -- When you drive under the welcoming portal of The Wilderness -- an upscale, municipal golf experience -- you know immediately this is going to be an adventure.
First you see the beautiful, log cabin-styled clubhouse -- then you realize you are in the coastal wetlands, a forested outpost with Spanish moss hanging from the live oaks, and even an alligator mom and youngsters that hang out near the first tee in a pond surrounded by tall grasses. The Texas Gulf Coast is just 10 miles south.
Don't even think that this hidden gem, one of the best in the entire greater Houston market, was 30 years in the making, with environmentalists and politics delaying the project over and over.
You are all set to take on a 7,106-yard par 72 designed by Jeff Brauer that is strategic, beautiful and challenging. His bunker complexes are as good as they get, and his portfolio is as excellent as any golf-course designer that's not named Nicklaus, Fazio, Player, Weiskopf or Palmer.
"When I first saw this golf course, I was impressed by the great use of the land and wetlands," General Manager Doug Borow said. "It has great drainage with lots of contours. Brauer framed the greens with dramatic bunkers and elevated faces. If I didn't tell you this was a municipal golf course, you would think it is an upscale daily-fee course."
And you will enjoy the friendliness of the staff and the green fees because they are very affordable.
The Wilderness story Parts 1 and 2
"Funny story, but I have designed two courses named Wilderness," Brauer said. "The Texas Wilderness was started first but faced some environmental challenges. I gave it the name Wilderness because it sat in Wilderness Park. But I started another course in Minnesota at Fortune Bay and they were looking for a name. The Texas one had sat tied up in courts so long I thought it was dead."
After seeing some slogans in the Minnesota Fortune Bay hotel about putting the Wild in Wilderness, Brauer suggested the name to them. "Wouldn't you know it, the Texas course came back to life the next week, so in 2005 I had two Wilderness courses open," he added.
One concern by the city was water usage.
"We now have seven rain-water-collection ponds, so we hardly ever use the ground water," Borow said. That makes the city happy even though the budget for the course rivals private courses.
The Wilderness layout
Best of all, there are zero houses on the layout. The front is open with wide enough fairways even lending views of parallel holes, but it becomes more secluded on the back nine with frequent opportunities to lose a ball on wayward shots.
Take a close look at the seventh green. This par 5 of 551 yards has a green that measures almost 70 yards from front to back. Brauer joked you can throw a hip out putting from back to a front pin.
Another fun par 5 comes at no. 2, a 560-yarder protected by a lake left. This is a birdie opportunity with multiple landing areas for lay-ups. Risk-reward is strong on the 10th -- a 535-yard par 5, with a sneaky water feature right that comes in to play on your second shot. The other par 5, the 15th, rolls out at 572 with a pond on the right. This hole's semi-blind green was inspired by a similar hole at Lahinch in Ireland.
The best photo hole is the par-3, 167-yard 13th -- wetlands, wildflowers, huge handsome bunker and a slightly elevated green make this a must selfie.
More distinctions at The Wilderness
This award-winning golf course has above-the-norm instruction, a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary distinction and has received the PGA of America Family Course designation.
The PGA Family Course is designed to encourage kids to participate and have more fun playing the game. The nine-hole course set up is based on the concept of shorter holes whose distances are suited to young players' ability levels. Course yardages reward improvement while reducing the frustration that often plagues the beginning golfer.
The PGA Family Course is comprised of nine holes on the front side of The Wilderness. There are two new sets of tee plates. Blue Level 1 tees are 1,100 yards in length, and Gold Level 2 tees are 1,900 yards in length. Level 3 tees are the existing set of orange tee markers at 2,798 yards.
The native areas include palmetto, which is native to low-lying areas in southern Brazoria County. Aside from the gators, all kinds of critters live here like most wetlands. Steer clear of snakes, but enjoy the hawks, deer, raccoons, turtles and bobcat sightings.
The Wilderness is such a treat for the senses when you consider much of the Gulf Coast is marred by unsightly oil refineries and chemical companies. You won't see anything but beauty on this winner of a golf experience. It is a must-play.