Tales from the Back Nine, Part 5

Tales from the Back Nine, Part 5

Highway 6, one of the original 25 proposed state highways in 1917, cuts through the heart of Texas from the Red River down to the outskirts of Galveston.

SH-6 epitomizes road-trip romanticism. The old highway rolls down central Texas and back in time, taking travelers on a roller-coaster tour of small towns along undulating farmland dotted with wildflowers and historical markers.

Some of the state’s most significant history can be found in the quaint old churches, rusty tin shacks and cemeteries in these charming country communities. Pages of Texas golf history have also been written on cozy courses nestled in cities named after the pioneers of the Brazos Valley region.

With the Brazos and Navasota Rivers, dense forests and oodles of remote pasture-pool playgrounds, the area is ripe with potential tales from the back nine. So, I loaded the ole F-150 with my usual array of golf, camping and fishing gear, and headed to the Brazos Valley in search of wilderness golf adventure. At rush hour. Of course, I had no idea where I would stay that night, but so many state parks and courses bunched together, odds seemed in my favor.

Invigorated by my last trip to East Texas, the beast and I were pumped at the thought of seeing wildflowers popping along the shoulders of the rural routes. The plan was to start at Battle Lake Golf Club in Mart, about 15 miles from Waco, and then hit three courses in quick order before settling in at Lake Somerville State Park, about 60 miles southeast of College Station.

But before arriving at Battle Lake, we hit the rest stop for research material. The swanky rest stop’s lobby featured a display entitled “Crash at Crush.” This was the 1896 publicity stunt involving the collision of two locomotives on the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad in Waco. The event, concocted by William George Crush, attracted some 30,000 people, but three of them died after the trains’ steam boilers exploded on impact, sending debris into the crowd. I would think about this more than once while traveling through small towns connected to the railway. The railroad made big impacts – good and bad – on the development of these communities. Mart certainly benefited from the railroad. In the mid-1880s, the town had two steam gristmills and cotton gins, a church, two schools and 150 residents. When the International & Great Northern Railroad laid track between Marlin and Waco in 1900, job opportunities increased and access to remote markets improved. But the economic boost ended in the late 1960s, when the Missouri Pacific abandoned its tracks through Mart.

Battle Lake was a product of the railroad, and the golf course a product of the boom. The town of Battle, three miles northeast of Mart, was all but forgotten when bypassed by the railroad. The white rocks on the dam of Battle Lake, built to cool steam engines, are the original foundation of the tracks.

Mart Golf Club, the original name, was organized in July 1925 with 50 charter members. Floyd Boone, a PGA professional from Weatherford, supervised construction of the course. The name was changed to Battle Lake GC in 1957. It remained a nine-hole layout with sand greens until 1972, when the city began shared ownership. New owner John Brewer added a second nine and installed grass greens.

Chuck Higgins revitalized Battle Lake after buying the course in 1990. He added a tournament pavilion, practice facility, and cart paths around the greens and tees. Higgins also introduced the “Battle Lake Birdie Girls,” college-aged women dressed in eye-catching outfits, to assist golfers. Country music played on the driving range.

Although Higgins sold his half of the course in late 2015, the place hasn’t lost its charm; it remains a must-play country layout set on rolling hills with cows grazing nearby and 80-acre Battle Lake as the scenic backdrop on several back-nine holes. The course was in great shape when I arrived, offering fun uphill and downhill challenges and small greens that test your accuracy. It was a peaceful end to the day, standing on the 10th tee watching the sun set in front of me and a full moon rising behind.

It was 8:30 when I finally left, so my streak of setting tent before nightfall remained intact. I put the beast in park before getting on SH-6 and sat under the moonlight checking my phone for camping vacancies. It was Easter weekend. Nothing available. So predictable.

This situation has become so routine for me that I welcome the no-reservation challenge. Somehow, some way, some time, I would be in front of a campfire that night. I told Siri to direct the beast to Lake Somerville State Park-Nails Creek Unit, stat.

The drive was peaceful with the full moon casting light on the wispy native grasses and wheat fields. But once we got off SH-6 and onto the farm roads, all hell broke loose. Siri was out of control. She told me to hang a left at FM-223 but the road did not exist. Did I pass it? I made a quick U-turn but no road in sight. So, I kept driving and Siri kept rerouting me. Then things got really weird. As we neared the park, or so I thought, Siri kept barking orders – turn right on FM-whatever, turn left on FM-whatever, proceed to the route – thrusting me into a farm-road maze.

My mind raced: Was Siri actually Rod Serling? Will I be stuck inside this rural Rubik’s Cube forever? When the next road sign said, “paved road ends,” I pretty much freaked out, not gonna lie. It was almost 11:00 and I was in the middle of nowhere. Finally, a sign for Lake Somerville State Park appeared, and I pulled up to the guard house and prepared to talk my way in, as usual. One problem: No park ranger. After 15 minutes, I got on the phone to get directions to another state park when a car pulled through the entrance. This guy actually made reservations. He asked me what to do, so I walked him through the late-arrival process. He then invited me to camp in the section his company had booked, and after a few loops around the primitive camping area, I found the only available spot.

Up early the next morning, I set out on an epic golf quest, hoping to visit five courses. It took just 25 minutes to find Giddings Municipal GC off Hwy 290, about 60 miles east of Austin. Giddings stands on land granted to Stephen F. Austin in 1821 for a colony in Spanish, TX. The city was founded in 1871 when, you guessed it, the railway arrived.

Giddings CC is a semi-private nine-hole layout that opened in 1971. It fits the country course mold of small greens with runoffs providing the primary defense. The 3,101-yard layout has wide fairways, but large trees, water hazards and relatively deep rough tend to keep players honest.

Thirty-minutes later, I was in La Grange going ZZ Top at Frisch Auf Valley Country Club near the Colorado River. The semi-private course has been ranked among the state’s top 20 nine-hole layouts by the Dallas Morning News. The Bermuda greens rolled true, and the hilly course provided exciting shotmaking challenges.

Frisch Auf was built in 1966. Back in the day, the 76 charter members would help wait tables and even bake pies because the staff was so small. The group of founders visualized their dream layout through their rifle sights perched on the nearby massive caliche cliffs. The golf course was eventually designed by Houston architect Jay Riviere with much of the landscaping and turf work done by locals. The pro shop was built by wood shop students from La Grange High School. It’s also worth noting that the fairways can handle airplane landings. The course boasts two emergency landings, so yeah, it’s bad, it’s nationwide.

Still humming ZZ Top, I got my tush to Flatonia GC in 30 minutes. Although it opened in 1993, Flatonia looks and feels like an old-school farm layout. It’s nestled within a community park, typical of small-town courses. Flatonia does not live up to its name. You have to climb a hill to step onto the first tee, and the approach shot on No. 1 goes uphill to an elevated, crowned green. The fairways are tight, guarded by rows of mature trees. On No. 2, I thought Matt Kuchar might be on the green ahead of me, but alas the sound I heard came from a cow behind the third tee.

Flatonia’s creative design, by Bill Hassell and Lonnie Garbade, was a joy to play. The tree-lined doglegs provide risk-reward opportunities, and the picturesque No. 7, a 114-yard par-3, is all carry over a pond bordered by flowing reeds. A golfer paying the weekday rate of $12 could be accused of stealing.

Running out of daylight, I hustled to Weimer Golf Club, a 20-minute drive east on US-90. The course, established in 1940, is another top-20 staple in the Dallas Morning News rankings. But the course was closed, so I just walked a few holes. The nine-hole layout measures 3,041 yards. A lake comes into play on several holes, and massive oaks line the fairways. The greens looked to be in excellent shape. The course is part of a park. When I drove out the back way, a group of teenagers was playing sand volleyball as I gathered kindling for my campfire.

I could have hopped the train to reach Columbus, a straight 15-minute shot on US-90. That course was closed too because of the holiday, so I got whiskey for the beast at the Valero on Main Street, and ice cream for me next door at the Dairy Cone, an old-fashioned drive-in. I leaned on the beast watching the train go by.

With daylight fading, I went back to Dairy Cone, getting a cheeseburger for my ride to wherever I would be staying. The closest place was Stephen F. Austin State Park, so I rolled the dice. Arriving about 10 p.m., I slipped $20 into the late-arrival box and was fortunate to snag the only available spot. Again.

From my tent I noticed what appeared to be a golf course across the Brazos River. And sure enough, Stephen F. Austin Golf Course was next door. I drove across the street to check out the San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.

Turns out, I had spent the night in the town (founded 1824) that served as the capital of Stephen F. Austin’s first colony. San Felipe resided in a log cabin on the square, and his town was home to Texas’ first post office. The town was burned in 1836 to prevent the Mexican army from capturing it and then rebuilt a few years later.

With a 4 hour, 16-minute drive home in front of me, I hit the road, hoping to visit the two places I missed on day one. Good thing, too, because I found a third.

Legendary Oaks GC in Hempstead was a nine-hole layout designed by Leon Howard in 1963 and then Jay Riviere, the Frisch Auf Valley designer, added the second nine six years later. The layout plays to 7,061 yards from the tips, and offers a fairly stern test with water in play on 11 holes. My favorite aspect of the course is that you can fish off piers in the stocked three-acre lake separating the two nines. In the parking lot beside the driving range stands a beautiful antique church.

After grabbing a massive chopped beef-and-sausage sandwich at Hill Country BBQ on SH-6 in Hempstead, I had two final places to see, Pecan Lakes GC in Navasota and Hearne Municipal GC.

Pecan Lakes, another Riviere design, opened in 2002 and the next year made Texas Golfer’s rankings of top five best kept secrets. The creative layout makes use of a creek that meanders across the property, exotic birds troll a marshy area on the far side, and a cool par-3 requires a carry over water. Birds aren’t the only flying things you’ll see. Hop the fence by the driving range and you’ll be on an airport runway.

The city of Hearne sits on land that initially belonged to politician and soldier José Francisco Ruiz in the 1840s. The Hearne family, which moved there in the 1850s, wanted a railroad line built in their town, but the Civil War delayed that. After a depot was constructed in 1868, businesses opened, and the population grew.

Hearne GC is nestled in a community recreation area. The nine-holer, established in 1935, features a simple design. The fairways, bordered by large pines, sweep downhill from the clubhouse. The tiny bent grass greens provide the biggest challenge. Errant approach shots to these elevated putting surfaces with runoffs will put you in a tough spot facing a tricky up-and-down.

But things could always be worse. At least you aren’t in the historic cemetery across the street.