San Antonio is known to Texans for many things. The Riverwalk, the Spurs, SeaWorld, and, of course, we all remember the Alamo. However, for those Texans who love golf, leisure and relaxation, San Antonio should be on your radar for another reason. The JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa has been a golf destination for over a decade now, with two world class courses to test even the best players. However, there is so much more to this luxury resort besides just fantastic golf.
As you arrive at the JW Marriott property, one of the first things that strikes you is the immaculate landscaping. Even as you make your way through the streets surrounding the hotel, the plants and trees are a welcoming invitation to a fabulous few days ahead. Check-in is a breeze, with just a couple steps to get your room key and get on your way, and trust me, you are going to want every minute possible to spend on other activities.
As I entered the door to my signature view room, I was immediately taken by the multiple windows and balcony with a stunning view of the resort property and the golf course below. I spent several minutes watching golfers finish up their rounds on the 18th green of the Oaks course as I soaked in the hill country afternoon. A multitude of other room and suite options are available, depending on what you might plan to do while you are on property and your budget.
After a short time organizing my things, I wanted to take in as much as the property as possible before dark. So, I saddled up and went toward the central lobby to check out the scene. My initial stop was at High Velocity, which is a sports bar on steroids. A huge horseshoe bar with close to 50 stools sits in the center of this massive space, so there is plenty of room to belly up for a drink and take in a game on one of the many TV’s. But the real focal point is the massive 120-foot-long video wall that snakes its way across the space from just inside the entrance to the far end of the bar. This screen can be split into multiple programs, so if there is baseball, football, hockey, and basketball on at once, that’s not a problem. In addition, Topgolf is in the process of opening several virtual golf bays in High Velocity, so in the near future you can take a little money off your golfing buddies as you dine and drink.
Speaking of the dining at High Velocity, the food is fantastic. I would call it upscale American bar fare, and it checks all the boxes for a great spot to take in a game and have some good grub. If you fancy a libation as you eat, there are up to 25 draft beers on tap, including your standard domestics. However, if you are looking for a craft beer, they have you covered with several off the grid brews, including some San Antonio local favorites like the Ranger Creek Skytrooper IPA, which I decided would be my brew of choice for dinner. For my meal, I went with the smashed avocado burger and fries. The burger was just what the doctor ordered after a long day of travel. If you are after something a little more substantial, might I recommend the steak and fries or the lobster mac & cheese. Both rolled by me on the way to other diners and they looked spectacular. High Velocity is a must visit while you’re on property, even if you aren’t the biggest sports fan.
Golf is a major attraction at the JW. With a pair of great courses, it has everything you want for a great golf getaway. The first round I played was on the Canyons course, which is a design from the great Pete Dye with some collaboration from Bruce Lietzke. The Canyons layout is more suited for the resort player, as it is significantly shorter and more user friendly than its sister Oaks Course, which hosts a PGA Tour event every spring.
The stretch of No. 8 through No. 11 on the Canyons includes a par 3 which plays 165 yards to a great infinity green with a spectacular hill country backdrop. The final hole of the opening nine at the Canyons is a downhill, dogleg left par-4 that plays as the No. 1 handicap hole and features some fantastic church pew style bunkering down the left side of the landing area. No. 10 is a dogleg right par-4 that has a scenic approach with a tree filled canyon and a view of the resort in the background. It’s as pretty a golf shot as you will stand over anywhere in the state.
The finishing holes of the Canyons are a true delight, as the par-3 16th is a long, downhill carry over a massive grass filled canyon to a bunker guarded putting surface. The short par-4 17th hole plays uphill but is gettable and gives you one more chance at birdie as you prepare for the final test of the day, which is a super demanding par-4 that plays back toward the resort and has a collection of steep bunkers on the right. Playing at 482 yards from the tips, it’s one final challenge for the afternoon and a great final hole to this Dye design.
If I can make one suggestion, it would be to schedule an early tee time at least one of the days you are playing golf, because there is one super unique feature at the JW Marriott that you are not going to want to miss. If you have seen photos of the property, then you likely know what I am talking about. This resort has its own water park.
The River Bluff is a whopping nine acres, and comes complete with a trio of water slides, the 650-foot rapid river ride and a children’s area with a splash pad and several slides just for the kiddos. But the real attraction for the adults, at least it was for me, was the adults only infinity pool which overlooks the gorgeous opening hole of the Canyons course and the rolling hill country terrain beyond. It’s a hyper-relaxing setting and one you won’t want to miss if you make the trip.
The other must see at the River Bluff is the 1,100-foot lazy river. Yes, they have a lazy river. Grab a tube and jump on in for your 20-minute loop around the park as you bob up and down like a cork while enjoying a relaxing beverage from the Rivertop Bar & Grill. I was so chilled out that I made the loop four times and may or may not have taken a little snooze. If it’s one thing I do well, its laziness.
After my afternoon at the pool, it was time for some dinner. Although dining options are abundant at the resort, with the 18 Oaks Steakhouse being their signature experience, I wanted to venture off property to see what I could find. After a couple recommendations by a friendly bartender at the centrally located Crooked Branch bar just below the reception area, I decided upon La Hacienda de los Barrios.
This Tex-Mex patio restaurant is about 15 minutes from the resort and every bit worth the commute. I chose to dine on the patio, which given the time of year was a no-brainer. Live music serenades diners as they enjoy the lovely atmosphere. I chose a beer with my meal, but a wide variety of margaritas are available, including the “El Jefe” top shelf marg or the Sensation, which is a swirl with guava and mango. Whichever beverage you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
As an entrée, per server recommendation, I went with the Pollo en Salsa, which was a pair of chicken breasts covered in melty cheese, served with rice, charro beans and covered in your choice of sauce. I went with the creamy poblano and couldn’t have been happier with my decision. If you are looking for fajitas, they have those too, along with plenty of appetizer options and some of the best guacamole I have had in a while. If you are making the trip to San Antonio, it is a must-visit for the atmosphere and the food.
After a few nightcap drinks in the Crooked Branch, I crawled in the biscuit to get geared up for an early tee time at the Oaks Course. Anyone who plays a lot of golf in the state of Texas will spin tales about how difficult the Oaks can be. The host course of the Valero Texas Open, this Greg Norman design has a reputation for being a tough customer.
After an early alarm to watch the sunrise from my balcony, I made the short walk to the clubhouse adjacent to the hotel to find my clubs already staged on a golf cart and ready to go. I hit the driving range, which is massive, to hit a few balls to loosen up and shake the cobwebs loose from those couple late night beverages at the Branch. After filling up on a couple snacks and some water from the halfway house, which you pass before you tee off and again as you make your way to No. 10, I headed toward the first tee to see what Mr. Norman had in store for me and my game.
After a brief chat with the very friendly starter, who had some local advice about how to tame the Oaks, I was off and running. I chose the Players tees, which ran 6,624 for the loop. The Tournament tees are one back from those, and will pack a 7,034-yard punch, or if you are looking for the ultimate test, then you can tackle the Tiburon tees at a whopping (and likely soul crushing) 7,435 yards.
The first thing you notice about this Norman design, other than the fantastic conditions of the course, are the green complexes. They are elevated, difficult to hold with significant run-off to spots which can leave very tricky up-and-downs. The fairways, especially on the front nine are tight, so a wild day with the driver can lead to some big numbers. Dazzling bunkers surround almost every green, and some of them can be downright comical when found. There are so many beautiful holes on the outward nine, but you will undoubtedly love the feel of the par-3 3rd hole, which is a forced carry over water with a huge bunker area to the right of the green. Playing early in the morning, everything was very still and calm as I walked on this tee box, so much so that I took a minute to soak in the serenity and take some of the cool morning air into my lungs.
The drivable par-4 5th is a fun little hole where a good drive can lead to a birdie opportunity, but a miss of the green can lead to a near impossible up-and-down. No. 7 is a par-3 with a massive horseshoe green that it shares with No. 2. It is one of the most recognizable features on this par-72 layout.
No. 9 was made famous back in 2011, when at the Valero, PGA Tour pro (and 2019 Charles Schwab Challenge winner) Kevin Na scored a whopping 16 on this par-4. I won’t get into the details, but the YouTube video is out there if you want to watch the horror. To be honest, I made a four on the hole and find it mind boggling a tour pro could make a 16, but golf has a sick sense of humor sometimes. And obviously I wasn’t playing from the tips.
The back is a little more generous off the tee, which is a nice change of pace as you make your way back toward the resort. The par-4 10th hole features a fantastic downhill tee shot that plays back up to an elevated green that is protected by some truly diabolical bunkers. It’s a wonderful design to begin the inward nine. Of all the great holes on this course, for some reason I really loved No. 12. This 410-yard par-4 has a fairway bunker on the left which can collect balls pulled off the tee. But what really makes this hole special is the green, which is guarded on both sides by deep bunkers carved out of rock outcroppings. It’s visually stunning, but miss the green, and it will be game over.
If you know anything about TPC San Antonio or have ever tuned in for the TV coverage of the Valero, then you have likely seen their signature hole, the par-3 16th, which is a nod to Riviera Country Club and their 6th hole, which has a bunker smack dab in the middle of the green. The same is true for this par-3 at TPC, which can make for a great photo opportunity and one heck of a story should you manage to jar one. The hole plays about 150-yards from the Players tees, so the shot is manageable but intimidating as that sand trap glares in your direction as you prepare to pull the trigger.
No. 18 at the Oaks is a tight par-5 that requires precision and length. Miss left and good luck making par, miss right and it’s a certain layup shot. Players who can thread the needle will have a potential look at getting home in two, but there is a small creek that runs up in front of the green that can lead to a big number. A layup can be the smart decision and take the risk of a double bogey or worse out of play. It’s a “great choose your own adventure” way to end a tough, but fun round of golf.
After my day at the Oaks, I again made my way off property for dinner, and this dining experience was unlike anything I had ever seen before. About 20 minutes from the resort sits Toro Kitchen + Bar. Toro is traditional Spanish cuisine, and to be perfectly honest, in all my restaurant visits over the years, I have never had the opportunity to sample anything inspired por España. To say I was impressed would be an understatement.
For starters, my server suggested the Jamón Ibérico, which is a 24-month aged serrano ham that comes presented thinly sliced. The fat content, saltiness and the age of the meat make this delicacy literally melt in your mouth. It was a magnificent compliment to my Old Fashioned. I also sampled a couple of the succulent chorizo croquetas, which were light and flavorful. The bechamel keeps the fritter moist but hearty. They are another appetizer home run.
As an entrée, I decided on the Paella. Toro has seven different varieties, including their Paella de Montaña, which comes with Hermi rabbit, Spanish chorizo, and pork belly. There is also the pork lover’s dream, the Arroz con Costra, with Morcilla, Spanish chorizo, pork belly and a layer of baked egg.
I chose a more traditional version, as I am a sucker for good seafood. The Toro Paella has mussels, chicken, calamari, chorizo, pork belly and jumbo shrimp. The whole smorgasbord just works. The subtle briny flavor of the mussels, the bite of the chorizo and the rich pork belly rocket your palate into overdrive, and the shrimp are just an added bonus on top. It’s a meal I won’t soon forget.
My final morning on property, I knocked out a breakfast buffet at Cibolo Moon, which is another of the resorts dining options. The buffet was massive, with almost everything you could ever want in the morning. Waffles, bagels, sweets, and even carnitas and tortillas to make your own breakfast tacos. If you need to carbo load before a round of golf, this is one great place to do it.
The JW Marriott is undoubtedly one of the most unique resorts I have had the opportunity to visit. It’s perfect for a wide variety of needs. If you want a weekend getaway with someone special, the golf and spa provide that. If you’re looking for a place to plan a buddies golf trip, you won’t find a better option, with two courses, a killer sports bar and a great steak house. If you have a family vacation to plan, then pack up the kiddos and do it. Play golf one day while the wife takes the kids to the water park, then switch the following day and let the wife get pampered in the spa while dad monitors the kids water shenanigans, and when you’re done, meet back up for dinner at any of the restaurants on property, or venture out on the town for something different like Toro.
San Antonio is known for many things… the Riverwalk, the Spurs, SeaWorld, the Alamo. Now for me, it is also known for the JW Marriott and the TPC San Antonio. It’s one of the best resorts the Lone Star State has to offer.
For more information on the JW Marriott Hill Country Resort & Spa or TPC San Antonio, visit www.marriott.com, www.tpc.com or www.visitsanantonio.com.