Inaugurated at the start of the new millennium, Austin Golf Club has been flying under the radar of publicity ever since the day it first opened for play. There’s no real estate element here and you’ll not find any swanky country club amenities – just an 18-hole golf course that lies north of Highway 71, seven miles to the southeast of Spicewood.
Apart from designing the course, Ben Crenshaw was instrumental in the club’s foundation and he maintains close contact with those involved in its day to day running. Laid out on typical Texas Hill Country terrain, the course is characterised by live oaks, cacti, native grasses and scrubland, with its clubhouse sited at the highest point on the property.
The greens at Austin vary in size, according to the length of the hole being played. For instance, the 454-yard 5th and downhill 511-yard 11th play to larger, offset greens whereas short par four holes like the 325-yard 2nd and the 366-yard 17th feature only small or shallow putting surfaces.
There’s only one water hazard of note on the course, a spring that lies short and to the left of the 428-yard right doglegged 12th. The main obstacles to be avoided are the live oak trees, like the single standing ones on the fairway at the 1st and 15th, and the thicker stands that line the 5th, the corner of the 7th, or those narrowing the 12th.
The 8th and 9th holes are reminiscent of A. W. Tillinghast’s short par three to a small target followed by a demanding par five at Baltimore Country Club’s 13th and 14th. Here, the 131-yard 8th and its tiny green is followed by Crenshaw's version of "Hell's Half Acre" at the 584-yard 9th, where a dozen ragged edged bunkers present all sorts of problems.
Important to separate 'challenging' from 'memorable'. Those are different things.
Austin Golf Club is in immaculate shape. It also has mystique given its 'off-the-grid' location/vibe and Ben Crenshaw spending more days there then days he is not there interacting w/ members and guests. It is extremely challenging w/ very fast (rolling at 14 for our round) and undulating greens. If your short game is not in tip-top shape, it will be a long day. It is a great bucket list course to play for those visiting/living in Austin. For first timers to AGC, spend more time on the practice green vs. practice range before the round. The pin placements are very important as you decide how to hit into each green. Good drives and solid second shots can easily become bogeys and double-bogeys with misses left/right/short/long on various greens. Playing the course multiple times would seem to yield positive scoring results as local knowledge is key around-the-greens.
With all those complements though, my $.02 is that the best courses on my bucket list were the ones where you can recall all the holes in your head after-the-round and had variety. Austin Golf Club plays like the same holes over-and-over again. It feels a bit like Groundhog Day. The course feels homogeneous without much variety. I'm sure the regular members can recite nuance after nuance about each hole which I can respect but the holes feel eerily similar with basically a bunch of dogleg par 4's, long par 5's, and 180-200 yard par 3's w/ very difficult/small greens to hit into and trees strategically incorporated that can interfere w/ good shots. There is little/no water hazards on the course and strategically placed bunkers around each green and fairway.
Enjoy the off-the-grid vibe, the quiet/non-commercial feel, the immaculate conditions, and the Ben Crenshaw pro shop. But don't be surprised to leave with a feeling of 'great day but can't really discern between hole x and hole y' as it felt like 3 holes that played 6x vs. 18 holes played 1x.
Since it opened in 2000, you probably haven’t heard of the club – and I can guarantee throughout the next series of decades, you probably won’t hear much about it either. There’s no website, very little photography, and almost no footprint with media exposure. With Mr. Crenshaw at the helm as the Director and the primary course architect (with Bill Coore), this is one of the most protected secrets in all of American golf – just the way the club wants it to be. The focus is solely on the game of golf, and the members uphold the most respected old-school traditions, which is evident when you listen to how they describe the club’s values. I heard joyful comments that “only Ben can putt these greens”, and it doesn’t take long to experience the challenge of the contours – frequently reminding us of those renowned greens among the Georgia Pines. There is plenty of width off the tee, with thoughtful placement of fairway bunkering to challenge every player, consistently pleasing to the eye. I recently read the book “The life and work of Dr. Alister MacKenzie” which outlined MacKenzie’s 13 design principles. It was remarkable how many of them I could identify while playing Austin GC. It is clear that Ben’s design philosophies are rooted in the best of American golf architecture, and this course has Ben’s full attention as he is a local resident and onsite every week. Every hole has a thoughtful name and is influenced by many people / factors of Crenshaw’s life. It was fitting that the 18th hole is simply named “Harvey”, as a testament to Ben’s iconic golf instructor and friend. The course itself is a remarkable creation and among the very best of the architect’s global portfolio. The holes fit so naturally on the expansive land, and the green-site locations are as good as I’ve seen from Coore/Crenshaw. Several greens are barely the size of your kitchen table, and others reminded me of the grand scale of their other designs. The variety of design added to the enjoyment of the round (one of MacKenzie’s theories) and everything just seemed in proportion – whether it was a cross bunker, a sprawling hazard, or a tiny green with sharp slopes. The course has great versatility in its routing, as it comes back to the clubhouse on 4 different occasions, giving the members plenty of options in terms of the amount of golf they want to play. I also loved the thoughtful transition from tee to fairway. As players exit a tee-box, there’s a ~30-yard stretch of fescue with a grass path cut up to the fairway. This is a walking course and the shift from one shot to the next is so well thought-out. The view from each green back towards the tee is just as enjoyable as the direction of play. There’s so much attention on the green design that your approach shots hold immense importance. This is true of many of Ben’s personal favourite courses (Augusta National, Chicago Golf Club, Crystal Downs), that the strategic influence of these religious cathedrals was present during course construction. With little to no rough (another MacKenzie theory), you’ll be given the chance to hit an approach shot from a good lie – but the challenge escalates quickly. Coore/Crenshaw often create big greens to make them play smaller – which means that you have to be very precise with your iron-play to reduce the chances of 3 putting. One thing is for sure, the beauty of the signature bunkering, the pristine playing surfaces, the iconic green shapes aggregate to one of the very best courses I’ve seen in the South. Austin Golf Club is a masterpiece.
My member host at Austin Golf Club informed me that I and my good, young amateur that accompanied me would likely score 5-6 shots higher than we might expect. He said that the rating and slope were not truly indicative of the challenges we would face on the course. He added that several of the other well-known courses in the area had higher ratings/slopes compared to Austin Golf Club but that he almost always scored higher here.
As we played the course it was easy to determine why this is the case. The green complexes are among the best I have ever seen or played. The often smallish greens are not tricked up in any way, instead they are cleverly shaped to require both the correct angle into the green as well as the correct landing spot on the green. While all of us have played courses that are described as “second shot courses” given wide fairways or fairways with few defenses, by the seventh hole I described the course as a “second putt” golf course. Once one is on the green the goal should be simply this: get the first putt within a make-able range. If the first stroke goes in, that is a bonus. Lag putting is a key skill required at Austin Golf Club. One has to get both pace and line correct sometimes from as little as six feet away. This was on a day when the greens were likely running 12 and not 14. The greens generally are sloped back to front with a fair amount of interior contours as well as protected at their edges via shoulder-like fall-offs, side swales, and deep bunkers. The slope is often steep on certain parts of each green with some greens offering a good chance for a ball that started above the pin to finish 30-70 yards off the green. It is very important that one’s ball does not approach one of the edges as a ball will rarely stay on. The greens are bent grass and maintained in excellent condition. There is no rough around the greens.
The fairways, and rough are zoysia leaving one with good lies in the fairway but nearer the greens the zoysia present more of a problem if trying to chip onto a green as the grain is generally against you. Often we found ourselves in locations where the green was running away from us and it was difficult to get the right pace on the ball and keep the ball from approaching those ever-present edges. This leads to the “best miss” being short of the green where one generally has an opening and can see the contours slightly better while using the back to front slope as a protection against going above the hole. However, the zoysia grass leads to a more difficult putt from off the green to get the pace matched with the length.
There are only two par 5’s on the course although both are very different. The ninth offers a nod to Baltimore’s Five Farms/A.W. Tillinghast or Pine Valley with a “hell’s half acre” series of bunkers and waste area that bisects the entire fairway requiring it to be cleared on the second shot.
The par 4’s are varied in length, direction, and doglegs with preferred lines into greens complexes that are never repetitive. There are several holes that stood above the others but that does not mean any of the par 4’s could be played as a “breather.”
The par 3’s were the holes that caught my eye the most as they also vary in length, green complexes, green sites, and go in every direction on the course. The eighth is a terror which I will cover in my hole-by-hole commentary.
Austin Golf Club was designed primarily by Ben Crenshaw with his primary residence nearby which afforded him to be onsite nearly every day of construction. This is minimalist in all aspects with the focal point being the location of the clubhouse on the highest point on the property within the area known as the Texas Hill Country. The club sits on a whopping 500 acres. One never feels constrained or confined here. The modest stone clubhouse is understated as is the golf course. There are several holes that stand out above the others, but all of them offer a unique, subtle challenge despite not having the visual appeal one would find on many other golf courses built by Mr. Crenshaw and Mr. Coore. One will not find blowout bunkers or large/raised irregular shaped bunkers. Most of the greenside bunkers are steep faced but of a size and shape one would expect. Overall the number of bunkers seems sparser than the other courses built by Coore/Crenshaw but I did not see reasons to add any to a hole. Mr. Crenshaw instead utilizes the many oak trees on the course for additional defense, sometimes placed inside fairways or having the trees near the greens.
The course begins below the clubhouse, with the first tee shared with the left side of the putting green. It returns three times to the clubhouse after the sixth, ninth, and eighteenth. From the back tees the courses measures 6922 yards with options on eleven and fifteen to play slightly shorter tees. It is a par 70 but with a rating of 74.0/136 indicating its difficulty. The member tees are 6423 yards rated 71.6/129. I suspect the slope rating is low because there is only one pond on the course that one might miss if they do not look for it. One should be able to find their ball. However, in the summer the rough is allowed to grow to a higher height which the member said provided both added definition to the holes but also more difficulty.
1. Par 4 – 434/424. From an elevated tee one has to have a game that is either long enough to fly the tree set inside the right half of the fairway or play as close as they dare. Staying left without adequate length will lead to a blocked or semi-blind shot due to the scattered trees. One will have to play a sizeable draw if too far left to reach this green on this dogleg left. The green site looks innocent enough with flanking bunkers on the front edges but this green has all of the features common throughout the course: steep back to front slope, raised edges and in our case, a pin located close to the left bunker limiting one’s options should they go left of the green. It is a very nice starting hole.
2. Par 4 – 325/305. The short holes at Austin Golf Club provide as much danger as the longer par 4’s. For the second, the danger is in the form of a green that is a tight fit/narrow between two bunkers on the left, one on the right and one at the rear. While the tee shot allows room to play away from the large bunker on the left as well as play short of the bunker 40 yards ahead on the right, one needs to favor the left side for a better angle into the green that is set off a bit to the left and goes slightly to the right. One really desires a straight shot into this green. We had a front pin which offers perhaps ten yards of a landing area. It is a terrific short par 4.
3. Par 3 – 187/166. This hole is the beginning of four very good and very different par 3’s. While it is perhaps my least favorite par 3 on the course, it would likely be the star par 3 on many other courses as it is of high quality. There is a central bunker about ten yards short of the green more on the right side and then two deep greenside bunkers on the right. The left side of the green is protected by a tree that seems way too much in play from the tee. This is a steep back to front green with a multitude of interior swales and humps, but never overly done.
4. Par 4 – 409/387. This dogleg right is a strong hole with the safe play being the middle of the fairway. Longer hitters can run into trouble if they go too far left as there is a large tree intruding on part of the fairway where there is a ten yard wide depression for when it rains. There are no fairway bunkers on this hole so it looks a bit wider than it is. The green has two bunkers on the left, the first one about 15 yards from the green. There is a back right bunker as well that will likely catch a lot of balls hit to a back right pin. Although it feels like there is a second tier on this green, it is simply a stronger tilt.
5. Par 4 – 454/425. The number one index on the front nine due to both length as well as large trees on either side of the fairway just after the bend. There is also a collection of trees on the left side of the green. There are no bunkers on this fairway with the trees providing both the definition and defense. The green is a good one with two bunkers on the right and one on the back left. The green has a lot of interior movement and the edges are a bit higher. It is a very good golf hole from tee to green. This hole is dedicated to Mr. Crenshaw’s longtime coach, Mr. Harvey Penick, named “take dead aim.”
6. Par 4 – 383/359. One believes they get a bit of a breather here on this dogleg right. The hole features an early round bunker not really in play, followed by another long bunker that also should not be in play. A long bunker a bit further up on the left side frames the hole. The bunker more in play is an inner bunker on the right. As one nears the green the collection of trees on both sides pinch the fairway. While a short hole, this hole is a plateau green perhaps 15 feet high with three bunkers built into the face of the rise. As mentioned, this green shares the putting practice green as a nod to Oakmont and sits just to the left of the clubhouse. This is perhaps the only flat green on the course, but a front pin location would be perilous as well as difficult to access from the fairway. On the previous two holes, Mr. Crenshaw had no fairway bunkers but on the sixth he places every bunker in the perfect location while retaining the trees for the larger defense of the hole.
7. Par 4 – 466/433. Playing from an elevated tee, the ground gently falls away on this dogleg right where the left side is wide open with only a single bunker at the turn. The left side is populated with a line of trees. If one cannot get to the center/left side of the fairway beyond the turn, they will have to hit a deft third to try to save par. There is a fairway bunker 15 yards short of the green placed inside the fairway while trees line both sides beginning about 35 yards short of the green. These trees continue to both sides of the green with a single bunker front right. We had perhaps our second most friendly pin location of the day near the middle. I was surprised to find this a mid-handicap hole.
8. Par 3 – 131/118. Did I ever finish this hole? This short hole was my favorite on the course. We had the most difficult pin position on the green which is angled right to left with a front right bunker and two on the left. Our pin was located behind those two bunkers on what seems like a 5 x 5 area. Is this a nod towards the sixth at Augusta National with its various tiny sections? There is a sizeable false front/slant that goes deep into the green. The edges of the green are raised almost three feet. I landed near the front of the green but now having those two bunkers between me and the pin. Two other players landed nearly halfway on the green and rolled back off the front. Our final player was pin high to the right but three putted. My chip from the front rolled off the back from where that pin location was nearly impossible to judge the pace without putting in play rolling into one of the bunkers or back again off of the front. While my description of the green might make it sound unfair, it is not once on is on it but one must putt with confidence. I desperately wanted to have another try at this hole as I walked away both chuckling and marveling at the hole.
9. Par 5 – 584/544. This hole plays uphill for the first and second shots. It is a dogleg right interrupted by a waste area littered with perhaps twenty bunkers or as few as ten, it was hard for me to count given the wild look to this part of the hole. The bunkers are perhaps 50 yards wide on the left side and 70 yards wide on the right side. The tee shot should favor the left side for the best angle while the second shot which should favor the right side as the green is placed off to the left with trees hiding it if one is on the left. There are two bunkers right well short of the green spaced apart by 20 yards while two bunkers are put together on the left side of the green about ten yards short. The green has a bunker on both sides. Only the longest hitters have a chance of reaching this green in two but only if they execute two excellent shots. The green is sloped back to front and speedy with tiers and swales. My first putt from 50 feet was nine feet away which I considered to be a decent putt. Fortunately I made the next. Much like the eighth, one wants to continue playing this hole.
10. Par 3 – 238/212. Going off the left front of the clubhouse, this hole plays slightly downhill across a valley to a green set on a ledge with three bunkers on the right side and one on the second half of the left side. The green has a substantial fall-off back down the hill into the valley if one is short. The green is very tilted back to front with fall-offs on all sides. I made a one-putt to save par and joked that I had one putted two greens in a row given the length of my second putt on the previous hole. This is perhaps the most visually exciting par 3 on the course.
11. Par 4 – 511/444. Playing from a slightly elevated tee this hole bends to the right with the fairway squeezing as you near the green. There is an early long bunker on the right but it serves more as a guide line than defensive. A long, deep furrow of a bunker begins about 130 yards from the green and cuts diagonally across the fairway well short of the green but flanks the right side of the green. There is a small pathway of grass to walk through it. There are no bunkers left or behind the green due to the presence of run-offs. Much like the ninth and tenth, this is another terrific hole and is rated the hardest on the inner nine.
12. Par 4 – 428/398. If there is a criticism to Austin Golf Club, it is that there are more holes bending to the right than the left and this is the case for the twelfth. I think there are nine that are moving right from the tee. As such, this hole reminds me of the fourth, fifth and seventh. There is only one bunker on the hole placed to the left of the green. The green is one of the most difficult with a lot of interior movement and run-offs. Off to the left side of the green is a fall-off into a rough area and treed area where one’s ball could reach the water. There is a definite tier to this green along. The left side features a front left swale and a bunker. Near the green, in recognition of Pete Dye is a suggestion box hanging from a tree that would be very difficult to get to without dropping onto either rocks or water below. It is an amazing green.
13. Par 4 – 347/329. The second shortest par 4 on the course but with a much higher index than the previous hole due to the green complex which features three bunkers on the right starting 20 yards from the green and getting progressively larger. There is a bunker down most of the left side of the green. Two trees on the left bring their branches into a third of the fairway. The green is very quick and balls putted to a front pin from behind stand a good chance of rolling off the front. The back half of the green has a second tier. I hit a good second but was so timid in attacking a front pin that I left the first putt only halfway to the hole. The edges of the green have substantial fall-offs. It is a fun par 4 that requires a lot of thought.
14. Par 4 – 404/386. This dogleg left has two bunkers on the inner turn but a generous fairway. There is a single small bunker on the right placed about 110 yards from the green. The green complex is another good one where Mr. Crenshaw left a grouping of trees in front of the green that frame the hole like goal posts. There is a long, deep bunker down the right side and a smaller one on the front left. The green is on slightly higher ground and is titled strongly back to front and despite the mid-pin location my young amateur saw his ball land about five feet above the pin and come back off the green nearly 40 yards such is the false front and gradual rise in front of the green.
15. Par 5 – 612/552. Much like the first, Mr. Crenshaw kept a large tree in the fairway along with a collection on the right side before the large tree. My long hitting partner thought he had cleared only to find he did not and had a restricted swing. This hole bends to the right with two bunkers scattered down the right side and one on the left. The green is angled a bit to the left with two bunkers on the left side. I came up short with my third shot just off the front by inches and used my putter to get fairly close. On other courses I would count this as two putts, but here I decided to count only the putt on the green.
16. Par 3 – 207/187. This hole has the most notorious green on the golf course, as well as being a visually interesting hole. There are two bunkers short of the green, one more central and one on the right between two trees. There is a long bunker to the left of this raised green. We had a front right pin position, again perhaps the most difficult on this hole set on a bit of a plateau. This green seems to break every which way.
17. Par 4 – 366/347. Ten through sixteen are demanding holes and we are offered a chance to redeem ourselves on this sharper dogleg right. I tried to cut the dogleg and found myself behind a tree on the right with no shot. I tried a heroic shot and failed and brought a double bogey into play as I ended up behind another tree then into the bunker on the left side of the green. There is a flanking bunker on the right front of the green. Fortunately I hit a good bunker shot and made the short putt. The tiny green is angled right to left, the opposite of the bend in the dogleg which does create an inaccessible pin location in the back left unless one can favor the right side of the fairway.
18. Par 4 – 436/407. Austin Golf Club ends on a fine hole with the green perched well above you with a long false front that can take a ball as much as 70 yards away. The left side of the green has higher ground but chipping from there is problematic given the severe back to front tilt of the green and a front small thumbprint. The left side of the green is a sizeable fall-off that will result in a semi-blind shot with the chance of a bunker in-between. From the tee the hole offers an early bunker left not really in play, then one on the right. There is a center-line bunker about 70 yards short of the green with a bunker short left and that deep bunker on the left side. I thought I hit a good third shot from 80 yards but pulled it left to the edge of the green. We had a pin more near to the front right and my three putt was a foregone conclusion. I loved the finishing hole.
Austin Golf Club is a course one wants to play again as soon as they finish because they “know” they can score better. One can hardly believe the number of times they messed up when it seemed so obvious what to do. However, it is unlikely that a second time around will change the score much from the first round. It is 50-50 the second round will be slightly better or slightly worse.
I loved the course and it is definitely my favorite I have played among the top courses in Texas, of which on top100golfcourses.com I have played seven of the top 10. I could make the argument that only Whispering Pines is better as I see AGC as slightly above Dallas National.
This is golf at its purest.