LAJITAS, TX - They call it the "Ultimate Hideout" and if you ever come to play golf at The Ambush at Lajitas you will know why.
It's a place where Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing commanded a U.S. Cavalry Post when Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries threatened settlers in far West Texas.
Comanches camped out here, staging raids into Mexico along the Rio Grande River for horses and silver. It became part of the pony path named The Great Comanche War Trail.
There is a distinct vision of this place that comes into the mind's eye of any Yankee who has never visited Texas. He sees Lajitas' desert landscape surrounded by mountains and cowboys of the Old West chasing Comanches. He sees a dusty and hot barren land, dotted with cacti and agave, basically treeless and pure desolation.
Lajitas Resort and Golf Club is not for everyone, but Austin entrepreneur developer Steve Smith took a chance. His $4.5 million bid at auction secured the purchase of Lajitas, complete with a block-long Old West boardwalk with novelty shops and four unique lodging facilities built with a Cavalry Post theme.
Smith then developed a vision that affluent pilots and celebrities crave, a place to get away from it all - a getaway where rich golfers who own their own airplanes would find heaven in Texas.
Lajitas, known to some followers of Texas trivia as the rugged and remote outpost that has a beer-drinking goat named Clay Henry III as its mayor, is now reachable because of a 7,500-foot landing strip capable of accommodating corporate jets.
If you are bold enough, you can drive here, too. The nearest large city is Midland, more than 200 miles away and Alpine is a substantial 95 miles in the distance. Some would think El Paso is next door, but it's 315 miles down a lonely West Texas highway.
Smith hired Austin-based golf architects Roy Bechtol and Randy Russell to sketch the dream into The Ambush at Lajitas, a 7,042-yard, par-71 layout in the desert, that includes a "novelty" hole, a 100-yard shot over the Rio Grande into Mexico. (You don't putt out.) Thus, their claim that it is the only International golf course in the world.
Bordering Big Bend National Park and located within the 22,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert and in the shadows of the Chisos Mountains, Bechtol and Russell first outlined a desert target-styled course. Smith said: "No. I want a solid carpet of grass, an oasis and a traditional course."
Bechtol and Russell complied, but then convinced Smith for another 18, a desert-styled target course with dramatic elevation features. It will be named The Outlaw at Lajitas, coming in 2005.
"I worked on the routing for The Boulders and Troon North and The Outlaw's raw site is three times more majestic than those raw sites," said Bechtol, a former baseball star at The University of Texas. "There is one spot where you can see 100 miles - 52 miles in one direction and 48 miles in the other direction."
The Ambush site is much more forgiving. "The slope over the whole layout falls only two feet," Bechtol said.
But that doesn't mean you won't be ambushed.
Golfers must negotiate a minefield of 108 bunkers and bent-grass greens. The fairways are Tifway 419 and a variety of trees were planted - date palms, Mexican sand palms, pear and elm trees. The golf course will use reclaimed water for irrigation, a must in arid country.
"Score well on the first seven holes," said Gavin Heap, Director of Golf, "because the final 11 are deceptively tough."
"We built the course to slowly build in drama and intensity and reach a crescendo at the end," Bechtol said. "Golfers are going to get distracted by the sheer beauty of the landscape and inspired by the setting."
So when you reach the 522-yard par-5 15th in two don't get too cocky. There are a few pin placements that are so tough you will be happy with par. One club pro in a recent round five-putted and another single-digit handicapper in the same group four-putted for a bogey.
Holes 10 and 11 and the novelty hole all border the Rio Grande River, just down from Paso Lajitas in Mexico. Don't be surprised at what you see - the Border Patrol, Mexicans on horseback or fishing and even wild donkeys and horses grazing. Trying to patrol this section of the Texas border is like putting a Band-Aid on a severed aorta. You can just walk across the river.
Next, the course makes a bend left away from the river. If holes 12, a dogleg left 466-yard par 4, and 13, a 170-yard par 3, had saguaros, you would think you were in Scottsdale. Bumped into a hillside, Bechtol and Russell "benched" greens and tees creating a stadium look with several adobe ruins along the side and a cave entrance within view.
In this same area of the golf course, a world-class spa will be built. The Agave Spa at Lajitas will include a restaurant and 12 luxury villas and is scheduled for completion in the near future.
The layout concludes with a double-dogleg par-5 at 18, 575 yards, with Cavalry Post ruins just right of the green. Most will choose a lay-up route with the third shot over Comanche Creek, but bolder golfers can actually play to the right, with the approach shot over the ruins.
Lajitas' plans for the future include an equestrian center, hunting club, outdoor amphitheater, tennis and swim center and a 116-room resort hotel.
Lajitas Resort and Golf Club
HC 70, Box 400
Lajitas, TX 79582
After your round of golf you will thirst for a Shiner Bock and the food at Ocotillo, the resort's restaurant, offering western nouvelle cuisine prepared under the direction of Chef Jeff Blank and Shanny Lott, owners of Austin's Hudson's on the Bend Restaurant. You can order rattlesnake cakes in pistachio nut crust here. A more informal place to dine is the Candelilla Cafe.
The Cavalry Post and La Questa are the unique lodging facilities. Both have been recently renovated. These ruggedly luxurious guestrooms have stocked refreshment cabinets, refrigerator, twice-daily maid service, terrycloth robes, goose-down pillows and fast-access Internet connections and cable television. You will find the Badlands Hotel in the center of the western boardwalk and The Officer's Quarters, another place to stay, will be renovated in the future.
For the pilots - Latitude: N 29° 16' 66". Longitude: W 103° 41' 34". For those bold enough to drive call the resort.
A few hundred million years before desperados ruled Lajitas, sharks swam in what was once a gigantic shallow sea covering the entire western interior of the North American continent. When the sea drained, a primeval forest with flowering plants emerged and dinosaurs roamed this West Texas region.
Today, self-taught Big Bend paleontologist Ken Barnes is uncovering some amazing fossils. Just a casual stroll here uncovers shark teeth. Bumps on the crusty limestone, shale and clay are giant clam shells covered with tiny oyster shells. His finds also include a 30-foot long marine lizard with huge alligator-like teeth called Tylosaur Nepeolicus, duckbill dinosaurs, alamosaurs and mosasaurs.
Barnes will also show you an eight- to 10-foot long shark that was here even before the dinosaurs.
"We are building a field station at the site where visitors will be able to see this amazing field research site," said Barnes.
It will be called Mosasaur Ranch Geologic Field Station or Research Center when completed and will include the reconstructed bones of a duckbill dinosaur and all of the other finds at the site.
"In one mosasaur I was able to examine the stomach contents," Barnes said. "This is only one of four such sites in the world. In the stomach we found shark and another species of mosasaur. Many think the dinosaurs were killed off by a meteor hitting the Yucatan Peninsula, but I think they were going extinct on their own."
One can find Barnes on The Boardwalk in Lajitas. (DRH)