WACO, Texas - It's not the most popular vacation spot in Texas, although The President might differ. This Central Texas city on the historical Brazos River is where George W. Bush parks his airplane when he comes to visit his ranch, The Western White House, in nearby Crawford.
And if he wanted to, he could exit Air Force One at the former Connally Air Force Base and be on the first tee of James B. Connally Golf Course in about five minutes. But the last time he played golf in Waco it was at Ridgeview Country Club.
Yee haw, Waco is pure Texas.
Waco flourished when the Chisholm Trail became more traveled - it became known as Sixshooter Junction. And in 1885, hoodlums and city slickers alike could come into town, belly up to the bar at Morrison Drugstore and order a brand-new drink invented on-site called Dr Pepper. With no refrigeration outside of town, a cold drink on a hot Texas day was a big-time treat. Coca-Cola's recipe didn't emerge until a year later.
Even Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow picked Waco. When the infamous duo began their reign of bank robberies, Waco was their first, in 1932.
The only other example of unwelcome visitors to the Heart of Texas is when Playboy comes to town conducting its annual Girls of the Big 12 talent search. Leadership of the world's largest Baptist university, Baylor, frown on such liberties.
Public golf in Waco? It's getting better. There are now six regulation public courses. A noteworthy new daily-fee course, Bear Ridge, just opened a year ago and the Cottonwood Creek muni is a winner. Here's a look at your choices:
Home to Baylor University's men's and women's golf teams, Bear Ridge Golf Club opened in November 2001 on 205 acres in southwest Waco. Golfers traverse hills and fairways lined with sturdy oaks and a bluff overlooking the Middle Bosque River.
Designed by Peter Jacobsen and Jim Hardy, it's one of the longest golf courses in Texas with the Big Jake tees stretching out to 7,478 yards.
"When you play most golf courses in Waco you know you are in Waco," said Doug Cofer, general manager. "At Bear Ridge I think the layout takes you to another place. It's a great variety of golf holes. Some are open, some are wooded, some flat and some hilly. Strategy will come into play, too, and the greens can be slick."
Sylvia Ferdon, the Baylor women's coach, says the course and the separate Bill and Roberta Bailey Baylor Golf Center, a 5,500-square-foot indoor-outdoor team practice facility, will help put Baylor on the NCAA golf map. The Baylor men's team has already made it - they won the 2001 Big 12 championship.
"If our kids can play well on this course they will play well anywhere," Ferdon said. "You have a great variety of golf. You have windy Central Texas weather to deal with and you can learn to play any golf shot."
The signature hole is the par-3 No. 14, a scenic 216-yard shot through rugged terrain guarded by sand to a green 85 feet below.
Waco's Cottonwood Creek Golf Course was designed in 1985 by the award-winning team of Joe Finger and Ken Dye of Houston. It measures 7,140 from the championship tees at par 72 and winds through the rolling plains of south Waco and has chutes through the cottonwood trees that line Cottonwood Creek.
"We think we have the best layout and fairways in town," said Head Professional Kenny Duron. "It's a challenging course, but not grueling. And in the winter we overseed greens, tees and fairways."
Eleven holes have water features and most greens are slightly elevated. Start the back nine off with a 451-yard, par 4, that features a dogleg-left fairway with water placed behind the green. No. 15, a 541-yard, par 5, is reachable in two with a booming drive. But the fairway veers around a lake on the last 100 yards requiring golfers to carry the water if they want to hit the green in two. If you go too far right and long you might catch a series of bunkers leaving a tricky third shot - catch too much ball instead of sand and you will be wet.
Cottonwood Creek also has a first-class junior facility thanks to a grant from the U.S.G.A. and other donations. Michael Hurdzan of Hurdzan-Fry designed the 9-hole facility that also serves as an excellent place for adults to practice their short game. The holes range from 37 to 90 yards.
Designed by Ralph Plummer in 1955 at the now closed Connally Air Force Base, this 6,966-yard, par-72 layout remains a fun bargain. For many years this was "the" public golf course in Waco.
Generous fairways are needed because of James B. Connally Golf Course's healthy length. The signature hole is No. 16, a 575-yard, par 5, requiring a series of uphill shots to the green.
Like pure Texas, playing golf in Waco is pure pleasure. If you are solo and join a threesome you will enjoy the friendliness of the Waco natives. However, if you are a Playboy photographer you might want to steer clear of a threesome of Baptist preachers.
Visit the 1870 Suspension Bridge, a 475-foot span over the Brazos River that served as the first pedestrian and wagon bridge. The suspension design of the bridge actually inspired the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
The Suspension Bridge showed its sturdy engineering when, during the devastating 1953 Waco tornado, it held fast. The tornado destroyed much of downtown Waco and killed 114 people.
The historic Suspension Bridge, right across the street from the Waco Hilton, is the centerpiece of present-day Waco and is near Cameron Park, a 416-acre park boasting picnic and playground areas, trails open to mountain biking, horseback riding, and hiking and scenic cliffs overlooking the river.
In 1886, Baylor University moved to Waco from Independence, Texas and merged with Waco University. Founded in 1845 under the Republic of Texas, Baylor is the oldest continually operated university in Texas.
Be sure and contact the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.wacocvb.com) for information about the Dr Pepper Museum (www.drpeppermuseum.org), Texas Ranger Museum and Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
December 24, 2002