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Texas Hill Country littered with quality tracks

By Shawn Nicholls, Contributor

AUSTIN, Texas - Few, if any, of the millions of tourists who drift through the Texas Hill Country each year spend very much time indoors. This obsession with everything outdoors is well warranted, given the area's bounty of visual delights. Rolling hills, rows of mesquites, towering cedar and cypress trees, and the constant array of colors squirting from bluebonnets and other seasonal flowers provides one of nature's most dramatic backdrops.

The self-proclaimed heart of Texas is also home to the heartbeat of American golf. Legendary golf instructor Harvey Penick made his home here, as does his most famous pupil, Ben Crenshaw.

Penick's influence is also felt at the Westin La Cantera's golf academy, run by Bryan Gathright, a one-time disciple of Penick. The championship course at the resort is also home to the Valero Texas Open, a regular PGA Tour stop since the mid-1990's. This visual masterpiece houses elevated tees and magnificent views of local wildlife and shrubbery. It also drips of sentimental value, as it was one of the final designs by the legendary partnership of Tom Weiskopf and Jay Morrish. And while we're on the subject of professional golf, the Senior Tour was born here along the traditional fairways of Onion Creek.

From the past to the present, the true heart and soul of the region is its public access and resort golf. Take for instance the posh Barton Creek Resort in Austin, where you will probably spot legendary University of Texas football coach Darrel Royal taking his breakfast in the pro shop.

Barton Creek is home to four sublime golf courses, in all, all of which are considered to be among the best in the state. Crenshaw's Cliffside and Arnold Palmer's Lakeside are impressive layouts, but the two Fazio designs - the Canyons and the Foothills - are the true crown jewels of the resort.

Near the top of the lengthy list of quality resort facilities is the championship course at the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa. Settled snuggly northeast of San Antonio, this is Hill Country golf at its finest. Cacti, wildflowers and native oaks populate the landscape. Designed by Arthur Hills, the course is a wonderful blend of short but testy par fours and ravaging lengthy ones that will challenge your long game.

Quality tracks like Riverside and the Bluebonnet Hill Golf Club litter the crowded city of Austin, but the deeper into the Hill Country you go, the more unique and interesting the golf becomes.

A perfect example is the Cedar Creek Golf Course. Situated northwest of San Antonio, this may be your first stop upon arriving in the state and a perfect way to ease into the style and texture of Hill Country golf.

Other promising venues include the now private Meadowlakes Country Club and finally the splendid Lago Vista Golf Club and Resort is home to 36 holes of classic Texas Hill Country golf.

The first 18 holes, the Lago Course, features fairways as wide as the football field in College Station and pristine water views. The second course is more arduous and tighter, and an all around tougher bang for your buck, creating a diverse collection that many multi-course settings lack.

Geographically speaking, the Hill Country is at the heart of massive Texas, spanning such cities as Fredericksburg and Stonewall in the center, with Brady, McCarney and Bracketville highlighting the exterior points. Austin and San Antonio are the cities with the most name recognition in the region and the golf courses to match.

A trip to the region via the air begins with a flight into San Antonio, and from there it is a boundless journey across the middle of the state in a rental car with a plethora of options and sites at your disposal. Interstate 10, which runs from San Antonio and heads north to the middle of the Hill Country before jutting west, is the best way to see the most of the region. Interstate 35 is another option, as it heads northeast from San Antonio towards the capital city of Austin. If golf itself is not enough, there are legions of factory outlet stores to keep you busy along the way.

Regardless of the geographic direction you decide to head after touching down, your travels will take you through terrain that is hilly and undulating at times, and steadfastly flat at others. Take the time to venture off the beaten path and visit smaller towns for unmatched hospitality and excellent antique shopping. Stop for an afternoon at a vineyard or winery.

Just be sure to leave some time for the links.

Shawn Nicholls, Contributor

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