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The envelope please: It's a five-star year for Texas golf scene

By Jason Stone, Contributor

Attempting to "rank" Texas' golf options is a fool's errand - 430 golf towns, 1,000 some-odd golf courses, and eight massive, geographically diverse regions. The perfect reason to toss the subjectivity out the window, have some fun, and eschew the traditional approach of a "best of" golf list.

Best Goat Track: Rankin Country Club - Rankin, Texas

Out of the nothingness 55 miles south of Midland springs Rankin's 9 hole "Country Club," a track that somehow birthed 5 state champion golf teams in the 1970s. The clubhouse hasn't been used in a long, long, long time, and the fairways, hard-panned West Texas sand with a rare cactus or weed sprinkled about, wasted away in the heat many moons ago.

And besides, Head Pro, Director of Golf, Head Greenskeeper, Tournament Coordinator, and janitor, Gary Smith, who drives across the "fairways" in his old truck to take care of the greens (which by the way, are in great shape), is one helluva nice guy.

Best Beverage Cart Girls: Dallas-Fort Worth area

Austin's always in the running because it's a college town with thousands of beautiful co-eds and an up-and-coming golf destination, but those who've ventured to the DFW-area for golf weekends know that the beverage cart talent is unparalleled. World-class beauties that serve cold-beer with a smile and know how to work the system for tips, and plenty of great courses that allow them to display those talents.

Best Golf-Fish Road Trip Destination: Lake Fork, Texas

The venerable Lake Fork, a world-class reservoir that not only produced the state record largemouth bass (18.18 lbs), but also over 75% of the top 50 bass that have ever been caught in Texas, is surrounded by the unknown golf towns of Emory, Mineola, and Yantis, where you can "bass and breakfast" and enjoy some impressive golf.

Yantis' new Links at Land's End, the "Pebble Beach of Texas," is an entertaining new 18-holer that juts out onto two big peninsulas of Lake Fork. Emory's Lake Fork Golf Club has 18 holes and is absolutely gorgeous. And the 9-hole Mineola Country Club has long been considered one of the top small-town courses in the state.

Best Golf-Hunt Road Trip Destination: Abilene

Abilene has six golf options and only around 100,000 folks - the perfect home base for non-crowded, affordable excursions into the Big Country for hunting and golf. Fisher County, the Quail Hunting Capital of Texas, is northwest of Abilene, and on the way you'll pass through Hawley and the new Tangle Oaks Golf Club.

Another option is to Adventure into the "Big Country Golf Loop," with seven 9-hole courses in a 160-mile round trip route. Haskell, Stamford, Anson, Hamlin, Rotan, Jayton, and Aspermont all await hunters who are dedicated enough to throw their clubs in the truck for the weekend. Look for guide services like Krooked River Ranch Outfitters (325-773-2457) to provide day hunts and lodging to accompany wayward golf excursions.

Best Weekend Golf Destination: Austin

Dallas and Houston offer everything you'd expect from big cities, and San Antonio has billed itself as the premier golf destination in Texas, but the golf facilities that have opened in the past few years in and around Austin have placed the Capitol City at the top in terms of weekend golf destinations.

From the funkiness of South Austin to the midtown university scene to the high-tech corridors up north, Austin is an amazing combination of historic and modern, laid-back and hustle-bustle, redneck and bohemian, all brought together in a beautiful setting of old oaks, clear lakes, rivers, rolling hills, and plenty of golf to go along with it.

Barton Creek (one of the world's premier golf destinations), historical Lions Municipal near the UT campus, and Willie Nelson's Pedernales Country Club are enough by themselves to lure those in need of golf.

Best Clubhouse Burger: Starr Hollow Golf Club - Tolar, Texas

Marvin Leonard, the front man for Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, founded the 9-hole Texas treasure west of Fort Worth known as "Little Augusta."

A private course, it's still worth a shot at hustling your way on since the layout and clubhouse are the epitome of casual, exuding an old-school charm with walls covered by photos of Ben Hogan and aerials of the course - the perfect atmosphere for digging into Starr Hollow's famous hamburgers.

Best Hole-In-One Prize: Leatherwood Ranch Golf Club - Farmersville, Texas

Farmersville's Leatherwood Ranch Golf Course has a contest like no other - a multi-year hole-in-one tournament set to conclude on Labor Day 2004, where lucky golfers who've aced holes over the past few years are entered into a final event with the chance to nail one more. The prize this time is the golf course. That's right: the golf course.

Most Difficult Course: The Cliffs at Possum Kingdom - Graford, Texas

A cursory look at The Cliffs scorecard tells the tale. From the tips, a mean 143 slope rating for a route that rolls only 6,808 yards. Even from the 6,469-yard blue tees, The Cliffs checks in with a slope of 138. Playing a round at The Cliffs "cold" is unfair, because the uninformed golfer who has never seen the course has no idea how to handle the "18 signature holes" that feature numerous blind shots, 100-foot elevation changes, massive rock outcroppings, ridiculous carries, and an infinite number of ways to destroy your round.

It's safe to say that you should suspend your expectations when "enjoying" The Cliffs, because it's an entertaining but totally different golf experience.

Best Rural 9-holer: Floydada Country Club - Floydada, Texas

This Panhandle course is located 8 miles south of Floydada near the White River in Blanco Canyon, once a prominent trading locale for local Indian Tribes, whose remnants are discovered regularly by keen-eyed explorers. Originally opened solely as a fishing club in the 1920s, the course routes around a large mesa and features elevation changes of as much as 150 feet. The greens are perfect, as good as any in Texas.

Best Rural 18-holer: Sugar Tree Golf Course - Dennis, Texas

Fort Worth area golfers know about Sugar Tree, but unfortunately the news hasn't spread much further about this must-play golfing gem laid out on the banks of the Brazos River. Built by Phil Lumsden in the North Texas Hill Country, this is a course easy to fall in love with because of its unique character and small-town charm.

Every hole is memorable, with magnificent old oak trees, 55 bunkers in play, water in play on most of the holes, lots of interesting blind golf shots, and quality, average-size greens that putt true.

Best Golf Hole: The Ambush, Hole 11A - Lajitas, Texas

With hundreds, maybe thousands to chose from, all of which may have legitimate claims for whatever reason, how can you possibly label one hole the best golf hole in Texas? Simple. Make it a bonus hole and easy wedge that plays over the Rio Grande into Mexico, and then slope the green towards the cup so that solid golf shots have the chance to roll in the hole.

Most Macho Golf Club: Preston Trails - Dallas

What more needs to be said about an ultra elite, all-male, golf club where long-time member Mickey Mantle his own self created the rule that "you have to wear something into the grillroom."

Best Golf Radio Show: "That's Golf" (AM 1300, The Zone, KVET-AM) - Austin

Catch host Jim Apfelbaum's call-in show more than once while passing through the Hill Country and you can't help but notice his keen knowledge and passion for the game. An avid golf historian and true gentlemen, Apfelbaum avoids fluff and stays true to the spirit of the game.

Best Par 3 Course: Shadow Lakes Golf Course - Mount Pleasant, Texas

The folks behind the making of Shadow Lakes may have started a trend, since others are sure to try and duplicate the outstanding experience of playing a premier par-3 golf course.

In immaculate condition, surrounded by majestic pines and laid out with extreme elevation changes, Shadow Lakes is far from the typical par-3 pitch-and-putt, with difficult holes like No. 9 that plays 104-yards into an island green. The best part - the course is lighted and allows golfers to tee off as late as 11 p.m.

Best Texas PGA Golfer: Chad Campbell - Lewisville, Texas

It will be interesting to look back twenty years from now and compare the careers of Justin Leonard and Chad Campbell. Based on the year the Andrews (Texas) native just had, it won't be long before he's mentioned with the likes of Crenshaw, Kite, Hogan, etc. instead of ex-UT star Leonard.

Best Practice Facility: North Texas Golf Center - Dallas

While there's no question that Hank Haney's facilities provide the most resources in the best condition for practice, they attract crowds and lack some of the old-school charm that helps the average hack hone his game. Located in the floodplains west of I-35 in Dallas, the North Texas Golf Center is a little gem of a lighted 9-hole track, complete with $1 beer nights and a full practice facility that's the absolute best way to tune your game for weekend rounds.

The course is kept in great condition and presents just the right level of difficulty for short iron work. In addition to the course, the facility is the home of The Golf Institute golf school, which provides classes, clinics, and individual instruction.

Best Golf Magazine: Austin Golf Magazine

Publisher Carlton Wade's passion for golf and the city of Austin bleeds from the pages of this new, first-class magazine. Outstanding photography, unique articles, and a no-nonsense style that is extremely entertaining, all combine to set this publication way apart from others throughout the state.

Best Architectural Design Firm: Bechtol-Russell Golf - Austin

Since its founding in 1998, Bechtol & Russell Golf Design, Inc., has made a name for itself with highly praised layouts like The Golf Club of Texas (with Lee Trevino), The Club at Comanche Trace (with Tom Kite), and The Ambush at Lajitas. 2003 was their best year yet, with the opening of the UT Golf Club at Steiner Ranch, Shadow Glen in Manor, Texas, and the Legends on Lake LBJ (with Tom Kite).

Best Golf Book: The Texas Golf Bible

Proudly labeled by his loving Father as "the Forrest Gump of Texas Golf," the author's D average as a UT business grad and millions of wasted brain cells on endless golf road trips made him qualified to pen an 800-page golf-travel book that is the perfect inspiration for filling up the ice chest, spreading out the maps, throwing the clubs in the back of the truck, and heading down the road for a golf adventure.

Jason Stone is a golf hack and the author of The Texas Golf Bible. For more information visit www.texasgolfbible.com.

Jason Stone, Contributor

Jason Stone is the author of The Texas Golf Bible, an 800-page golf/travel book that is the perfect inspiration for filling up the ice chest, spreading out the maps, throwing the clubs in the back of the truck, and heading down the road for a golf adventure.

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