Appeared in 2012 Fazio Premier Clubs
If you’ve ever seen a Western movie, you’ve got an idea of the rough beauty and dramatic vistas of the Texas Hill Country. Near the end of a three-and-a-half-hour drive southwest from Dallas or a 45-minute journey northwest from Austin, and after passing roadrunners and rocky outcroppings beneath a high, washed-blue sky, you may have a totally unoriginal thought: This looks like a great place for a golf course.
It is. The Greatest Game has made an otherwise anonymous little Hill Country town called Horseshoe Bay a mecca for in-the-know players intrigued by the terrain and attracted to the spirit in the air. There are a double handful of courses in the area, several of them quite good, one of them outstanding. The clear leader is Escondido Golf & Lake Club, “Escondido” being a Spanish adjective meaning hidden, mysterious, secret. One other word and a couple of numbers might also serve as effective shorthand for this amazing property.
The word is Fazio. Secluded and mysterious it may be, but it’s been an open secret that inside the stone gate of Escondido is an understated gem from the architect with the most courses in the Golf Digest Top 100. Tom Fazio, the man in charge of tweaking Augusta National, does no marketing, doesn’t have a website, and his phone number is unlisted. Yet the golf world beats a path to his door because his designs are both visually arresting and extremely playable—just what real golfers want. Escondido is exciting rather than relaxing, because if you stay on your toes you can shoot a good number and have a ball doing it. Let your mind linger too long on the views or your portfolio, however, and the bogeys pile up like old newspapers.
The excitement part comes not just from the “practical imagination” of the architecture—Fazio’s phrase—but from an element out of the designer’s control. In mid-September, despite the hottest, driest summer ever recorded in Texas, Escondido was perfect. As Head Golf Professional Len Zamora played a lightning-quick 18 holes, the ball sat up in the fairway and begged to be hit. The greens rolled so fast and true that any putt seemed makeable.
Superintendent Scott Hamilton rolled up in a work cart to talk about grass. That’s zoysia rough and another kind of zoysia in the fairways, he explained, and a special strain of Bermuda on the tees and bent on the greens. But bent grass hates weather like this, a guest pointed out: How in the world are you keeping these greens so happy? Mysterious smile from Hamilton: “If it was easy…” he said, and then he was gone.
“My favorite hole,” announced Zamora as he pulled up to the 6th tee. He surveyed the scene. On the right side of a serpentine fairway wriggled an equally meandering stream. Over a quarter of a mile away the green and the water met, a lovely thing to contemplate but a major challenge for a golfer unsure of trajectory and vector with any club longer than a 7-iron. What to do from the tee? Safety (plus high native grass and live oak trees) occupied the left; a much better angle (and creek) shimmered on the right. “Aim at the cart path,” Zamora said. A joke: For aesthetic purposes, most of the paths at Escondido are hidden. In the end, the fairway was wider than it looked from the tee, and the green proved to be bigger and more receptive than it appeared. At Escondido, you may get the feeling that Fazio is playing you rather than you him.
So it goes on the 7th hole, a shorter, shadow image of its predecessor: The green slopes front to back, usually more noticeable after a three-putt. A topographic map of the front nine wouldn’t reveal a great deal of elevation change, but thanks to the architect’s art, there is no feeling of flatness.
Lunch at the Smoke Shack—smoked beef brisket tacos, con jalapeños, por favor!—gives the strength to tackle the pronounced dips and peaks punctuating the back nine. On the par-five 11th, for example, the shot is over a big pond onto a hilltop, then through a long valley to a green tucked like a plate into a hillside. There’s an exposed granite dome as big as a parking lot behind the 12th green, which reminds you of the solidity of this land and of the unyielding material Fazio had to work with.
Escondido opened to great acclaim in 2006, with a national membership celebrating its good fortune by building giant, yet graceful, Spanish-Mediterranean and Italian-influenced mansions in the development’s 550 wooded acres. A factor in the success was another of those numbers: 6,000. That’s how many feet of lighted runway sits at the nearby Horseshoe Bay airport, one of the largest private strips in the country. As long as you’re flying anything up to and including a DC-9, you’re good.
Post-round, in the cool of the cool new clubhouse, General Manager George Punoose talked about service. A clientele that flies privately and owns big, beautiful second (or third) homes must expect a lot of service, right? And the more the better? Not that simple, the GM said.
“We have a saying: ‘Don’t do it on Thursday if you can’t do it on Saturday,’” said Punoose, who began his career at the Four Seasons in Chicago. “As soon as you drive in through our gates, you know you’ve arrived somewhere special. It’s a place where you bring your friends and your kids and you wish you never had to leave. Ideally, our members do not ask for anything and yet have everything they want. The highest level of service is almost unnoticeable and that’s our standard at Escondido.”
The staff strives for a combination of clairvoyance and consistency. You may not know you want a fruit kebab until a member of Punoose’s smiling army brings you one. And just when one’s head starts to ache from the relentless Texas sun, a pleasant young man appears offering an ice-cold, mango-scented towel and a cup of frozen lemonade. They don’t tolerate dusty automobiles at the club: cars that need a cleanup get washed while their owners get down and dirty with Fazio.
They call their clubhouse The Great House. There’s a unique interaction on the ground floor: a testing and analysis room overseen by Director of Instruction Buck Mayers; another room for chiropractors to adjust the golfer in a different way; and a commodious workout area between the two. As he walked down a grand stone staircase outside the clubhouse, Punoose gestured at the herb garden and the fire pit, and talked about food, wine, and the new spa opening next fall.
After a stop at the Lake Club—picture a villa in Venice, but with paddleboards, roofed fishing dock, pool, bar, and Kids Club—Punoose discussed membership. It’s part of the cost of a lot, he explained, but if a member doesn’t want to build there’s the Club Residences, a private collection of estate homes for vacation stays. “Condos?” a guest asked. The GM steered his cart to one of the fully furnished, four-bedroom, 4,500-square-foot mansions with a Tuscan rustic luxury look. It was stocked with steaks and wine for the next guest.
“Nice condo,” someone said. Punoose flashed one of those Escondido smiles.