AUSTIN, Texas – There’s more to Austin than golf, barbecue and TexMex.
At least, that’s what the city that touts itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World” and implores residents and visitors alike to “Keep Austin Weird” would have you believe.
After a recent three-day, two-night visit that included little more than golf, barbecue and TexMex, though, I found that local triumvirate to be plenty satisfying.
When the PGA Tour moved its annual WGC Match Play to Texas’ capital last year, golf fans worldwide got a close-up of one of America’s most underrated golf cities. This is where Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite launched their careers and the late Harvey Penick shaped the fundamentals that would form his “Little Red Book.”
Even if you lack the clout for Austin Country Club or the area’s other private gems, two local resorts with big-as-Texas reputations welcome public play. On the city’s west side, Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa features 72 holes of Hill Country splendor, including Fazio Canyons, one of two Tom Fazio designs in a spectacular residential/resort setting. To the east, Wolfdancer Golf Club sits tucked behind a nature park on the Colorado River at the remote Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa.
Beth Cleckler grew up in Austin and has spent four decades at Morris Williams Golf Course, first as a preteen junior. Sitting in her clubhouse office, Cleckler, 54, the course manager, talks about the late Morris Williams, one of Austin’s favorite golf sons.
“He was one of the best juniors around,” said Cleckler, under a portrait of Williams in his Air Force first lieutenant’s uniform. “It’s a shame what happened.”
In 1949-50, Williams held the state Junior, Amateur and PGA titles. He would lead his hometown Longhorns, coached by Penick, to three Southwest Conference crowns. Williams was Crenshaw before Crenshaw, locals say, and could have gained worldwide acclaim similar to that of the future two-time Masters champion. Two months after the Korean War armistice, Williams, 23, died in a stateside jet-training crash, on Sept. 16, 1953.
Texans know how to honor their own. For Williams and the city of Austin, that meant a golf course.
“Mo Willie,” as the 1964 east-side muni is known, underwent a tee-to-green $4.5 million renovation in 2012 and features the playability and affordability befitting Williams’ legacy. On a steamy summer Saturday, regulars Freddie Fierro and Jack Carroll welcomed a visitor to their sunrise group.
Fierro, a Dell Technologies manager from Round Rock, pitched at Texas Tech in the early 1980s and knows game strategy. On this day, that means fairways and greens. After a 3½-hour round at Mo Willie, Fierro lauded the muni’s appeal. “It’s close to downtown and very accessible,” he said.
Jack Carroll, a mortgage-servicing officer from Austin, put it in more practical terms: “It’s a bargain.”
So, too, are the local attractions. Head downtown to ascend the 307-foot “Tower” that anchors the University of Texas campus. Take a free tour of the nearby Capitol, a majestic 1888 granite-and-marble structure that faces southward on Congress Avenue, to show the state’s solidarity with the Confederacy.
When the Legislature is in session, visitors can eavesdrop on state affairs at the Driskill Hotel, which was built in 1886 by a local cattleman.
By then, tourists probably have built up a Texas-sized appetite. Locals rave about Franklin Barbecue on 11th Street, but the wait can run as long as a round of golf. Try the beef brisket at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que on Congress.
The TexMex options can overwhelm. Baby Acapulco, known locally as Baby A’s, features three locations and is open late. If you have time for only one TexMex meal, visit Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop on East 7th Street. The Avila family has run things since 1962, and the low-slung storefront is as understated as the store name. It’s authentic Mexican fare, savored by the local Tejanos.
On many evenings, pedestrians line the Congress Avenue Bridge over the Colorado River at Lady Bird Lake. At dusk, the world’s largest urban bat colony – some 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats – take flight in a hunt for insects. Be there to wish them well. After all, that means fewer pests on the golf course.
OMNI BARTON CREEK (FAZIO CANYONS)
Location: 8212 Barton Club Drive, Austin, Texas
Steve Harmon is the editor of Morning Read. He lives in Longwood, Fla.