BASTROP, Texas – The editors at GOLF Magazine have named Wolfdancer Golf Club among the nation’s "Top 10 New Courses You Can Play" for 2006, confirming what Texas golfers have known for six months now.
Designed by Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates, the Wolfdancer opened for play June 1, as centerpiece to the Hyatt Lost Pines Resort and Spa, a 492-room destination resort which also opened its doors in June 2006.
"This brand new resort 15 miles east of Austin offers one of the more exhilarating courses in the Southwest," GOLF’s editors wrote in the January 2007 issue. "The showstopper is the 155-yard, drop-shot 12th, where the green clings to the side of a mountain and looks like it could give way under the weight of a hefty foursome."
Indeed, but the signature 12th is just the tip of the iceberg. Wolfdancer GC – whose name pays tribute to the local Tonkawa heritage of Central Texas — rambles over a dramatic stretch of terrain dotted with oak, cedar elm and pecan trees and cut by the Colorado River, which dramatically frames the right side of layout’s superb finishing holes.
"It’s been said before, but a golf course is only as good as the land it sits upon," said Chris Wilczynski, the Hills/Forrest partner who spearheaded the Wolfdancer project. "On most golf courses, an architect is lucky to have two desirable golf environments in which to create distinct golf holes. At the Wolfdancer, we had three: high prairie, forested ridgeline, and a sparsely wooded floodplain along the river bank. The property here at Lost Pines is superb, and our clients supplied us with every resource necessary to create a great golf course."
Much of the Wolfdancer’s front nine careens over bold, rolling ground – a sort of Texas heathland – where little earth-moving was necessary, only the architectural savvy and restraint to complement great contour with classic design elements. For example, the 8th is a beautiful-but-brutish 483-yard par-4 where a cavernous maw of a fairway bunker guards a natural saddle-shaped landing area, the pivot point on this dogleg left. The approach plays downhill to a green set high on a generous, natural shelf.
Elsewhere, Wilczynski created the drama – at 18 for example. This short par-5 of just 526 yards is reachable in two, but the tiny plateaued green sits hard by a bank (it’s a cliff really) that falls off steeply into the Colorado River. Unlike many short par-5s, the risk/reward scenarios here aren’t reserved for big hitters only. The second landing area on 18 is divided, somewhat diagonally, by a man-made crossing hazard 10 feet high and speckled with pot bunkers and native grasses. Lay-up safely left of this one-of-a-kind landform and your short pitch to the green is essentially blind. Challenge the right side (i.e., the river) and you’re rewarded with a much easier approach.
"That’s my favorite aspect of the course – that it’s playable and interesting to golfers of all abilities," said Eric Claxton, director of golf at the Wolfdancer. "From the tips, the Wolfdancer has very sharp teeth, if you know what I mean. But from the white tees the course is very navigable and really fun. That’s no simple task, but Chris Wilczynski and Arthur Hills were able to create that balance, maintain the site’s natural beauty and design a golf course that feels like it has been here forever."
Hills/Forrest and Hyatt have teamed up elsewhere in Texas; The Hyatt Hill Country Resort opened near San Antonio in 1992, and remains one of the top tracks in the Southwest (Hills/Forrest added a third nine there in 2005). Arthur Hills, who celebrated 40 years in the design business in 2006, boasts five other original designs in Texas (and 180 more worldwide).
The new Wolfdancer course, however, illustrates the extent to which Hills has broadened the firm’s stylistic repertoire in recent years, thanks in no small part to the emerging talents of his younger-but-full partners in the firm: Steve Forrest, Chris Wilczynski, Drew Rogers and Brian Yoder.
The style of Hills’ older work has been likened to a Volvo: not exactly boxy, but staunchly traditional and safe. That’s changing. Forrest’s 2005 designs at Hills Golf Club and Sand GC – both located in Sweden, fittingly – have drawn international attention for their flamboyance (the dune-strewn design at Sand GC has been called the Scandinavian Whistling Straits) and championship qualities (Hills GC has been touted as a future Ryder Cup site).
It was Wilczynski who handled the Wolfdancer project and the results are a striking combination of strategy and swagger – on a killer piece of land. The fairway at the 603-yard par-5 third, for example, seems nearly as wide as it is long. Fifteen randomly scattered fairway bunkers accentuate the heathland quality on this ridge-top hole while also creating a dozen different lines of play. Perched at the terminus of this broad ridge on the property’s highest point (and surrounded long strips of deep, flat-bottomed, grass-faced bunkering), the scythe-shaped putting surface offers 360-degree views of the course and surrounding countryside.
Contrast this with the short 12th, a knee-knocking par-3 where tee and green cling to a steep hillside like a pair of giant toe-holds. There’s only one line of play here.
The 7,205-yard, par-72 Wolfdancer Golf Club occupies some 150 of the sprawling 405-acre Hyatt Lost Pines, which bills itself as an "elegant backwoods" experience, and that’s a fair assessment. It’s two miles off the main road (30 minutes into Austin itself, 15 from the airport), but it feels utterly secluded, surrounded as it is by sleepy farms and the 1,100-acre McKinney Roughs nature preserve, which sits directly across the Colorado River.
The Lost Pines region is separated from the better-known East Texas Piney Woods by some 80 miles. While nearly all of the "lost pines" grow in a narrow, 13-mile strip on either side of the Colorado River, a stand of 38 acres in McKinney Roughs sits 10 miles further west of the main forest. This stand of Lost Pines is the westernmost tract of the country’s great southern pine belt. Native American legend says that wandering tribes planted the Loblolly seedlings here to remind them of the magnificent trees to the east, but it’s generally believed the Lost Pines are hardy survivors from the last Ice Age.
All that said, the pine motif on the Wolfdancer course is notable for its minority status amid the many ancient oaks, cedar elms and pecans. Happily, for golfers, only in spots are they so numerous as to give off a truly forested feel. The sparse grouping – some of it naturally occurring, some the result of skilled selective-clearing – provides considerable strategic fodder (a leaning oak overhangs the front-right corner of a comma-shaped green at no. 5) while making the course look as though it’s been on this property for a long, long time.
Exposed as it is, especially on the higher-ground, the wind howls at the Wolfdancer, as it does on so many courses in this part of the country. "I like the sound of the wind in Texas," Arthur Hills has said. "The wind rushing through the trees. It can really add to the quality of a golf experience in a very subtle manner."
Phillips Golf Media