Houston's Tour 18 is a greatest hits of U.S. golf courses

July 10, 1994|By Michael Konik | Michael Konik,Special to The Sun

While many fine vacation resorts offer golf courses as an ancillary diversion, only a handful of American courses, like three-star Michelin restaurants, are worth a special trip.

These are the courses we see the professionals playing every weekend, the sacred grounds upon which the major championships are contested, the places where topography and architecture conspire to foil the greatest players in the game. Watching Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus and Nancy Lopez blast fairway-splitting drives and make birdie putts on these venerable golf courses, we dream about one day playing the same history-making holes.

For golf fanatics there's only one problem: If you're not closely related to a powerful politician, celebrity or business tycoon, getting to play most of America's greatest holes is about as difficult as securing a lunch date with Sharon Stone. They're Members Only. And of the few courses that aren't private country clubs -- Pebble Beach in California, for one -- the greens fee can often exceed $200. For one measly round! (The cost of playing at a decent public course is about $15-$35.) Playing the greatest holes in the game, for many of us, is an expensive,

sometimes impossible, dream.

But one remarkable course on the outskirts of Houston is starting to make a lot of those dreams come true.

Tour 18 is a startlingly accurate compilation of what's billed as "America's Greatest Eighteen Holes." Each hole on the 6,800-yard layout is a painstaking re-creation of one of golf's most famous challenges. You begin with the Lighthouse Hole from Harbour Town (including a replica lighthouse from the Hilton Head Island, S.C., course) and end with the Blue Monster from Doral in Florida. In between there's Amen Corner from Augusta, Ga., the Island Hole from Sawgrass in Florida, the Church Pews from Pennsylvania's Oakmont (site of last month's U.S. Open) and historic selections from a dozen other courses -- including Pebble Beach and North Carolina's Pinehurst.

The greens fee on weekends is $75, and $55 on weekdays.

When I told a New York editor friend of mine about Tour 18, he scoffed. "That's such a typical Texan idea: Just build it bigger and better and more famous than anywhere else." He went on at great lengths to explain the importance of "aesthetic purity" and "harmony with the natural surroundings" before dismissing Tour 18 as a hopeless attempt to be "greater than the sum of its parts." As you might have guessed, this editor friend of mine is of Scottish heritage and looks similarly askance at oversized drivers and long-distance golf balls.

The average hacker, on the other hand, will probably find a trip to Tour 18 an unforgettable golfing experience.

Recently I visited the course with Ari Emanuel, one of Hollywood's literary agents. Though he puts together million-dollar sitcom deals, counts some of the entertainment industry's biggest names as chums and has a brother who holds an important post in the Clinton administration, even Ari would probably have a hard time securing a tee time at Augusta National in Georgia. He jumped at the chance to play the Masters holes.

Knowing Ari is accustomed to the fine things, I checked us into suites at the Four Seasons Hotel, which, according to well-traveled sources, is the classiest accommodation in Houston. The rooms are spacious and beautifully decorated, and the service is disarmingly friendly. Weekend room rates start at $85; suites are $115 and up.

In addition to impeccable lodging, the Four Seasons offers a Tour 18 golf package of $149 a night, which includes a deluxe room, valet parking and greens fee, cart and unlimited practice range balls at the course. Located in the heart of Houston's downtown business district, our hotel was about 25 minutes from Tour 18's first tee.

From the moment we pulled into Tour 18's front gate, we knew we were in for an unusually fine day of golf. Both of us were amazed at the greenness of the place; even in late January the course looked like the Texas version of the Emerald City. From the parking lot we could see the first, ninth and 18th holes. "Ari, look!" I said, perhaps a bit too much like a kid at the circus. "There's the Blue Monster! There's the Island Hole!"

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