Tue Oct 5, 2021
Is the Dell Match Play moving? If so, a massive renovation has this Austin-area club positioning itself to be ready.
LAKEWAY, Texas — There are a million last-minute details to tend to. Maybe more. Dirt to be moved, sod to be planted. Trees to be pruned, painting to be done.
A championship tee is going in on No. 8. The trucks bearing the Arkansas white sand for the bunkers began arriving on Monday. They’re also rebuilding the tee box on No. 11. They’re still finding trees that need removing, a number that has reached 200 after 90 days were spent pruning the course. Including a whole lot of cedar trees.
Dozens of workers have been scurrying almost around the clock to get the golf course spruced up and ready for its soft opening on Oct. 11 and the grand unveiling two days later. Until then, the flower beds have to be redone, and the parking lot repaved. The bridges have been redecked, the fairways topped with 2,000 tons of sand.
The 72 brand new, victory-red golf carts sit lined up ready to go outside the renovated clubhouse. The unique, massive, double-ended driving range still awaits concrete for curbing.
The iconic waterfall hole on No. 7? It’s still being cleaned during this restoration before it gets turned back on full spigot.
And the finishing hole where Tom Landry’s white stucco home stood watch? They lowered the green on No. 18 by 3 1/2 feet, enlarged it by 30% and added an intriguing fairway bunker.
But when it’s done, the 10-month, multi-million dollar project conducted by Diamond Golf will reveal a majestic, fully modernized Hills Country Club Signature golf course at the Hills of Lakeway that Jack Nicklaus and his team initially designed some 40 years ago and have reshaped this year.
“It’s like an old house,” said Aaron Chilek, the club’s director of golf since 2008 and a former St. Edward’s golfer. “We gutted it and just modernized it.”
Nicklaus gives his stamp of approval for the course, which will host a Bear Trap Signature member-guest tournament this month with proceeds going to Dell Children’s Medical Center and the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. It will also raise money for Play Yellow Campaign, a national campaign supported by the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation and Nicklaus and his wife Barbara. The Play Yellow mission hopes to raise $100 million over five years to benefit Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, and the Hills membership has pledged to raise $150,000 this year and $350,000 over a five-year period.
“It’s been a great course for 40 years and has served the members and the community well,” Nicklaus said of the Signature tract. “We are excited to debut some of the recent changes we have made to make sure we meet the desires of the members and players and to help shape maybe another 40 years at the Hills.”
ClubCorp, which owns or operates this and more than 200 other courses like Firestone and Mission Hills, has refashioned the clubhouse from the swanky pro shop to the metal roof. It’s opened restaurants like the Chophouse as well as the Italian-themed The Den at the Flintrock course and the barbecue joint named Smoked at the Oak. They’ve redone the Aquatic center, built a heated pool, but it is the course that shined up the most.
Hills Country Club general manager John Woodeshick raves about the renovation and revitalization of the Signature course redesigned by Jack Nicklaus and thinks it might even be a suitable replacement for Austin Country Club as home of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play if it leaves ACC after two more years.
“At the center of all this, the crown jewel is the course,” general manager and senior vice president John Woodeshick said after a recent tour. “This has made the golf course relevant in today’s world for championship quality golf. It’s been a massive project, and this is just a fabulous course that showcases the Hill Country beauty and exposes the trees and natural rock outcroppings.”
A course so pretty with its new gorgeous vistas and improved air-flow and pruned trees that it could be more than just a new paradise for the 745 members. It may have an even grander vision.
A vision so big that the Hills folks might even be considered as a potential new home for the World Golf Championship-Dell Technologies Match Play if the Austin Country Club chooses not to renew its relationship with the PGA Tour and Dell when their contract expires after two more years.
This is a Lakeway course that hosted Nike Tour events for up-and-comers and the PGA Seniors Tour for seven years until Triton Financial ran into all kinds of difficulty and Federal Express pulled all its sponsorship dollars and put them into the main tour. So the Hills has pulled off such events before, and ClubCorp CEO David Pillsbury was president of PGA Properties and a driving force behind bringing the Dell Match Play to Austin.
So could we see the Hills become the home of the Dell tourney?
“It’s a loaded question, but is it an outlandish question?” Woodeshick said. “When it’s all done, this will be of the caliber to host any kind of event. Probably more of a caliber. The infrastructure is there. If they approach us and have an interest, we’d have an interest.”
To be clear, the Hills has not been approached, and no parties are talking on the record. But there is growing concern that the ACC members have tired of the intrusion the Dell tournament has made on their golf games since it arrived in 2015. It hasn’t helped that many grouse over the fact they have to pay the full price for tickets as well as forfeit use of the course for two weeks in October for overseeding and two weeks in March for the tournament and the preceding week.
If the PGA Tour and Dell realize what a gem they have in a vibrant city that the players love, a gorgeous showcase for NBC’s and Golf Channel’s television cameras with the rustic Pennybacker Bridge and flotilla of boats on Lake Austin and the secure knowledge they don’t need to find a new home for a tournament that has bounced around from Arizona to California to Texas, a solution might easily be reached.
Were all parties to agree to a guaranteed payout of more than $1.2 million to ACC with perhaps double that amount or the granting of two free tickets to the 650 full members with the option to buy more at the full price, a longer-term agreement might be doable. “I think it’d be a done deal,” one member said.
No one on either side is predicting the future of the tournament beyond 2023, but sources say all parties need to agree by next May on just where the event will call home.
“The nostalgia wears off,” Woodeshick said. “It comes down to member disruption.”
One advantage the Hills could offer is course alternatives for its members with the ownership of Flintrock Falls and 36 other holes in the Hills portfolio and a partner agreement with Lost Creek Country Club, a benefit the ACC does not offer its members, who are stuck without a place to play for a month. If ACC were smart, it might offer to shell out 100 grand to another Austin club for its members to use for those four weeks.
Barton Creek might be a candidate for the Dell as a former home of the then-named Senior Tour, but its hilly terrain wouldn’t be as gallery-friendly as either ACC or the Hills, which is much flatter and easier to walk than ACC.
And television cameras adore Austin. Even though the Hills is in Lakeway, it’s really only a Bryson DeChambeau drive or two off the tee from Austin. And NBC can still show Austin’s skyline for that matter and its photogenic bridge.
One Hills member loves the new renovations.
“They’ve really done a beautiful job,” said Hall of Famer Tom Kite, who is a member of the Hills and ACC. “They took a really, really good golf course, certainly one of the best in Central Texas, made some nice improvements and kind of refurbished the course.”
But he said any rumors about the Dell leaving ACC are just “pure speculation,” something he doesn’t traffic in.
“I know Dell and the PGA love Austin, and the players love Austin,” Kite said. “I would assume if ACC decides to no longer host the tournament going forward, before going to another city, I think the Tour would look very hard to find a suitable golf course in this area whether it’d be the Hills or Avery Ranch or the new (coming) Driftwood course.”
But make no mistake the Hills has created a gem of a golf course for its 745 members who as of Jan. 1 paid $50,000 to join. As of last week, that price went up to $75,000. On Oct. 1, it became $85,000.
“We will see where it lands,” Woodeshick said.
Woodeshick’s been involved with golf almost his entire life. He’s the son of Hal Woodeshick, a former Houston Astros relief pitcher and the answer to the trivia question of who was the winning pitcher in the first game ever played in the Astrodome in the exhibition with the Yankees. John played golf at Schreiner University in Kerrville and has run golf clubs in New York and Connecticut before moving here.
But this is very much the house that Jack built, offering a testing course in the heart of the Hill Country nestled around Hurst Creek. The sightlines have been dramatically improved with incredible vistas and no longer looks like a course cut out of a jungle.
They’ve tried to leave no stone unturned. And added a lot of Texas stone to pretty up the place. They’ve planted about two dozen crepe myrtles as a buffer next to the enlarged putting green — one that is lighted, in fact — to block a view of the parking lot.
They’ve even included up to six tee boxes for the players from the championship tips to the “forward tees” for beginners or seniors who don’t have the same length they once did because this is a flexible course that can play anywhere from 4,100 yards to 7,250 yards. Those tees “help grow the game of golf and keep older people in the game,” Woodeshick said.
The immense driving range has a new Turfhound Tee Surface, includes six short-game target greens and a practice bunker for those sand shots to be perfected. The chipping and putting greens are three times their former size.
The greens have been converted to the higher-tolerant Champion Bermudagrass G12 for a smoother putting surface. The greens have also been restored to their original size or bigger. New tee boxes have been laser-leveled and re-grassed with TifTuf Bermudagrass. The fairways have been regraded to improve drainage and playing surfaces with an updated irrigation system.
Even the enlarged putting green can be lit for use in the evenings.
“The new greens are fresh, exciting, slightly expanded and settling into the existing landscape,” said Scott Laughlin, the lead design shaper for Nicklaus. “My favorite green is the 18th green, and it is the hole and green with the most dramatic improvements. With the new fairway bunker, it could be one of the best finishing holes in Central Texas.”
It could. And in the meantime, the Hills is starting something really big.
You can read the article in Golf Week here.