Everyone has their own rubric for these kinds of things, but when I evaluate a resort that leads with golf, I ask one question: Would I take my own buddy trip there?
Would my guys enjoy competing for the Greensburg Cup there?
I left Horseshoe Bay Resort in the Texas Hill Country — about an hour or so from Austin International Airport — thinking our 12-14 guys would be all about it.
You’ll have to forgive me, but I don’t think about Texas much. I don’t know why. So Horseshoe Bay wasn’t really on my radar. However, when I was approached about a media trip to the resort, the prospect of exploring a place with so much golf in one town appealed to me.
Plenty of Texans and other well-off folks have discovered Horseshoe Bay, building incredible homes on Lake LBJ and throughout the town. While I flew commercial, there’s a private airport nearby for you Wheels Up members looking to get in and out really easily. As we were checking in, a number of locals donning UT Austin and Dallas Cowboys gear were rolling in as though this was a place they saw several times per year.
Horseshoe Bay is a big place, and the base hotel feels like a dot in the bigger picture. Still, the hotel is tremendous, upgraded throughout as part of a large investment into the entire property.
The accommodations are modern and comfortable. The showers, in particular, are a great part of the rooms, which have plenty of plugs for all your electronics near the bed.
The large pool is open late, and the big hot tub is perfect for some pre-bed unwinding.
The staff are friendly, and there are shuttles — SUVs, buses and golf carts of all kinds — to get you wherever you need to go on the property.
We played four rounds in three days, hitting up the three courses open to the public and the resort’s private club as well. The three public courses are all Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs. That typically conjures images of difficult holes, with narrow landing areas and demanding second shots. While the spread of RTJ Sr. courses has holes that scream his vintage, the trio of courses have a resort feel at their core that offers a balance of scoring opportunities and holes where I had to hunker down.
Our group kicked off the trip with a round on Apple Rock, which proved to be my favorite course.
Apple Rock and its sister course, Ram Rock, sit on the same broad plot, and they draw on similar themes to weave throughout their respective 18 holes. Apple Rock asks players to take a leap of faith on the first two holes, with tee shots shaped by doglegs and bunkering. The front nine builds to higher ground after the par-5 fourth, all the way to the tee shot on the par-5 sixth, which lets the golfer stop and take in the full scale of the surrounding land. When the golfer arrives to the par-5 10th, they get the best look of the lake they might see all week before pummeling a downhill tee shot.
The par 5s are great at Apple Rock, but the par 3s are really the star. They’re all a reasonable length — ranging from a pitching wedge to a 7-iron — with three of the four requiring some kind of shot over water. They can be turning points in a match (in my wallet’s experience, for better and for worse).
The inward six holes feels substantially different compared to the first dozen holes. The landscape changes, with tighter tee shots on shorter holes. A skilled player will have to decide whether to trust their longer clubs or lay up to more comfortable landing areas. These holes typically play into the wind, meaning they’re operatively playing longer than the scorecard length. Finishing off a great round might look easy on paper, and that’s where Apple Rock came come up and get you.
Ram Rock was a more stout test than Apple Rock. In large part, that’s because we played with a stronger afternoon wind, but the course features 10 water hazards, bunkers in the most heartbreaking places and a second nine that tested my mettle.
The par 3s are again a star on this course, with a short iron required into the island-green fourth. Maybe the most fun tee shots on the trip came on the sixth, seventh and eighth holes, with a short uphill par 4, a semi-blind downhill par 5 and a downhill par 3 to a funneling green.
After the eighth, the course takes a turn for the next eight holes. The holes get shorter, and the tee shots get tighter. Longer hitters are going to put driver in the bag, including on the two par 5s in this stretch, as the friendliest portions of the landing areas don’t require driver. The tee shots in wooded corridors give way to more welcoming approach areas, but this is where a golfer makes or breaks their round. (It broke me.) Keep hitting the straightest club in your bag off the tee, and the rest will be fine.
The finish comes with an uphill climb, including to a 195-yard par-3 17th and the blind tee shot to the 18th hole.
Ram Rock doesn’t ever really let up, but it also feels the most polished of the three courses. From the first tee shot, you’ll know you’re playing the proverbial Championship Course. In a friendly match, there won’t be many halves. Aggressive players can get punished for going over their skis, while meek players can struggle if they won’t commit to their lines.
As part of the $90 million renovation throughout the resort, the club has built a new pro shop and indoor pavilion. They’re precursors to what will be a beautiful clubhouse which Apple Rock golfers will play into on No. 18. With lodging coming to the property, summertime visitors may be able to play from dawn to dusk and get in 54 or 72 holes in a day.
The last of the three RTJ Sr. courses in our rotation was Slick Rock. It was the first Horseshoe Bay course when it opened in 1972, and it becomes clear it set the tone for Rocks Apple and Ram. Slick Rock lacks the land movement and variety of the other two courses, but it also asks some tougher questions of golfers in spots. Aggressive golfers can take on a wide range of challenges, including blind landing areas for longer hitters, cutting off corners with bunkers and trees, as well firing along and over water hazards.
Slick Rock was renovated in 2016, but its standout feature remains. The par-4 14th is a short-ish hole which curls right, with the player driving over the Million Dollar waterfall (lead picture), a water feature which draws somewhat on Frank Lloyd Wright as an influence in aesthetic and Disney World’s Animal Kingdom safari as an experience. The cart paths throughout Slick Rock get down to water level in places, making for a unique ride in spots that livens up the experience of sitting in a cart.
The back nine is the star at Slick Rock, including the par-5 12th hole, which features a friendly tee shot that belies the challenge ahead. Shorter hitters can lay up to the end of the fairway bisected by water, while longer hitters can go for broke with bunkering left and a pond running up the entire right side of the second half of the hole. It’s good enough to be a captivating finisher, but it serves as the back half of an exhilarating one-two punch with the short par-4 11th before it.
The course comes to a somewhat gentle landing, with the 17th being a par 3 over marshland to a big green, and the par-4 18th asking the golfers to play to an semi-blind uphill landing area on a dogleg before hitting to an elevated green.
Slick Rock is where most golfers are probably going to score the best of the three, but by no means is it a pushover.
Polling the group who came on this trip, there was a fairly even spread on votes for a favorite course, which indicated to me there’s a little something for every golfer in the Horseshoe Bay offering.
But there was still one more course on the docket.
Summit Rock is Horseshoe Bay Resort’s private club. They bought it away from the original developers who struggled to drum up membership. Now there are a few hundred members who can take on a Jack Nicklaus signature design that’s one of his best I’ve played. The terrain at Summit Rock is dramatically more rugged than the other Rocks of Horseshoe Bay, sprawling with beautiful cacti, exposed rock and beautiful wildlife. It made sense then for Nicklaus to carve around it, making it the star instead of the obstruction. Members have to play over and around the landscape into generous landing areas to set up what’s a second-shot golf course. It’s a great experience I hope the resort considers opening up to guests on a limited basis.
The golf is great, but what really blew me away was the food. There’s no shortage of places to grab a bite at Horseshoe Bay, including two waterfront restaurants at the Yacht Club and the new Waterfront Bar and Grill by the docks. Both offer a refined atmosphere with a great mix of seafood, local meat and a great selection of both Texas beers and, yes, wines.
The delicacy at the resort is chicken-fried lobster, which has been a mainstay on the menu for years. It sounds like culinary apostasy, but the dish is really good. Served with a little butter and some requisite gravy for chicken-fried anything, the lobster still stands out with the bonus of some Texas crunch. If you’re looking to play it a little safer, every meat I had was delectable.
You can get the chicken-fried lobster at the Yacht Club, where the pool and hot tub offer great views of the lake. The Yacht Club bar is a great place to talk about the day on the course and wind down before the evening.
After a long day, guys on a buddy trip are probably looking for a place to have a few drinks, some apps and relax. The Whitewater 360 Sports Club is perfect. Over the bar area is a circle of big TVs, with screens facing in and out to give everyone inside a view of the game of their choice. The Reuben sliders are unbelievable. Get them.
Weaving around the Whitewater is an 18-hole natural-grass mini-golf course. There are no windmills or goofy obstacles, just a really good time. Grab a beer, a putter and a ball and play under the lights to settle some wagers.
If you’re coming with your family instead of your buddies, there mini-golf course and indoor kids play zone are great activities for the kids on top of the pools at the hotel and Yacht Club.
Horseshoe Bay is my kind of place because it balances a strong volume of golf offerings with great food and accommodations, all with a humble Texas (not Humble, Texas) vibe. It’s a luxury property that doesn’t act like it. That’s why, to me, it makes for a great buddy trip destination: A place where good times are guaranteed, and they can happen at your crew’s pace.