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

THE BALTIMORE 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!"

An attendant took our bags and guided us to the clubhouse, then to the natural-grass practice range, where an unlimited supply of balls awaited. Serious golfers probably would have spent an hour working out the kinks, grooving their swing until every stroke of their 6-iron could pelt the flag on Oak Tree's No. 8 in Edmond, Okla., and Disney's No. 6 (the one with the Mickey Mouse ears bunker) in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Responsible golfers would probably have straightened out that nagging slice before facing enormous doglegs-to-the-left like Bay Hill's No. 6 in Orlando, Fla., and Colonial's No. 3 in Fort Worth, Texas. Dedicated golfers would probably have perfected the trajectory of their fairway woods before attempting harrowing tee-shots on Shinnecock Hills' No. 8 in Southampton, N.Y., and Inverness' No. 18 in Toledo, Ohio.

Ari and I sped off to commence our fantasy round.

We were joined by Pat "Down-the-Middle" Stone, who produces Tour 18's promotional videos, and Barron "7-Iron" Jacobson, one of the course's owners. He suggested we play for "a little something." I asked Barron how he got his nickname, and he said something about being able to hit a 7-iron into a paper cup 150 yards away -- or something that sounded appropriately folkloric, especially when delivered in a classic Texan drawl.

Ari, thanks in small part to his considerable athletic ability and mostly to his extraordinary negotiating talents, had a fine day. On the other hand -- let's put it this way: My first day at Tour 18 may have been the most expensive round of golf I've ever played. Some advice: If a garrulous man the size of a grizzly bear -- with a nickname like "7-Iron" -- offers to play you for money, do not accept. Unless you feel compelled to contribute indirectly to Houston's economy.

'Hacker's tax'

Even with the stiff "hacker's tax" I paid, the golf that day at Tour 18 was worth every dollar. The course was in terrific shape: perfectly manicured, assiduously maintained, and, unlike many places during the winter months, free of pock-marks and brown patches where the ground is recovering from a long season of abuse. (The course gets reseeded and heavily fertilized before Christmas.)

But beyond lush fairways and spotless greens, what really pleased Ari and me about Tour 18 were the thrills it evoked. The course fulfills an inchoate longing lurking in the hearts of golfers everywhere: We all wish, if only for a few moments, to play the game on the level of our heroes. And if we can't have their beautiful, sublime swings, we certainly would like to play on their beautiful, sublime courses. The people who conceived Tour 18, Mr. Jacobson and his partners, Dennis Wilkerson and Jim Williams, have tapped into the profound fascination with sporting idols, and the ability to make-believe.

On Tour 18's second hole, an impeccable replica of the daunting No. 6 from Bay Hill, we felt as if it were the final round of a major championship, and Pat Summerall and Ken Venturi were doing the play-by-play. The hole, as you might recall from television, is shaped like a horseshoe, with the tee and green situated on opposite ends of the curve. In between your drive and the safety of the green (543 yards away) is a ball-gobbling lake that punishes the golfer who dares to cut too much off the corner. John Daly, the Tour's long-hitting driving distance leader, had crossed Bay Hill's lake with this tee shot. We could only fantasize.

The artistry of a forgery

After drives that stayed well right of the hazard, we hit risky fairway woods that sailed over the watery danger and landed safely on the ground, about 190 yards from the green. I couldn't help indulging in that peculiarly male habit of audibly narrating my progress, as though it were a May afternoon in Orlando, and the cameras were zooming in to record history.

Working in Hollywood, the quintessential Land of Oz, Ari and I are used to things not being what they seem. That Tour 18 is an imitation didn't bother us as it did my Scottish editor friend. In fact, we were impressed by the artistry of the course's forgery the way most people are impressed with the ersatz realism of the Universal Studios Tour. Everything looked right.

So many telling details have been included: the azaleas, the gurgling creek and the old-fashioned leader board of Augusta; Inverness' mounds and dips; the dramatic elevation change and precise contouring of the green at La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, Calif. Mr. Jacobson told us that Tour 18's to-the-inch mimicry was the product of computer imaging, aerial photography and clandestinely obtained blueprints -- and about $7 million of dirt, sod and shrubbery.

If there is a flaw in Tour 18, it's that every hole is a climax, one spectacular test after another.

Some kind of flaw

We periodically crossed paths with a couple of businessmen from Philadelphia who planned to play the course four days in a row. Most of our conversations consisted of us yelling "This is great!" at each other.

Immediately after leaving the famous "Bob Tway" bunker at Inverness, where a young unknown holed out to steal the 1986 PGA Championship from Greg Norman, we confronted Merion's 11th, the treacherous downhill par 4 littered with sand traps and water, where Bobby Jones completed his grand slam of golf in 1930 at that Ardmore (Pa.) course. Throughout the day Mr. Jacobson treated us to a running narration: "This is where Raymond Floyd shot a hole-in-one during the 1988 PGA Championship"; "This is the par 5 Jack Nicklaus calls the toughest in all of tournament golf"; "This is the hole Greg Norman considers the greatest in the game." Any time Ari or I escaped with a par on these storied tracts, we felt as if, for a few moments, we had somehow communed with the legends of the sport.

Maybe that's why we stayed at the Island Hole's tee for nearly 10 minutes, trying vainly to land a shot on the putting surface. Despite plunking six balls each into the water surrounding the green, Ari and I persisted. The group behind us didn't seem to mind. They understood what we were doing: If only for one memorable shot, we wanted to be able to say we had reached the same target the professionals hit every year.

A week after our golfing fantasy, the National Pro-Am was being conducted at Pebble Beach. Every time someone like Payne Stewart or Tom Kite or Davis Love played the 565-yard, par 5 14th -- the one with the famous 30-foot-high bunker guarding an elevated green -- I felt a twinge of excitement. Sure they were making pars and birdies where I had notched a double-bogey, and, yes, they were feeling a breeze from the Pacific Ocean where I had felt the air coming off the Gulf of Mexico. But in my heart I had been there.

Thanks to Tour 18, as the PGA season progresses, I know I'll be thinking the same thing 17 more times.

E9 For more information on Tour 18, call (713) 540-1818.

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