DRIFTWOOD, TEXAS | Deep in the heart of rusted Texas Hill Country, where jackalopes would wander if they were real and western diamondbacks slither because they are, lies a fledgling golf community of the grandest ambition.
Its location is only a 30-minute drive southwest of Austin, the capital city growing faster than a line to get into Franklin Barbecue. But Driftwood itself is an unincorporated speck on the map. Fewer than 200 people lived there as of the last census, and it has bordered on literal ghost-town status multiple times throughout its rather undistinguished history. In recent years, city yuppies visit Driftwood for food, drink, rustic retreats and getting married in a barn decorated with twinkle lights.
The story of golf flourishing in an unlikely place such as this isn’t news. Bandon Dunes, Streamsong, Sand Valley and countless others have proven successful with remote, previously undeveloped locations. The difference in this scenario is that Driftwood Golf and Ranch Club, a Discovery Land Company property, is attempting not to create a destination resort but rather to reimagine the once-staid private golf community model. They want to be Jackson Pollock in a world of French Impressionism. And it would be no shock if we one day recognize their seemingly radical ideas as a key cog in the future of membership golf. Sure, parts of what they are doing have been implemented elsewhere, but we’ve never seen so many elements come together at the same time.
So, what exactly is this place?
It is, ostensibly, an 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed course that will be fully open to its members later this spring. The front nine is a scruffy safari framed by rugged century oaks, and the back nine is a visually stimulating oasis of waterfalls, creeks and natural limestone croppings. Fields of vibrant bluebonnets and native wildflowers line the fairways. The expansive greens are a microcosm of the surrounding rolling hills, each of them settling in like a gently rumpled blanket. It’s both quintessential Texas golf and classic Fazio as wide corridors allow for the game to be played in the ever-present winds. Balls that miss the fairway mostly find playable but awkward native areas where it’s advisable to watch your footsteps in case unwanted spectators appear.
Texas golf has long been called out for its monotony and lack of memorable holes, a criticism Driftwood clearly hoped to address without falling too far on the contrived side of the scale. The second shot into the par-5 second is an inviting beauty, as the green is tucked neatly against massive oaks. There are two enticing, drivable par-4s, Nos. 8 and 14. Back-to-back par-5s, Nos. 9 and 10, show off the diversity of slope at the property – the downhill approach into No. 9 feels as if the ball can stay in the air forever, only to reverse for the uphill climb on No. 10. The back nine is reminiscent of Payne’s Valley at Big Cedar Lodge, or a Texas version of Caves Valley. It’s big, beautiful and difficult. Firm and fast conditions on the sand-capped fairways (see Austin Country Club) would elevate the course to another level, but the agronomy piece is too early to judge.
It’s not a course with one celebratory moment. If you surveyed golfers coming off the course, you would probably get a handful of different answers for what their favorite hole was.
“There’s not a particular thing to highlight because there’s so much to the entire property, the entire environment,” Fazio said.
That’s the golf course itself, but Driftwood’s true personality is going to be defined by a long list of intriguing elements surrounding the layout. They are difficult to rank, so we’ll start with everything directly involved with the course.
First is the practice area. On this warm Friday in April, the gargantuan range sat mostly vacant – this certainly does not plan to be a large membership where players have to line up to wait for a warm-up spot – and “Hey Jude” hummed. Behind you, there is a drive-through station of cocktails and food that would not be out of place if it were one of the many food trucks visible on Rainey Street in downtown Austin. The options include Driftwater (tequila, lime and soda), Morning Buzz (Bailey’s, Kahlúa, Tito’s and coffee), There’s Something Big About Mary (vodka, lime, bacon, jerky, pickled vegetables, bloody mary mix and olive juice), build-your-own tacos and a room full of quite possibly every candy you can name.
There is more before you reach the first tee. For starters, you are given two scorecards. One is a typical, run-of-the-mill scorecard. The other is black, adorned with skull and crossbones – well, golf clubs that function as crossbones – and serves those interested in playing the course at some 7,700 yards. It comes with a humorous warning label on the back: “Under Texas Law, Driftwood Golf & Ranch Club is not liable for any injury to or death of a golfer choosing to challenge the game of golf from this set of tees.”
Before you decide not to play those tees, there is another comfort station – the first of a few you encounter throughout the journey – that is appropriately silo-shaped with the skull of a longhorn facing players. Some of the other stations serve empanadas from an Argentine grill, frozen grapes and any number of treats. There is no time limit on how long you can spend there, as getting out of position isn’t much of a concern at a course like this.
Interesting details flood the grounds. The five sets of tee markers are odes to shades of wildflowers, sunsets and the burnt orange of the University of Texas. On the second hole, there is an oak tree with a hole about 4 feet off the ground. Inside sits fresh ice and a half-full bottle of Casamigos tequila. The tops of the garbage can lids are at ground level, another subtle reminder of a course without clutter.
By the time you get to the par-3 17th, you realize there is more to the practice grounds than the driving range. Behind that tee sits what must be, no hyperbole necessary, one of the finest short-game areas in the United States. It’s all of 3½ acres, complete with overseeded tee boxes and a creek running around the well-manicured greens and pristine bunkers. Full wedge shots are possible and encouraged – former Texas Longhorns Jordan Spieth and Beau Hossler have checked it out, and why wouldn’t they? It’s the kind of place where you could spend several hours without realizing any time has gone by at all.
But this isn’t all about golf. Far from it, actually.
Driftwood is broken into three properties. There is “The Ranch” where the golf course, teaching studio, practice facilities, yet-to-be-built clubhouse, fitness center, restaurant and event lawn reside. And then there is an adjacent property called “The Creek,” a 300-acre parcel with a handful of amenities you might expect and several head-turners. There is a “Songwriter’s Studio” where music recordings and performances can take place – the stage is just beyond centerfield of a baseball diamond that can turn into a 3,000-person concert when there isn’t a game being played. There is also a bar that overlooks a cliff, an extensive trail system with more than five miles of paths and a long list of other recreational activities that can be enjoyed. Throughout both properties, 315 homesites that will have various shapes, sizes and identities weave in and out. Members will have the ability to lease rows of a 60-acre vineyard on site, allowing them to create their own private wine labels.
And then there is the last component, which is not in Driftwood at all. Sitting in downtown Austin on the corner of 4th and Colorado – a short walk from the golden-brown Texas Capitol – is where you will find Driftwood Downtown. It’s part man cave, part rooftop bar and part luxurious clubhouse, if you can imagine such a thing. It’s the kind of place you would picture throwing a bachelor party for a night. A golf simulator, ice cream machine, pool table, pantry full of candy and three different bar areas on three different levels of the building make for one impressive outfit.
It all adds up to a $250 million, 800-acre development. Estate lots started at $800,000 a few years back, and that only covers the cost of the lot itself. Houses start at approximately $3 million.
While the vast majority of private facilities across the country won’t have nearly this level of resource, there is something to be said for this golf and “good vibes only” wonderland.
It could be that private golf is changing. Driftwood is on the extreme end when it comes to community building, but the requirements for these developments are also evolving quickly.
The model formerly focused on a course, clubhouse, pool and few other basic amenities. The developments revolved around golf, and many of them have suffered in the past 15 years because of that.
Now, golf is a meaningful but smaller part of the package. A growing number of people want fire pits, greenways, dog parks, farm-to-table food and quaint outside bars that would make frequent Etsy and Pinterest users blush. Members want their communities to be small-scale cities, a destination where an entire day can be spent without leaving the property. Sometimes they want their golf served in step with a cocktail glass at a downtown bar.
Private golf continues to take a new shape. It may not all end up looking like Driftwood, but many will endeavor to use it as a model.
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