It’s almost spring, and for us, that means golf – even if you can play it nearly year round in the South Texas climate. Each spring we ask our readers to vote for their favorite gold courses. The Valley has many courses to choose from, and Winter Texans seem to try to catch them all while visiting the Valley.
This year, we wanted to delve into the history of our Valley golf courses. We hope you enjoy this bit of history and learning about the courses you visit and love. For the next three weeks we will feature a different part of the Valley. This week we will feature the Lower Valley gold courses.
Valley International Country Club
Golf in the Rio Grande Valley has a long tradition, tracing back to the mid-1840s when it is reported that soldiers from Fort Brown introduced the sport to what was then known as Brownsville Country Club – now named Valley International Country Club.
Over the years, the sport grew and the names to graze VICC included not just the best from the Valley, such as Al Escalante and Tony Butler, but also Jimmy Demaret and Hall-of-Famer Ben Hogan.
In the 1930s, the city and VICC hosted a driving contest. “It was an era when Brownsville was coming up in the golfing world. The game was so popular that the city had its own practice driving range located across the street from “The Terrace,” a miniature golf course on the main street of the city, West Elizabeth,” wrote Rene Torres in the Port Isabel Press.
Because of VICC and the overwhelming popularity of the sport, Brownsville started its first high school golf program.
Now, VICC holds tournaments, corporate outings and is open to the public and offers an 18-hole championship course as well as a nine-hole executive course.
The championship course is demanding but tries to offset that with four sets of tees to ensure beginners can enjoy their round. The short course allows golfers to work on their short game and have a quicker round.
By the way, Brownsville High School athlete Charles Puckett won the contest with a 226-yard drive. Mrs. Works won the girls event with a drive of 129 yards.
Rancho Viejo Golf and Country Club
Driving through the little community and golf paradise known as Rancho Viejo can conjure up visions of what life was like many years ago.
There’s a reason for that since the community and town originated before the United States officially existed. Golf wasn’t there, but the close-knit community along the Texas Coast was an idea as early as 1770.
Ownership of more than 260,000 acres changed hands multiple times throughout the decades. Then, in 1968, Bill Bass purchased 280 acres to develop the Rancho Viejo Resort and Country Club. The community incorporated and the golf course and resort became home to golfers, retirees, vacationers, and a general population. Its beauty didn’t change.
Today, the “golf ball in the sky,” represents one of the most beautiful golf courses in South Texas. Filled with resacas, native vegetation and sitting in between Harlingen and Brownsville, the town and its offerings are filled with splendor.
Designed by Dennis W. Arp, El Diablo golf course is playable yet challenging, stretching over 6,800 yards from the back tees. Course construction began in 1971 on where used to lie a citrus orchard and was named El Diablo (the devil) because the grapefruit trees lining the fairways made it so devilishly difficult to play.
The course’s greens are known to be some of the fastest in South Texas. El Diablo has hosted the PGA Tour Qualifying School for Curtis Strange, Craig Stadler and Peter Jacobson.
River Bend Golf Course, Brownsville
It’s nature’s paradise. A course considered by many to be the most unique in the Valley, River Bend and nature co-exist. Once a private golf course, new ownership opened it up, and area golfers will drive farther to play this course and make a day out of it.
“When I first started working there, I played hole No. 4 and I thought I was in the hill country,” Adrian Garcia said. “There are oak trees and the fairway dipped and then there was an elevated green.
“I thought, ‘What the heck is going on? I thought I was in Brownsville’.”
Garcia’s reaction is not rare. Since the course opened to the public, the reviews are raving from both those who live on the course and from the wide swath of visitors.
A course that has no boundaries when it comes to challenges. The water enhances the beauty of the course, and the river has carved the course to precision. The place, at one time a diamond in the rough, lets golfers enjoy everything about it and escape worldly woes.
“It is so peaceful. I love to go out the back 9 at dusk,” Garcia said. “It has natural terrain. It’s very different than other courses. It’s fun and always kept in great shape.”
South Padre Island Golf Club
With the most picturesque sights from the many tees of the Laguna Madre and South Padre Island in the distance, the view at South Padre Island Golf Club is enough to get you to go back time and again.
Located at 1 Golf House Road in Laguna Vista, the course can go from a normal to challenging course to extremely difficult when the wind decides to pay a visit. The course rested on its laurels for a long time and the wind, heat and golf traffic wore it out, but new ownership has breathed amazing life into a course that now gets more beautiful to play daily. It definitely needs to be on everyone’s bucket list of things to do/see if anywhere near it.
Like many courses in South Texas, the wind alone is an ample challenge to the 6,800 yard course.
When that wind comes out of the north, be prepared to change clubs on your initial thoughts almost all the time. The biggest guessing game here is how many clubs do you go up or down, the wind is that strong.
Of course, location, location, location adds to the enticement of this course. You’re just a “stone’s throw away” from a nice relaxing evening at South Padre Island.
Long Island Village
When Outdoor Resorts decided to build Long Island Village and its golf course, the first thing they did was buy a farm in Bayview to truck over top soil, said Jennie McBride, LI Village golf committee member and newsletter writer. Unfortunately, that topsoil was also saturated with salt.
“They wanted to haul in the dirt because Long Island Village is made up of dredging the intercoastal,” she said. “Then a hurricane came, and the saltwater killed all the grass – but they didn’t buy another farm.”
LIV Golf Course was built in 1984 and was designed by the same architects that built the golf courses for Disney World Orlando. Only about 50% of the grass on the fairways was successfully established. It was described at that time as “A well designed course with excellent greens and the rest was an eyesore.”
On Christmas Eve in 1985, the place got hit hard by a freeze for several hours. The palm trees and shrubs died, and what grass there was, and the greens, turned dark brown.
The area, named so simply because it is a true island, and it’s long, was at one time called the Jim Paul Golf Course. McBride says the course is a daily project but a super popular place for golfers, have named it as one of the top three courses in the Valley for several years running.
Not only is it unique but it is considered the “toughest little par 3 in Texas,” according to one visitor.
The layout is simple – but not a pushover. The wind is Valley wind at its finest, and largest. Golfers have talked often about needing to go up or down two or three clubs for holes that range in distance from 44 to 146 yards, making the longer ones seem closer to the 200 range with swirling gusts.
Golfers can purchase their pass, play a round or more, take a break for lunch under the new “gathering area” built in 2019 and go back out for even more golf. It’s yet another appealing aspect of the long island course known as Long Island Village.
Brownsville Golf Center
The Brownsville Golf Center opened in 1971 and provides everything for every golfer. Not a terribly difficult course, it was built and continues to be at will of golfers at every and all levels.
The course was originally built to play 6,144 yards from the blues and the reds are 5,091 yards. To bring in additional golfers, the course offers glow golf, nighttime golf with balls that glow and glow sticks outlining the fairways, greens, and holes.
“It’s a pretty short course and that makes it great for walking,” said the pro shop attendant. For years, the belief has been to keep it an inexpensive form of entertainment for newbies, amateurs, and pros alike. Something available and attainable for the local residents.
If you’re looking to grip it and rip it, this isn’t the place. This course tests your skill and will with irons and approach shots. If you can hit from 100 yards and in, this is definitely the place for you to enhance your skills.
There are some elevated tee boxes and while the greens are fairly forgiving, they are not flat. There’s also an outdoor pavilion, practice green and chipping green.