A “Hidden Gem” is something that isn't well known or popular but has something special or unique about it that inspires positive feelings. The term is often used for travel destinations and restaurants, but people also use it to describe books, movies, games, podcasts, and more.
We’ll be honest with you, as the popularity of golf has returned to a growth stage since the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become harder and harder to find hidden gems on the golf course. Now, they’re precious gems.
This year, we will be running a three-part series introducing these gems in three categories – lower, middle, and upper Valley. These hidden gems are recommended by the golf pros, or regulars, at the golf courses.
Hidden gems, diamonds in the rough, unexpected surprises — like finding an extra $20 that was forgotten in the pocket of a pair of pants — can have a profound positive effect on one’s day.
Similarly, golf courses have some gems of their own. Sure, they have their “signature holes,” usually the most difficult, most scenic, or most unique (most of the times all three) hole on the course. But hidden away are those other holes that bring a smile to a golfer’s face (sometimes dread).
Some of the courses in the Upper Rio Grande Valley that often appear on top of Winter Texans’ favorite places to play are no different. And, over the years have made some changes to not only improve the course but also have made some of their gems all “shiny and new again.”
CHAMPION LAKES, MCALLEN
Before you even get to the golf course at Champion Lakes, there’s a hard-to-hide hidden gem (does that even make sense) that was constructed three years ago.
“The driving range here is amazing,” Golf Director Carlos Espinosa said. “You won’t find many driving ranges of this size and quality that are open to the public in the United States. I honestly, don’t know if there are any.”
The range is 130 yards in length by 52 yards in width. It’s open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. seven days a week.
“It’s a monster,” Espinosa said. “It almost looks like a football field.”
There are some times when the range will carry as many people as the course. You could spend an entire day at the range, or on the putting/chipping green and in the clubhouse for a signature Champion Lakes hamburger and fries, or anything else on their menu, and never get to the golf course.
If you do take a trip to play 18, the 340-yard par-4 No. 10 is a gem that will challenge golfers from the tee, more from the approach and finally on the putt, if you’re lucky enough to get on the green in two.
“The way the wind blows, the way the green slopes, and with the lake in front of the green – a small green, it makes it very difficult,” Espinosa said. “It’s very hidden.”
The key to the hole is to get a good tee shot that lands between 120-130 yards from the green. However, it’s not the tee shot that’s difficult – comparatively speaking -- it’s the next one.
“That’s where the challenge begins,” Espinosa said. “The wind can be up and down there. Then if you come up short on the green – you can go five or six yards past the water, but the way the green is sloped, it will trickle back and could end up in the water, just like at Augusta.”
ALAMO COUNTRY CLUB
Once considered the ultimate hidden gem throughout the entire Rio Grande Valley, Alamo Country Club is a place everyone needs to play, whether in a tournament, as a resident, or on the golf course.
The holes are challenging, more so than one would think. The traps and other “dangers” have been carefully put in places where clearly the designers were thinking about the golfers (and envisioning the looks of anger and frustration). There are some scenic holes – the more scenic, the more difficult, and you might walk in not knowing anybody and leave as a family member. That might be the greatest gem of all the gems at ACC, the people.
Whether you are arriving or leaving, chances are you will see dozens of people milling about ACC’s beautiful pool and outdoor patio. They’ll be eating food, having some adult beverages and chatting up a storm. At first, you may not consider that a precious gem, but it won’t take long to realize that there are countless numbers of friendships and family-like bonds have been formed under the roof of the patio or in the depths of the pool. It makes ACC a true gem.
LOS LAGOS GOLF CLUB, EDINBURG
Can “wind” be a gem?
One of the more unique golf courses in the Valley, Los Lagos has been working on making their course more golfer friendly – that doesn’t mean they are eliminating the wind and making it a course under a dome (or putting erasers on the back of their pencils). The biggest thing has been the elimination of sand traps (the ones your balls always landed in).
The course is wonderfully challenging and “delightfully” windy (again, trying to turn the wind into a gem). Los Lagos has beautiful rolling hills, like those in the countryside in Verona, Italy, leaning fairways and holes that will give you plenty of options on how you want to reach the green.
It’s overall beauty – those moguls are fun – and almost impossible – to avoid. They stand there in front of you, hiding your view from the hole and daring you to just hit it over them – you can hear them snickering.
Don’t let its beauty lull you into a false sense of security, this course is one of the most enjoyable courses in the Rio Grande Valley. You hit a great shot here – truly a previous gem, maybe one of the greats, you will remember it.
TIERRA DEL SOL, PHARR
In 2013, Tierra del Sol put close to a million dollars of work into their golf course. Since then, many of the holes can be considered hidden gems, with shiny new greens, new cart paths and several renovated tee boxes.
Of course, their breakfast tacos shine brighter than just about anything and we’re good with that. (Hey! A person has to eat!)
But there’s also something neat about coming up No. 18 with the majestic colonial-looking clubhouse on top of a minor hill that puts a great finishing touch on the day. The course continues to regularly polish up, not wanting the investment into a complete transformation to go awry. It was a major renovation with aesthetics added, green slopes modified and a much more complete tee to green cart path that both cart drivers or walkers appreciate.
SHARY MUNICIPAL GOLF COURSE, MISSION
At one point it seemed that different parts of this course were under construction for a long time. Temporary greens, ground under construction and more. It never stopped attracting golfers and it's all been worth it.
You won’t recognize these greens now. The staff at Shary is a true gem. They have worked for years on constant upgrades and, when it seemed that this public course wasn’t going to have any more relevance to its community, it sprang to life, a resurrection and rebirth. Instead of giving up, they just gave.
The course purchased some new equipment that doesn’t tear out the grass and the greens, especially with the recent rain, are comparable to the best greens across the Rio Grande Valley. No. 1 is a true gem of a hole since it gets your brain going right away. There’s no warming up – it’s boom, here’s the fastball, hit it if you can. It might be worth taking a few extra practice swings and taking in what it has to offer you. After your tee shot, do you want to cut the water already or play safe and lay up? What about that big tree at the edge of the water? And the bunkers? Do not go long... do not tee off to the left...there is a lot to think about, and we are just talking about the first hole!
That’s a whole lot to think about on an opening hole – but it’s worth every minute of it.