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 Lower 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.”
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND GOLF CLUB
Whoever said beauty is only skin deep never had South Padre Island Golf Club in mind. This course, which should be the crème de la crème based on location alone, was working hard on becoming just “hidden.”
Now, after years of labor, new owners, and a new vision (and renovations galore), have revived this course into returning to its glory days. It truly is a gem, and not hidden anymore.
Eighteen rebuilt greens, an updated, well, new irrigation system and the addition of “lots of grass” are key upgrades that add to the best golf experiences in South Texas. The glorious view alone overlooking the Laguna Madre and the island is a mental photo you want to put on your wall for all to see.
As expected on a beach course, the layout is challenging, and the wind can make things “break your club over your knee” challenging. The course has consistently worked on improving its cart paths, sand traps, natural beauty, and other areas in recent years. If you haven’t played here recently, it's worth checking out again. You may end up out there more than you think – it's that beautiful, it’s truly a gem among gems and only getting better.
LONG ISLAND VILLAGE, PORT ISABEL
This one could still be considered “hidden,” but it doesn’t in any way lower the value of this gem. In fact, it is the exact definition of a hidden gem.
Tucked away off the main route in Port Isabel, this par-3 golf course is special.
The course offers many activities within their “village” to guests, renters, and residents which include: 18-hole, 3 par (Walking) Golf course, mini-golf course, shuffleboard, tennis, billiards, basketball, volleyball, table-top tennis, an outdoor and indoor pool, jacuzzis and, depending on when, you go, a plethora of seasonal activities.
If you’re not a golf fan, this is a virtual “mall of fun on the golf course.” If you are a golfer, well, welcome to one of the most difficult layouts you will face. Actually, the biggest thing to deal with on this course isn’t the layout, pin placement or where the tees are set up, it’s the South Texas wind or, rather, South Texas gale-forced winds, at times.
If you may look at a scorecard and determine which clubs to bring based only off that … you’re in trouble. You may as well bring all your irons, get to the tee, and just take a guess – you could use a 9-iron one day on a hole, then a 5-iron the next day on the same hole, and still end up long or short, to the left or the right.
It’s just one of the things that make this course so awesome. Remember, it takes a village to raise a golfer… or child – same thing, really.
BROWNSVILLE GOLF CENTER
What makes this course so special is the City of Brownsville’s vision for who their course is for – and that’s everyone. If you’re a single handicap golfer, the tee placements make the wide, open fairways a lot more difficult, thanks to well-placed (or deviously placed, depending on your point of view) trees, water and, maybe, some wildlife running across the course (always kicking your ball farther from the hole and never closer). For the beginners, its perfect, designed to be player friendly – but don’t ever think this course is a pushover. Those wider fairways aren’t always better. A golfer – new or old – can think it’s a hole to grip and rip on and, while you may stay on the fairway, you can still be 100s of yards away due to your banana slice or your captain hook – hook.
Still, those fairways and large – yet quick – greens give golfers an opportunity to improve their game without being beaten up by courses that are sometimes way too challenging for those looking at the simpler things in life.
But there’s something about this course that is stress-free. Brownsville Golf Center is exactly what a municipal course should be, inviting and available to all levels of golfers. Sure, water comes into play on most holes. Also, you still have to carry that water at times and be strategic on several holes, deciding how much you want to cut a corner or to “go for it.” Just because a green is large does not always mean you want to be putting the length of it to get close to the pin.
Gee, suddenly it seems to be more challenging than you expected. Yes, welcome to Brownsville Golf Center. That’s the brilliance of this course and a reminder that looks can be deceiving.
RIVER BEND RESORT AND GOLF CLUB, BROWNSVILLE
Many people seem to have thought that this course was for those who lived on the course property only. Other people just didn't know it existed, being off the worn path and remaining hidden, a true loss for golfers. That's when the owners decided to “get the word out” and now Winter Texans - and just about everyone - flock to River Bend.
The course has been cleaned up a lot, removing trees and thick brush along the Rio Grande, where several holes run adjacent. Now you can actually see where your ball plunged into darkness forever. This course is beautiful and unique with both its layout and its scenery. It’s the equivalent of walking up to a cute little bunny rabbit – with sharp, scary fangs. It may look relaxing with all the beautiful scenery, then it will lash out and bite you.
Whoever thought that the removal of hazards would add to the challenge of a golf course. Isn’t having hazards what makes the challenge in many cases? Here, all those “upgrades” only adds to the challenge of not sending your ball into the river – or another country. However, it does open the course to showcase its beautiful scenery, relaxing you – but just remember… bunny with fangs. Pretty and calm looking, but ready to take a bite.