There’s even an aquaponics farming greenhouse on the property. And of course, there are private residences as well as luxury villas and even a ranch house available for rent. Houston Oaks offers something for everyone.
Arguably no club in Texas has this much variety. Built on the former site of Tennwood Country Club (a facility that opened in the 1950s for the employees of Tenneco Oil & Gas), Houston Oaks now covers around 950 acres and is still growing. It has evolved over the last dozen years or so into a multi-faceted sporting club featuring a social club, a gun club, a six-court tennis club, wine club, fishing club, swim club, and a popular wedding venue. The expanse has played host to concerts as well; there’s also a baseball field and an equestrian club. And now it grows many of its own vegetables and herbs, and is even adding a hen house to bring farm-fresh produce and eggs to its outstanding dining facilities.
But with all that it has going for it, over its first decade, it really didn’t have much of a golf course. Shortly after Houston Oaks reopened with its new owners in 2007 as Houston Oaks Country Club & Family Sports Retreat, Houston architect Baxter Spann brilliantly redesigned the 18th hole (the basic design of that hole still remains), but the rest of the 1956 course, originally designed by Ralph Plummer, was merely “refreshed.”
It wasn’t until 2017, when a brand new layout by Chet Williams was unveiled, that Houston Oaks appeared on the state’s radar for best golf courses.
Sitting on the same site where the old Plummer Oaks layout was (Houston Oaks once had 36 holes), the new 7,007-yard championship course that played host to the Big 12 Match Play Tournament for the last two years and will be the site for the Texas Amateur in 2023, as well as other prestigious upcoming events, is thoughtful, challenging and most importantly enjoyable. Its reputation has soared, going from No. 22 on the 2018 Dallas Morning News’ “best courses in Texas” list to No. 4 last year to No 2 this year — pretty impressive for a newer golf course that most people in Texas still aren’t familiar with. To put it in perspective, it’s ranked ahead of the likes of Colonial Country Club, Champions, River Oaks, Bluejack National, Escondido and even Whispering Pines, a former No. 1 course that now sits at No. 3, right behind Houston Oaks.
“Our championship golf course is rated No. 2 in the state after only four years. We did not expect that,” says Chuck Watson, one of the owners at Houston Oaks. “We’re one of the best-kept secrets in Texas.”
Ironically, Whispering Pines also was designed by Williams, a former Jack Nicklaus Design associate, who is based in Waco.
“I couldn’t be happier for this group of owners, because it (the golf course) was something that was important to them,” says Williams, who when pressed won’t say which course — Whispering Pines or Houston Oaks — is better, for obvious reasons. (Williams is assisting in a renovation at Whispering Pines, which is currently closed and might explain its slight drop in its ranking.)
So what is it that makes Houston Oaks golf course so special? More than anything, Williams says, it is how the course fits into the land and its namesake oaks, though its exceptional conditioning, thanks to a new state-of-the-art irrigation system and the care from superintendent Tanner Chrastecky and his crew, certainly adds to its lofty status.
“I think there are a lot of good holes, a lot of fun holes, but I really love the way it sits on the land,” Williams says. “It feels like it belongs, and it doesn’t feel like there are man-made features that are imposed on the ground.
“I think now the golf course plays in and around the oaks a lot better than it used to. And I think that’s something the owners can appreciate as well. Because they told me one of the reasons they bought this property was because of the trees.”
Indeed, the live oaks, hundreds of them covered in Spanish moss and some of them more than a hundred years old, give Houston Oaks one of the most unique looks in the state. Williams used them strategically in the design of the holes, and they not only play into shot values, but they make the golf course visually stunning, too. And while there were plenty of oaks on property before the new golf course was laid out, more were transplanted there, providing a dramatic look.
With Celebration Bermuda on the fairways and Tif-Eagle greens, the course also has 80 well-crafted and strategic bunkers, with bright-white sand that frames holes well from the tees.
As for the holes themselves, there’s great variety. With seven sets of tees, the par-71 layout that ranges from 4,339 yards to just over 7,000 yards is playable by all golfers of every ability level.
All the holes are unique, too. There are short par-4s and long ones, good risk-reward par 5s, water on plenty of holes and even an island green on the par-3 fifth. And speaking of par 3s, those offer great variety as well, playing as short as 145 yards from the back tee of the fifth all the way to 230 yards from the 13th.
The lofty ranking has been good for growing membership, too, says Nick Holligan, head professional at Houston Oaks. Overall membership currently stands at around 470 and has been growing this year, even during a pandemic. The average age of its membership is just over 49 and declining, which is young compared to many private clubs.
“It (the high ranking of the golf course) has been brilliant for the club,” says Holligan, who is originally from Edinburgh, Scotland. “There’s been such an influx of people joining. It’s a nice problem to have, but we may be close to having a waiting list in some categories.”
Of course, the owners will tell you that the story at Houston Oaks is far from over. They have hired a renowned San Francisco firm to complete a master plan for the entire property. It could include more homesites and reconfiguration of The Scrambler (Family Nine Course), which Watson, who likes to play it with his nine grandchildren, says could be pared down to six holes and be made even more player-friendly.
The Scrambler Course redo is probably at least a year away, but the club is expected to break ground soon on two new pickleball courts — a sport that has become all the rage across America in recent years — as well as a special events facility featuring a world-class ballroom that will go where the baseball field currently is (the ballfield would be moved).
“We like to keep it fresh,” Watson says. “Seems like every year we add something. We’re far from done.”
But while the future for Houston Oaks is ongoing. What’s been happening over the past decade or so would certainly be enough for most clubs.
It all started in 2006 when three couples got together and spent around $8 million to acquire Houston Oaks Golf Club, which at the time was a 36-hole daily fee facility located near the intersection of FM 2920 and US 290 northwest of Houston. The group included Marci and Steve Alvis, founder of NewQuest Properties; Kim and Chuck Watson, founder of Dynegy; and Terri and John Havens, CEO of Seismic Exchange and owners of the Cal-a-vie Spa near San Diego.
In the first couple of years, Houston Oaks’ transition was already remarkable, making good use of some of the existing features such as the pool, its many lakes and picnic areas, and adding another pool, tennis courts, gourmet dining and other amenities shortly thereafter.
The idea, in the beginning, Watson says, was simply to build a retreat for family and friends. They didn’t intend to build out a club closing in on 500 members. But as interest grew, the families took on members. And as membership grew, more was added, like family residences (all the lots are sold), the gun club, Bunker 55 and a new clubhouse to replace one that had burned down in 2008 after it was hit by lightning.
In truth, the fire gave the club a chance to build the clubhouse of their dreams. They hired Austin architect Ryan Street, who had designed Escondido’s clubhouse in Horseshoe Bay. The result in 2013 was a 30,000-square foot Tuscany-style structure constructed with limestone, stucco, tile roofing, reclaimed wood accents throughout and 13 French fireplaces, courtesy of Marci Alvis, who made numerous trips to Europe looking for the right touches.
One of the property’s most revered treasures from those trips to Europe, however, is a 15th century, 56-seat chapel built in the Luberon region of France. The chapel was brought over in pieces and re-assembled on site. Available for members and guests, it’s now a popular spot for weddings and private events. The overall resort, of course, is a popular site for wedding receptions and bachelor and bachelorette parties. The Ranch House is often used to house groomsmen for that very purpose, while the bridal party might enjoy The Inn at Houston Oaks.
Perhaps the most talked about amenity at Houston Oaks — maybe even more than the golf course — is the incredible Bunker 55, an underground, state-of-the-art wine facility and lounge that rivals wine cellars found at the finest wineries in Napa Valley, CA or Burgundy, France.
Bunker 55 was converted from an underground bomb shelter built by Tenneco in 1962 and used to safeguard its pipeline operations. Inside you’ll find plenty more of Marci Alvis’ antique acquisitions and design features. The number 55 represents the temperature inside (55 degrees Fahrenheit, with an ambient humidity of 70%). Members have their own lockers or wine cages to store their vintages, many of which are rare and priceless, and the Bunker Boardroom or wine cave sometimes plays host to elaborate dinner parties where jackets, coats and cashmere wraps are not only recommended, but needed.
The Gun Club has its own bar and grill to go with its two 5-stand shooting stands and archery range. And on its grounds, you might also find some big-name entertainment on occasion for various concerts and special events. There are seven dining venues in all at Houston Oaks, as well as a fitness center and spa.
There is something for everyone, and it’s a family affair at The Clubs at Houston Oaks.
Simply put, Houston Oaks is a great place for members and their guests to unplug. As Bob Gusella, CEO and general manager says, “It’s all the fun of a high-end resort, with the privacy of a world-class club.”
Unlike a resort, Gusella says, “Nobody is a stranger at Houston Oaks.”