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Member Club Spotlight: Galveston Country Club

There might not be another golf facility in Texas with a more storied history than Galveston Country Club. Never mind that it’s the oldest country club in Texas, founded in the spring of 1898. Forget that members from Galveston Country Club competed in the first-ever Texas interclub championship, a match play affair against Houston Country Club in 1904 – two years before the Texas Golf Association existed.

To understand Galveston Country Club’s essential role in the story of golf in Texas, put aside those facts and simply consider the powerhouse names attached to the club as it celebrates its 125th anniversary this summer. That list includes icons such as Willie Park Sr., winner of the inaugural Open Championship in 1860; A.W. Tillinghast, perhaps the all-time greatest American golf course designer; Donald Ross, another U.S. golf course architect argued to be one of the best ever; and Jackie Burke Jr., winner of the 1956 Masters and PGA Championship and co-founder of Champions Golf Club in Houston.

All four giants of the game have direct ties to Galveston CC, the delightfully tricky course on the west end of the island that features playing conditions as good as or better than anything you’ll find in the Houston area.

Two decades before teaming with Jimmy Demaret to bring the U.S. Open and Ryder Cup to north Houston in the 1960s, Burke was the head professional at Galveston CC in the 1940s. He also set the course record of 8-under-par 63 in 1942, besting the previous record of 6-under 65 set by Byron Nelson. Meanwhile, Ross, just 12 years after he conceived Pinehurst No. 2, built one of the courses for Galveston CC, a club that has suffered multiple catastrophic hurricane and fire disasters.

Tillinghast’s role was smaller, yet just as significant. The architectural genius who worked on more than 265 courses, including Winged Foot and Baltusrol, visited Galveston CC in 1937as part of a PGA of America program that allowed clubs to request expert analysis. Tillinghast walked every inch of the course with then-head pro George Rohrer, and gave him recommendations on how to tweak the routing and alter agronomy practices to give members an elevated experience.

Long before that, Willie Park Sr.’s son Mungo Park, who won the Open Championship himself in 1874, designed the original Galveston CC nine-hole course in 1898 and served as the club’s first head pro. How those original 30 members were able to convince a Scottish architect of Park’s pedigree to build their course and become head pro is unknown, lost in the debris of a club that has changed locations several times.

Another mystery concerns the reasons why Galveston CC has never been inducted into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame and isn’t listed among the Texas Registry of Historic Golf Courses. It might be the same explanation as to why the club’s name doesn’t appear on any of the popular Top-100 course ranking lists.

Golf in Texas started at Galveston CC. Full stop. As for quality, anyone who has played Galveston CC will tell you there’s not 50 – let alone 100 – better courses in Texas. With narrow fairways and fast greens, Galveston CC is a shot-maker’s playground on a type of grass most golfers don’t often encounter.

So why is it so criminally under the radar?

One reason is not enough people have seen it. Way down on the west side of Galveston Island, it’s a hike to get to for most golfers. It’s private, too, so it’s not like everyone who wants to play it can. Boy, are they missing out.

Houston’s Padden Nelson, winner of the TGA’s 2021 South Amateur at Galveston CC, offers an alternate theory on why the island course doesn’t get its due respect.

“I think part of it being under-appreciated is that it’s 6,500 yards on the scorecard. Most golf bros will see this yardage and scoff, but that’s because they’re dummies,” Nelson said. “I love the fact that you can’t muscle your way around the course; you have to have a gameplan. While it isn’t tricked up at all, it also isn’t a bomb-and-gouge golf course. If you think it is, let me know if there is room in your group and bring your wallet.”

Nelson was the only competitor out of 80 elite amateurs who shot under par all three days at the South Amateur. There are plenty of holes where players can be tempted to pound driver, but the course also demands patience, respect, and accuracy. Nelson displayed all three and posted 9-under 207 to win by five shots. He’s also right about the total yardage as Galveston CC tips out at just 6,507 yards from the No. 1 tees. There are three more sets of tees that shrink it to 6,128 yards (No. 2 tees), 5,607 (No. 3 tees), and 4,965 yards (No. 4 tees).

It’s not a long course, but the small, undulating greens, palm tree-framed doglegs, and sneaky water features make for a stern challenge. The course’s main defense is the wind, of course. Situated less than a mile from the gulf, the current-day version of the golf course regularly sees 15-20 mph winds with stronger gusts. A calm day at Galveston CC is a steady 10-15 mph breeze.

Interestingly, when Texas Golf Hall of Fame member Ralph Plummer routed the current course located at 12 Mile Post and Stewart Road, he didn’t create many straight into-the-wind or straight downwind holes with the prevailing southwesterly air currents. Instead, most of the holes are positioned to have some kind of crosswind to navigate off the tee.

“You have to have complete control of the golf ball,” said Nelson, the 2021 South Texas Player of the Year. “The wind magnifies any mishit or indecisiveness. The natural penalty areas are in perfect spots to play mind games with the golfer who has any doubt, especially from the tee.”

Regardless of where golfers choose to peg it, there are a few things they can expect to experience besides the gulf breezes. The first is superb playing conditions. Superintendent Jeff Smelser and his crew keep Galveston CC in excellent condition year-round. Easy going and humble, Smelser says it’s the commitment to excellence from the club’s board of directors that allows him to maintain the course in A+ shape for the 1,660 members, which includes 400 stockholders and 1,260 golf-playing social members.

Past presidents JP Hershey and Bob Senter, along with longtime employee and recently named General Manager Nick Elton, worked with the board over the past several years to create a family-like environment at the club. It’s not just family-friendly for the members, either. The staff, too, operates like a loving group, one in which everyone wants to see everyone else succeed and enjoy the spoils of their efforts.

“We’re really a unique club,” said current president Jackie Fluke, who has expanded the synergistic relationship between the board, staff, and members. “Many of our members live in Houston and come down to the island to relax. That’s what we offer. The chance for our members to get away from the stress of everyday life.”

Donnie St. Germain has been the head pro for more than 20 years now. Among a thousand other things, St. Germain handles the tee sheet. The club does about 16,000-18,000 rounds a year, but that number jumped to 20,000 during the pandemic. Most of those rounds are played between Memorial Day and Labor Day, but St. Germain will tell you the best time of the year to play is October-December.

He also credits the board for their support.

“What I’ve noticed in the last 10 years is they always ask, ‘What can we do to make it better?’” St. Germain said. “Whether it’s the restaurant, the golf course, the tennis courts, it’s always, ‘What can we do to take this club to the next level?’”

That ambition manifested in 2003 when the board elected to re-turf the entire golf course with a strain of grass that was, at the time, pretty radical, choosing Sea Dwarf Paspalum Grass for the greens and Sea Isle Paspalum and Common Bermuda Grass for fairways and rough.

Paspalum is a tough, sticky blade of grass that is tolerant to saltwater and other harsh elements found in island settings. It’s commonly used these days at some of the best seaside courses around the world, and in 2009 the Houston Astros became the first Major League Baseball team to replace their infield and outfield with a Paspalum strain.

That’s the other thing guests and new members can expect at Galveston CC – an adjustment to playing on the vibrant-green Paspalum. The ball sits up nicely in the fairway, but around the greens it’s a different story. The grass is sticky and thick. You’re not going to run many iron shots onto the green from the fairway. When balls hit the fringe, they stop almost like Velcro. Chip shots into the grain can be extremely challenging. Flying the ball closer to the hole becomes the best bet.

Overall, the challenges of playing on Paspalum are far outweighed by its saltwater tolerance and ability to remain healthy and lush throughout the year. It’s allowed Smelser to create Member-Guest-like conditions for 360+ days a year.

“The Paspalum is somewhat drought-tolerant, but it 100% tolerates the saltwater and high sodium levels. It’s definitely an advantage,” Smelser said. “If we ever get a hurricane, we’re not going to lose everything now.”

That wasn’t always the case.

In fact, the very first Galveston CC course, the one designed and built by Mungo Park in 1898, was completely destroyed along with the clubhouse when the 1900 Galveston hurricane ripped through the island and killed more than 6,000 people.

Ten years later the club relocated to the mainland about 15 miles from the shore near Dickinson Bayou. Membership grew to 300, then 350 – almost half came from Houston – as an ornate clubhouse was built a short walk from the new Interurban rail line that connected the sprawling metropolis to the north with the island down south. The club was a bustling social center until a tragic fire burned down the clubhouse in October 1918. Poorly insured at the time, the club fell on the verge of financial ruin.

In 1919, the club voted to return to the island. They hired Ross to build a new course (the third version if you’re counting). Three years before Ross designed and built the acclaimed River Oaks Country Club in Houston, he first did it for Galveston CC near the nexus of 61st Street and Ave. S, just three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. There was a street entrance to the club, and one from the beach, too.

At 6,024 yards from the back tees, the Ross-designed course flourished for a stretch of time. The 1926 Women’s Texas Amateur was contested there, and the great amateur champion Bobby Jones played the course in 1928. No doubt both Jones and the field at the Women’s Texas Amateur were challenged by devious crosswinds and tiny greens that were defended by well-placed bunkers.

Burke became the head pro there in 1941, but he moved on a couple years later. Galveston CC survived hurricanes in 1941 and 1943, but membership declined during World War II because of the draft and federally mandated gas rationing.

Another fire claimed the clubhouse in 1944 or 1945 (accounts differ). The club, saddled with debt and a shrinking membership, was forced to sell back to the City of Galveston for $75,000. The property became a (Donald Ross-designed!) municipal course, which unfortunately doesn’t exist today.

In June 1946, the club bought the property on which the club currently lives off Stewart Road. The board hired another influential architect to sculpt this version. Plummer, who designed or renovated the likes of Northwood Club, Lakewood Country Club, Champions Golf Club, Colonial Country Club, and Preston Trails Golf Club, carved out 18 thoughtful holes in 1947 that has offered Galveston CC members and guests a balance of joy and aggravation ever since.

The course was razed and rebuilt in 1961 after Hurricane Carla, and Carlton Gipson re-surfaced the greens in 1990. The Jacobson-Hardy design team renovated Galveston CC in 2003 when the Paspalum went in.

There have been other renovations – the clubhouse, restaurant, tennis courts, and pool all have been upgraded in recent years – including the addition of an island green on the par-5 sixth hole in 1992 by famed designer Chet Williams.

With a desire for more recognition, Galveston CC wants to open its doors again to more distinguished events. Back in the day, the club routinely supported competitive amateur golf. The Texas Amateur was played there in 1909 and 1923, and it hosted the Women’s Texas Amateur in 1926, 1933, and 1941.

In the 80 or so years that followed, however, there haven’t been as many big events contested there. And since it’s private, there hasn’t been much opportunity for golf course raters or the general golfing public to experience how the Galveston CC course can at the same time be a thrill to play and extremely challenging.

Things are changing, however.

The 2021 South Amateur was just the start of Galveston CC’s return to hosting competitive events. The club welcomed a U.S. Women’s Open qualifier earlier this summer, and the 2023 Texas Shootout featuring 24 of the best male amateurs in Texas will be played at Galveston CC in November.

Future plans call for more TGA Championships to head to Galveston CC with the hope that as more golfers get to experience the unique nature of the well-conditioned course, the club’s reputation and stature will reach the lofty summit that its rich history suggests it deserves.