The Port Arthur News
After a couple of trips around the Randy Russell redesign of the Robert Trent Jones and Jay Rivere nines at Rayburn Country in the spring of 2012, I was convinced I’d just played one of the best kept secrets in Texas golf. It was an opinion reinforced by my long-time golf buddy Ron Ashworth, who belongs to Medinah Country Club in Chicago and Bellerive CC in St. Louis, and by Michael Arnaud, who successfully lobbied for the Adams Pro Golf Tour to hold one of its tournaments there.
I was so enamored with Rayburn Country, in fact, I took the bold step of recommending to the Texas Golf Writers Association that we hold our annual summer meeting and championship there. An eclectic group spoiled at being hosted by cream of the crop in Texas golf resorts — The Four Seasons at Las Colinas, Horseshoe Bay, The Woodlands TPC, Barton Creek and La Cantera, among others — I knew dealing with our group would be the ultimate critical test.
A sampling of TGWA membership includes Curt Sampson, who has authored books on Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods, The Masters and The Ryder Cup; Mike Bailey, a senior staff writer for World Golf.com who does reviews on courses in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America; Denne Freeman, the long-time Southwest sports editor for the Associated Press who covered numerous major championships for the AP, and assorted others with strong golf credentials.
Understand, then, that when the TGWA shows up, expectations for the hosting entity are going to be sky high. Not only is a top notch golf course expected, but so is exceptional dining and quality accommodations. It didn’t start out that way when a handful of writers formed the TGWA many years ago in Waco, but that’s where it’s evolved from year after year of being pampered.
Indeed, there were a few members who headed to Rayburn Country somewhat skeptical of why we were taking our gathering to an out-of-the-way place they didn’t even know existed. Had the golf course and dining experience come up short, a certain Port Arthur News golf writer’s reputation would have taken a beating among his peers.
That, however, was never a concern. If there’s one thing I know and recognize, it’s what makes up an exceptional golf course. Rayburn Country, for those who have never experienced it, just has the look. And it’s there from start to finish, from an imaginative, never boring layout, to smooth, quick greens, to elevation changes that add to character, to the kind of conditioning that makes it easy to play the ball down.
As you will see from a sampling of the reaction to the TGWA’s June 8-9 visit to Rayburn Country, the golf course, as I knew it would, drew rave reviews. So did the magnificent clubhouse and the efforts of head pro/GM Paul Calame and those in food services who provided two nights of exceptional dining.
“People overuse the term ‘hidden gem,’ but Rayburn Country really does fall into the category,” said Bailey. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, but well worth finding. This is a course where you play it once and you can remember all the holes, and there aren’t too many of those.
“The green complexes are super interesting and the overall scenery is special. Conditioning is well above average and I haven’t found a friendlier staff. The $4 million clubhouse, excellent food and bar are nice bonuses. Bottom line, it’s well worth the effort you must make to get there. It’s an awesome place for a buddy trip.”
“Rayburn Country reminds that it’s always easy to recognize good course design,” said Sampson. “Even if you didn’t know that Trent Jones Jr. and Jay Rivere were the original architects of this gem hidden deep in the East Texas piney woods, a golfer immediately knows he’s in good hands.
“The varied look of the holes keeps your interest up throughout the round; you never feel you play the same hole twice. It’s quite simply a high-quality golf experience. I’d say 36 holes a day there for two or three days would be just about right for the avid golfer. Provided, of course, that the bar and restaurant are open.”
“I wasn’t sure what my good friend from Port Arthur had gotten us into with Rayburn Country,” said Freeman. “After experiencing it, I will never again question his judgment. This was not only an exceptional golf course, it was just so much fun to play. With the clubhouse and the ambiance, I thought it was one of the really special places I’ve been. And my complements to the chef.”
“Playing Rayburn Country was like being transported to another part of the United States,” said Burt Darden of the Houston Golf Association. “True elevation changes on a wide variety of holes is something we just don’t experience at most Texas courses. The overall conditioning of the course, especially the green complexes, sets this course apart.
“It’s worth making the trip, not only for an exceptional golf experience but because it over-delivers on hospitality.”
“One of the most enjoyable things about golf is heading to a place you’ve never played, having no expectations and then when you’re there not wanting to get off the course,” said Rich Croome of the Bryan Eagle. “That is exactly what happened to me when I teed it up at Rayburn Country. I couldn’t get enough. The day of the practice round, my group played until almost dark. That place is a real jewel.”
For golfers in Southeast Texas, meanwhile, the TGWA message should be coming through loud and clear. If you haven’t made the less than two-hour drive up to Rayburn Country, you should. There’s nothing even remotely like it in the Golden Triangle and it stacks up favorably against just about anything in the Houston area.
Beyond that, the price, especially if you want to do a stay and play, is amazingly reasonable. You can check it out on www.lakerayburncountry.com.
Oh, and for those who mght be wondering about the TGWA championship, Curt Sampson, who used to be a pro, won for the 12th time with a one-over-par 72. Sampson, though, is still haunted by the one he didn’t win, the time he lost to some guy from Port Arthur on the first hole of a sudden death playoff at The Woodlands.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at email@example.com.