Barton Creek, Crenshaw Cliffside ****
When the Canadian Tour played its season-opening event here a few years ago, players looked at the scorecard and wondered how such a short course could possibly challenge them. But they found out as soon as they stroked a putt on the steeply pitched first green. This fun, spacious design—whose bunkers were renovated and greens regrassed last year—invites you to pound tee balls with abandon. But enormous, slippery and baffling putting surfaces await at every bend. The green at the par-four fourth is as big as a West Texas ranch tank—it's a four-club spread from front to back. The short par-three seventeenth plays to a green cut into the bank of a canyon. It looks simple enough—until you try it.
Architects: Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, 1991. Yardage: 6,630. Par: 71. Slope: 132. Greens Fees: $95-$180. Contact: 8212 Barton Club Drive, Austin; 800-336-6158, www.bartoncreek.com.
Barton Creek, Fazio Canyons ****
From the back tees, the rugged and remote Canyons course—a close second to the Fazio Foothills layout for top billing at Barton Creek—poses the most arduous test in all of Austin thanks to a succession of intimidating carries over age-old escarpments. If either nine is scorable, it's definitely the front, which is sheltered from the wind by mature red oaks and madrones. The holes on the back nine edge along the seams and pockets of the beautiful cedar and limestone hills that give this corner of central Texas its distinct topography. Beginning at the elevated tee of the deceptively narrow par-four fifteenth and culminating at the long, creek-laced par-five final hole, the closing stretch at the Canyons just might prove to be the most invigorating hour of your trip.
Architect: Tom Fazio, 2000. Yardage: 7,153. Par: 72. Slope: 138. Greens Fees: $140-$285. Contact: 8511 Henry Marx Lane, Austin; 800-336-6158, www.bartoncreek.com.
Horseshoe Bay, Applerock ****
This Robert Trent Jones Sr. design in the Hill Country forty-five minutes northwest of Austin slithers through the natural arroyos like a rattlesnake in pursuit. Several of its tees are perched high on ridges, including at the par-five tenth, where the view of distant whitecaps on the water defines the region's allure. Live oak, persimmon and juniper trees frame the fairways, which are punctuated by Jones's trademark amoeba-shaped bunkering. Applerock is the youngest of the three eighteens at Horseshoe Bay Resort, located on the shores of Lake Lyndon Baines Johnson. In terms of challenge, it ranks comfortably between its two siblings, the fiercer Ram Rock course and the far gentler Slick Rock.
Architect: Robert Trent Jones Sr., 1986. Yardage: 6,999. Par: 72. Slope: 136. Greens Fees: $99-$119 (resort guests only). Contact: 1 Bay West Boulevard; 830-598-6561, www.hsbresort.com.
Golf Club at Circle C ***1/2
Five years ago, the Bermuda fairways at Circle C wilted like a rose after Valentine's Day. But new management installed a million-dollar irrigation system, hired a greenskeeper from a top course in Dallas and sharpened the amorphous bunkers to restore the polish of the most intriguing layout in Austin proper. The firmness and flow of the fairways require precise shotmaking. And the understated par-four twelfth features a rippling, organically shaped green that slopes upward at its edges, allowing approach shots to funnel toward the flag; it's marvelously reminiscent of the finest work of golden-age architect Perry Maxwell.
Architect: Jay Morrish, 1992. Yardage: 6,855. Par: 72. Slope: 130. Greens Fees: $70-$90. Contact: 7401 Highway 45, Austin; 512-288-4297, www.thegolfclubatcirclec.com.