Golfers and nonplayers remain fond of former Austin Country Club site

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, April 1, 2015 Austin360

In 2008, Lori Duran took some lessons at the Riverside Golf Course. A passing interest in the game turned into a yearslong fascination with the manicured landscapes and midcentury buildings on Grove Boulevard off East Riverside Drive.

“The golf course history was more interesting to me than the golf,” Duran says. “The pro showed me the pictures inside the Pro Shop and the Tin Cup Grill and told me what buildings and facilities he thought were original from the Austin Country Club days.”

Good to be reminded: Riverside — designed by the revered Perry Maxwell in 1950 and owned by Austin Community College since the 1980s — was the longtime home base for the legendary Harvey Penick, who coached golf champions Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, among others, there.

His modest house still stands on Penick Drive, a short semicirclular lane off old Country Club Road.

“It occupies a very special place in my heart,” Crenshaw says of the Riverside course. “It’s a beautiful piece of property for golf. Very fair to everyone. It’s not flat. It moves. It’s well-bunkered with beautiful contoured greens. You could play out there and not lose a ball.”

Riverside has rarely been as newsworthy as the perennially threatened Lions Municipal Golf Course in West Austin. From 1950 to 1984, however, it not only was a satisfying place to golf but also hosted all sorts of social events in its modern clubhouse, which survives as an ACC service building. Gone are the nearby tennis courts and swimming pool.

In 1984, the country club moved from Riverside to the Davenport Ranch development, which can be glimpsed when crossing the Pennybacker Bridge. When ACC took over the East Austin course for its Riverside Campus, several of the Maxwell-designed holes were altered.

“They compromised the golf course,” Crenshaw confirms. “Three holes quite heavily. Although a lot is still intact.”

Maxwell and Penick’s original vision still vividly inspires Crenshaw and Kite.

“The whole golf course had terrific balance,” Kite says. “Nos. 3 and 11 were par 5s. No. 3 was a shortish, downhill par 5, usually playing with the prevailing wind. No. 11 was longer, into the wind, along the entry road to the club. The 15th was the signature hole, a long par 4, with a green elevated above the fairway: a wonderful, tough, demanding hole. You had to hit two perfect shots — a good drive, then a long iron into the green.”

The Austin Country Club was established in 1899 at what is now Hancock Park Golf Course on 41st Street. That first playground was the brainchild of Lewis Hancock, president of the State National Bank and founder of the long-demolished Hancock Opera House. Hancock also served as Austin city alderman (1885-1886) and mayor (1896-1897).

After the country club moved outside the city limits in 1950, the “back nine” of the cramped, older Hancock course was turned into Hancock Shopping Center.

Penick and Maxwell, who designed courses all around the U.S., had explored the area for the perfect site. The duo picked the undulating, well-watered land southwest of the Montopolis bluffs.

“It was good dirt,” Kite says. “Because of the equipment of the day, you wouldn’t think about a golf course on the rocky west side of town. That was goat ranches. The costs would have been prohibitive. Here, you had oaks and pecans on gently rolling terrain. Magnificent! Maxwell did a terrific job.”

The designer returned to the area periodically before his death in 1952.

“Penick told me Maxwell would stay with him right adjacent to Riverside,” Crenshaw remembers. “He had a bad reaction to a treatment and they had to amputate his leg. He’d take the leg off and put it in a violin case, scaring Penick’s daughter.”

An American-Statesman story, dated Jan. 8, 1950, describes the complex when it was new.

“There is a lot to be inspected,” reporter Morris Williams wrote, “Nearly half a million dollars worth, include the golf course that authorities have proclaimed one of the best in the Southwest. The plant includes the two-level clubhouse, a fine swimming pool, two tennis courts, a caretaker’s cottage, a three-quarter acre parking lot, two private roads leading to Riverside Drive and McCarty Lane entrances. The parking area and roads are to be paved as weather permits.”

It became clear by the late 1970s, however, that these club facilities were too small and dated to pull in the growing golfing classes who, anyway, were mostly moving north and west of Central Austin. Developers of Davenport Ranch figured that the country club, with its $4.8 million course, could be a main attraction for their subdivision.

Some old-timers were not tempted to renew their memberships.

“Most of us who are not moving are older guys,” lawyer Bill Pittenger told American-Statesman reporter Mark Rosner in 1984. “We had a good club, almost debt-free during a bad economic time. The younger affluent people wanted a club on the west side where most of them lived. … But it’s not sour grapes. The club will be a success. Austin’s a metropolitan area, and it can support a silk stocking club.”

Crenshaw recalls that the vote was nearly split.

“A lot wanted to stay there; a lot wanted to move,” Crenshaw says. “The lake site was where a lot of people were moving to, popular and growing. I can understand why they did it.”

Champion golfers are not the only ones who still admire the old course.

One recent weekend, Duran, who works for AMD by day, gave me a tour of the area, including the overgrown verges of Country Club Creek. Duran had begun her research the right way by asking Austinites who remembered the course’s former glory. They told her that the pro shop, the putting green and some holes are the same.

“I thought the main buildings must have been torn down,” she says, “as the pro shop is quite small.”

Undaunted, Duran carefully examined archival photos and scoured the Internet for a copy of “One Hundred Years of Champions and Change,” a tribute book published in 1999 for the Austin Country Club’s 100th anniversary.

That led her to a boxy ACC service building behind the pro shop that looked suspiciously like the surviving images of the 1950 clubhouse. Duran noted window patterns, outdoor tiles and other features that convinced her that this 26,000-square-foot place once served as a bright social center for Austin’s golfing community.

Her suspicions were confirmed by Neal Douglass photographs archived by the Austin History Center.

Another mystery: Why did the country club move in 1984? Although Duran thinks the club’s leaders were motivated by business impulses, it’s possible something less benign played a part in the decision to transfer northwest.

“I met someone once who was a member when the country club was on Riverside, and she said they moved to Davenport Ranch because the demographics had changed on Riverside,” Duran says. “Some of the members didn’t like driving through the area to go to the country club.”

Periodically, somebody will suggest that ACC sell or redevelop the greenscapes around its Riverside Campus, which sits next to the partially preserved clubhouse.

“While there are no plans to make any changes at this time, the board of trustees is focused on making decisions that best support the college’s mission and does occasionally discuss options,” says ACC spokeswoman Brette Lea. “The college’s top priority for the Riverside Campus is to make important improvements to existing buildings for health, safety and accessibility.”

That is a relief for golfers. Crenshaw notes that a lot of urban golf courses, no matter their histories, are hanging on for dear life.

“It’s gorgeous piece of land,” he says with a sigh. “Absolutely beautiful. And it’s where I met Tom Kite when he came to town at age 12. It binded us together.”

Kite agrees.

“Those of us who grew up on the course are proud of it,” he says. “At least it didn’t go away. While I hate to see it’s not totally intact, at least a lot of the golf course is the same. It’s part of Old Austin’s history. It’s a huge part of our golf.”

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