May 14, 2014

Historic Austin Golf Course Renovating After October Floods

Grounds crews work on the damaged second hole green of the Onion Creek Country Club that sits along the banks of Onion Creek and was flooded as one of the lowest areas of the course. In this picture the flood waters were above the tree line in the background. The historic floods of Halloween 2013 have left a crippling effect on Onion Creek Country Club in south Austin. The club is currently repairing and renovating several holes that were damaged and remain closed until late fall. The private club hosted the general public to a discounted round of golf Monday, April 21, and a complimentary lunch in hopes of increasing membership. Photo by Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman.

Grounds crews work on the damaged second hole green of the Onion Creek Country Club that sits along the banks of Onion Creek. The course was flooded on Halloween 2013. The water rose above the tree line in the background and damaged this area, one of the lowest of the course. The club is repairing and renovating several holes that were damaged. The holes will remain closed until late fall. Photo by Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman.

By Eleanor Holmes and Brittany Lamas
For Reporting Texas and the Austin American-Statesman

Onion Creek Club, the historic golf course ravaged six months ago by a catastrophic flood, will return this summer in its original form.

Club officials announced in April their plans to restore the entire 27-hole course in South Austin, a project that includes rebuilding the 40-year-old holes swallowed by the October flood and planting new grass on every green. The work assures the survival of the golf home of the Champions Tour, created out of a tournament that began at Onion Creek in 1978.

The club plans to open the original front-nine holes in July, said Onion Creek general manager Justin Jafarian. Seven of those cypress-lined holes along the creek were nearly destroyed by the 100-year flood that caused more than $7 million in damage to the course and maintenance equipment.

Club officials debated what to do when they saw the scale of the destruction. Some members wondered if the club would commit to repairing the front-nine holes along the creek. Jafarian said the club weighed the risks of another damaging flood but decided to rebuild.

Peter Contreras, a member of Onion Creek and an assistant athletic director for the University Interscholastic League, said the character of the club resides in those original golf holes.

“I believe the lure of that place is the history and the tradition,” Contreras said.

Shortly before dawn on Oct. 31, 2013, rains pushed Onion Creek to 40 feet above normal stage. The swiftly moving water tore turf from the golf club’s putting surfaces, destroyed bunkers and ripped trees from the ground, including the only one next to the sixth green. Fourteen of the course’s 27 holes were submerged.

Plenty of work remains. Uprooted tree trunks rest in the grass next to cart paths. Dumpsters and Caterpillar equipment sit on the course. A tire hangs on a tree branch above the creek along No. 16.

But crews have cleared most of the debris, which included brush, rocks, trash, lawn chairs, a toilet seat and an old photograph from a military funeral. Two weeks ago, Onion Creek acted as the host course for the UIL Class 5A golf championships.

The only golf course designed by three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret, Onion Creek opened in 1974. For 12 years, the course served as the host of the Legends of Golf, a tournament for retired PGA Tour players such as Demaret, Jack Burke Jr., Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. The event led to the creation of the Champions Tour.

After opening the original front-nine holes this summer, the club will work on the nine newer greens designed by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore. The original back nine will be completed last, Jafarian said. The club hopes to have all 27 holes finished by October, a year after the flood. The work also includes restoring bunkers.

The club plans to plant a new grass, TifEagle Bermuda, on the putting surfaces. TifEagle can be mowed lower to increase putting speeds and is used at world-renowned golf courses such as PGA National in Florida, Kapalua Plantation in Hawaii and the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.

Most of the project can be completed in-house by Onion Creek or its parent company, Dominion Golf Group of San Antonio, Jafarian said.

The club also launched a membership campaign to coincide with the restoration. Onion Creek hopes to reach 500 golf members by the end of May, which would help offset the $1 million cost of the work on the greens and bunkers. Membership had grown from 400 before the campaign to 492 as of Tuesday, Jafarian said.

“Even though this was devastating and it had a significant impact on business, we’re excited that members have supported us and the community has supported us,” Jafarian said, “and we are able to turn this into something positive.”