48 hours along the Texas Coast

jason_stone

Here’s another archived article from Austin Golf that ran in the October 2004 issue.  Another crowd favorite.  Enjoy.

The sun was setting over Port Aransas, Mustang Island, Aransas and Corpus Christi bays and the great state of Texas itsownself. I was on a Thursday night gambling cruise, the Texas Treasure, sitting on the steps of an empty pool once used back in the days of The Love Boat.  I was totally embraced in the solitude of the moment — contemplating my golf game, gambling savvy, butter beans, the existence of the Corn Palace and the uncertain future.  The frenzy of our testosterone-laced, down and dirty golf/fish trip had reached its zenith.  The fishing was over.  The golf balls were lost.  The booze bottles were dry.

“Yoh attencione pleece.  Di cahseeno wi opan in feefteen meenoots.  Gracias.”

It was fate that had brought us here.  Our loving wives (*Clotho, Lechesis, and Atropos) had somehow, someway each coordinated separate “Mom trips” that left us all alone as bachelors for a few days.  Solicitous men left at home with nothing to do. The usual amount of half-ass planning occurred, primarily just to get us in the mood.  But in general, we embraced the benefits of a lack of planning.

Typical pre-trip email exchanges displayed the camaraderie of a locker room. A sample: Stone might want his own room so he can watch porn.  Golf, fishing, and traveling in Texas embrace the Zen-like notion that the journey itself, rather than the destination, is the thing, so we settled on Corpus as a starting point and wisely chose to leave the rest to fate.  The question was how much we could cram into 48 hours.

The plane ride from Dallas ran through Houston and offered an extra hour to contemplate the days ahead.  It would be good to be with the fellas again.  It hit me that the fun of travel is the people.  Not only the folks you’re with, but the characters you meet.

Pre-trip discussions made Corpus our main point of focus, but ironically we quickly passed on the “Sparkling City by the Sea” as soon as we left the airport and headed out.  It may have been the dog track that started the diversion.  There’s something about thoughts of wagering hard-earned money on lightning-fast greyhounds that’s distracting.  But the kicker was the subtle billboard we barely noticed that advertised the pleasures of the “Texas Treasure.”

texastreasureOur man in shotgun noticed it in his subconscious.  TEXAS TREASURE.  But it didn’t register until his dark side slapped him with a reminder that there were dollar signs on the ad.

“Wait.  Did I just see a sign for a gambling cruise?”

“Where is it?  What did it say,” I blurted excitedly.  “Call information!”

And so it was decided, and our plans came together.  The Texas Treasure left every evening from Port Aransas.  Why stay in Corpus if tomorrow’s fishing charter also left from Port A?

Then in the form of another windblown billboard, destiny showed her powerful hand again.

Northshore Country Club. Best Bayfront Golf Experience in South Texas. Daily Fee Play Welcome! $45.  Tues.-Thurs.  Exit Northshore Blvd.

Perfect.  Hadn’t someone said Northshore had a famous stretch of holes on the back nine set against the backdrop of the bay?  In the 11 miles it took to cross the causeway bridge from Corpus, we’d spurned Corpus and determined the fate of the next 48 hours.   We’d launch our trip in the suburb of Portland on a golf course overlooking Corpus Christi Bay.  Elevation 21.

northshoreccNorthshore’s route offered everything an inland guy could expect from a Gulf Coast golf course.  The strong smell of saltwater hovered in the sweltering summer heat, a heat and humidity that might’ve been unbearable if not for the cooling gale force winds blowing in off the ocean.  On this day we’d play like the Scots on the fabled links of golf’s ancestry and face the Gulf winds like men.  Men like Steve Broughton, who as fate would have it, cruised up to the first tee as our threesome was about to swing away.

Four hours later we’d reflect upon how fortunate we were to experience Northshore with someone who could impart his course knowledge into our heads.  In the meantime, we’d enjoy a very difficult and impressive golf course with one helluva nice guy and playing partner. The course was not particularly long (6,805 yards), and there are not many trees, but with winds pushing 20 knots and a design loaded with bunkers, water hazards, sidehill lies and several blind tee shots, it was not an easy course.

“It’s a real, not easy course,” drawled Broughton, an Odessa native and further proof that the world’s most genuine folk come from the oil fields of West Texas.  “Have fun. You’re enjoying the privilege of playing this course at its toughest.” His comment sparked conversations of a Hogan Tour event in the nineties where the wind blew so hard, the final round leader shot 80 on Sunday and still won.

The famous stretch on the back nine (holes 13-16) was equivalent to playing a resort course in Hawaii. It starts with the signature par-3 13th, which plays from a spectacular tee over an inlet of the bay down to a massive green cuddled up against the sand and surf. The wind wailed and the ocean sprayed while we putted. 14 and 15 play along the bay.  We all nailed our tee shots left on the 531-yard 14th to the tiny little landing area, then avoided the cliffs that loomed right for our 2nd. The stretch continued with the 352-yard 15th that doglegs hard right and plays over an inlet just past the turn. The green here isn’t an inviting target. It’s tiny, elevated and surrounded by waste areas and a bunker.  16 was gnarly as well, a long par-3 into a deep green guarded by the Gulf and more bunkers.

The combination of Broughton’s good company and the outstanding golf course ensured a good time was had by all, and Broughton even gave us the number for his son-in-law Mike Bohn, a fishing guide in Rockport.  Everything had been perfect until I realized I’d lost my much-needed polarized sunglasses, but even that mistake added value to the road trip.

While retrieving my shades from the cart barn, I overheard casual cart jockey conversation, which sparked a wildfire of intrigue and mystery for our crew.

“I’m tellin’ you man, it ain’t that nice from the outside, but once you step foot in the Corn Palace, you’ll leave there hornier than a four-peckered billy goat!”

A simple, but intriguing term: Corn Palace.  Could it be real?  A little research revealed some evidence  of hearsay about a double-wide trailered “gentlemen’s club” somewhere nearby, just off the road, set in the middle of a corn field.

So there was plenty to discuss on the way to Port Aransas, a laid-back resort and fishing community on Mustang Island, 24 miles northeast of Corpus. Unlike South Padre, with its high-rise condos and sometimes overwhelming crowds, Port A has faded wood beach houses, quaint shops, countless condos, bed and breakfasts, beach-side rentals, and unique lodging reminiscent of the old days.

We reluctantly passed on the vintage Tarpon Inn, a newly remodeled hotel with a history dating back to 1886 when it served as a secret retreat for Franklin D. Roosevelt, and settled for the more affordable $59 walk-in special at the clean-looking Alistair Inn.  Good fortune struck again, as they were out of rooms, but checked us into their sister hotel down the road.

“It’s across the road from Sharkey’s,” mentioned the clerk as she smiled professionally.  “It’s the place to be for nightlife in Port A.”

Nice.

We were in a unique phase of the trip to which seasoned travelers are accustomed, but requires focus for beginners.  Take care of the basic business of setting up shop quickly, and get on with the fun. It was hard not to bullshit in the offices of Texas Charter Fleet & Yacht Brokers, the shop at the end of the Marina Market that arranged our next day’s fish trip.

After signing the paperwork and covering the tab, we naturally discussed the fishing and inquired about the night life, “Have you guys heard of a place called the Corn Palace?”

Quizzical looks ensued followed by slight smirks, and as one of them was about to answer, another guide walked in and interrupted the dialogue.  He was a little hillbilly scraggly with a ponytail.

“You shoulda hooked me up with them boys, I coulda showed em’ a little about flounder giggin,” he reflected to the others with a special emphasis on the “giggin.”

“Really?”

“Hell yeah.  When the weather gets cold, ain’t nothin’ better than headin’ out to the bays at night for flounder.  Some of them suckers git this big,” as he spread his arms wide in a big circle, reminding me of Hoagy Carmichael’s forgotten tune “Huggin and a Chalkin.”

I got a gal who’s mighty sweet
Big blue eyes and tiny feet
Her name is Rosabelle Magee
And she tips the scales at three-oh-three

Oh, gee, but ain’t it grand to have a gal so big and fat
That when you go to hug her, you don’t know where you’re at
You have to take a piece of chalk in your hand
And hug a ways and chalk a mark to see where you began

One day I was a-huggin’ and a-chalkin’ and a-chalkin’ and a-huggin’ away
When I met another fella with some chalk in his hand
A-comin’ around the other way over the mountain

A-comin’ around the other way

Nobody ever said I’m weak
My bones don’t ache, my joints don’t creak
But I grow pale and I get limp
Every time I see my baby blimp

Oh, gee, but ain’t it grand to have a gal so big and fat
That when you go to hug her
(You don’t know where you’re at)
(You have to take a piece of chalk in your hand)
(And hug a bit and chalk a mark to see where you began)

One day I was a-huggin’ and a-chalkin’ and a-beggin’ her to be my bride
When I met another fella with some chalk in his hand
A-comin’ around the other side (over the mountain)
A-comin’ around the other side

She’s a mile wide!
(Chalkin’ up a markdown and yellin’ “No More!”)
When I met another fella with some chalk in his hand
A-comin’ around the other side (over the mountain)
Over the Great Divide!!

Yet it was time to move on, and despite the allure of the Back Porch Bar with its deck overlooking the wharf, we were hungry for more golf.  This time in Rockport.

ferryoperatorThe ferry ride offered the chance to wind down a bit.  Check voicemail messages, call home, discuss possible locations of the Corn Palace and such.  Mid-week is void of tourists and offered the chance to see locals in action — a precursor to the evening meal at Sharkey’s, where the locals would have more of a profound impact than at any other point of the trip.

Soon we were northbound again on Texas 35.

Magically, wind-blown, saltwater stained coastal live oak trees appeared out of nowhere just outside of Rockport, a fishing village that dates back to the Civil War era where it was established as a shipping point and slaughterhouse town.  Along with neighboring Fulton, the area sports a laid-back demeanor characterized by seafood vendors, wooden fishing piers, shops, restaurants and art galleries that boast the works of the largest per-capita artist’s colony in the state.

We had an hour’s worth of daylight left, barely enough for nine holes, but it was the kind of light that makes for surreal golf environs, and the perfect introduction to Rockport Country Club.

rockport2It was stunning — in Tour quality condition and a great route.  We thought we’d been plopped down in the middle of one of Barton Creek’s decorated oak-lined tracks.  There was no question that we’d be back for more tomorrow.  It ended too soon, and before we knew it the sun had set, and we were parked on the ferry again back to Port A, ready for a little food and local atmosphere.

A nondescript brick and wood building that rests about 100 yards off the road with a huge gravel parking lot, Sharkey’s balances a cozy beer joint-pool hall demeanor with the potential of a wild weekend tourist party palace. We caught the former on a slow Wednesday night, void of tourists and buzzing with locals.  A 300-pound, former 2-technique greeted us at the bar, smiling and joking with his drinking buddy, a smallish, inebriated man approaching 60 whose stylish Judge Smails hat topped off his beach wardrobe of short shorts, sandals, and Hawaiian shirt.

“Wheres … (hiccup) …  aresyou schflishing tomorra?”, he slurred.

“The bays,” we replied.

He shot beer out of his nose and laughed.  “The bays?  Yous needs to be offschlore.” This was a point we’d
appreciate in 10 hours.

Skynyrd, neon, and a not unpleasant haze of smoke filled the air.  Old fish mounts, photos, and general bar shit hung from the walls.  Two pool tables lingered left of the bar. Bikers, fishing guides, post-revival attendees and two local families with young kids
bantered about.

“JUNIOR!  GIT … OVERRRR … HEEEEEERE!”, yelled a washed out fortyish chain smoking “Mom.”  Apparently she was pissed that her 3-year old couldn’t hold up at the 11 o’clock hour while she drank and enjoyed her night out with stepdad, brothers, sisters, and cousins.  Daddy was playing pool by-God, and the pizza would be there in a minute.

“SWEET … HOME … PORT ARANSAS,” sang the big boy at the bar as a few more smiled and joined in with the Skynyrd classic. “Where the skies are so blue.”

We ordered bourbons, beers and burgers, and while we waited we stepped downstairs for a tour of Sharkey’s enormous back party area.  Bars lined the walls and surrounded more pool tables, a stage, dance floor, and tables for hundreds.  Tonight the only occupant of this weekend fiesta oasis was a barmaid taking a smoke break, shaking semi-controllably because of an apparent imbalance of pills, hard liquor and bad luck.

“Hi boys!  What are y’all doin?”

“What are you doing?” I retorted as my buddies quickly escaped back upstairs. She graveled and mumbled quickly, her dialogue interrupted by a rattled cough.  “Oh, passing the time on a slow night.  I’m not from here, but I promised myself I’d live on the beach so here I am.  I’m taking classes. The oldest college student in school.  Did you know I inherited $300,000 in the 1980s. The government took a lot, I pissed the rest away, and here I am.  So that’s why I’m going to school again.”

“That’s nice,” I feigned as I slowly backed away and looked for the cover of the main bar.

We sat down with Jimmy Buffet playing, and it was time to dig into a big-ass Sharkey’s burger, hand-delivered by the big, kind biker cook, who was proud of his work.  He should’ve been.

A young twenty-something couple walked in.  Every head turned.  The female was the first sign of appealing female flesh the bar had seen.  Male conversations ensued, and more characters rolled in as the clock approached midnight.

Eavesdropping on the adjacent table, we overheard two truckers on a sabbatical from a friendly game of bar pool. “Man, I got done and went to the pisser, and a gawldang butter bean fell out.” We looked at each other in mid-burger bite and decided not to press.

Corn Palace.  Butter Beans.  Our wives and kids at home would be so proud. As thirty-something white guys who’d quit visiting fine establishments such as this years ago, we were intoxicated by the atmosphere.  At least we could walk to our rooms across the highway for some sleep.

Like a true fisherman, I slept restlessly, dreaming of reds and specks, and excited about the afternoon’s golf and the evening’s Gulf Coast gambling cruise.

buddycokerThat morning we were a little ahead of schedule.  We milled around The Wharf before sunrise with hot Circle K coffee, listening to fishing guides and watching sleepy tourists waiting on their charters. We knew our guide’s name, Captain Buddy Coker.

I didn’t have to look at the name embroidered on his shirt to know it was him.  A solid man in his fifties with kind eyes and crow’s feet only a golfer and a fisherman can develop.

We exchanged pleasantries, shot the sh*t about golf and discussed the fishing plans for the day.

We fished for speckled trout with live bait first, throwing “piggy perch” to no avail. Next we persistently pursued reds, cruising the bay and trying hole after hole with more piggies and cut bait.  But it wasn’t our day, despite the diligent efforts of Capt. Coker.  The winds were relentless, cloudying the water and making the conditions extremely difficult. All we mustered were a couple of hardheads.  Coker worked the radio for other guides who confirmed the difficult conditions and lack of luck.  Fish-wise, the most excitement occurred when we pulled aside one of Coker’s comrades, another guide who’d put a client into a serious one-on-one battle with a big bull red.  After 15 minutes with his rod doubled over, the line snapped and the redfish hauled ass.

But despite the fact that we didn’t catch any fish, we couldn’t have asked for a better guide.  Coker, a retired Air Force Colonel and former pilot for Continental, is also an accomplished amateur golfer.  A strong, athletic man, personable, patient, and professional. We passed the time talking golf, fishing, and listening to him tell stories.  On September 11, 2001, Coker had  just landed at Washington DC International Airport from an overnight flight and was about to go to sleep in his hotel next to the Pentagon when the plane hit.  His son is an Air Force Thunderbird.  Last weekend, he shot 75-69 to win a tournament at Delaware Springs. Last month, he had a client on a 12-foot bull shark.

It was refreshing to have the opportunity to spend time with a fine American like Buddy Coker.  And there’s something to be said about a fishing guide who’s more than a fishing guide.  Anyone can have fun catching fish, but on a day where the elusive speckled trout are more elusive than trout, it’s important to have something else to talk about.

At 11:30am, we flipped the proverbial coin and made the tough decision to call it a day and head to Rockport for more golf.  We’d never seen a fishing guide work so hard to get a client to the fish, so we invited our captain to join us at Rockport CC.  Buddy Coker may be a decorated pilot, a fine fishing guide and a good man, but golf is his passion.

“Ohhh, I’ve got to clean the boat up and you boys don’t have time to wait, trying to make the gambling boat and all this evening.” But you could see it in his eyes – the true golfman running through every scenario of how he might possibly pull off a surprise round of golf at a course he’d never played.  He downplayed it, but I had a hunch he’d do his damndest to make the round.

Our quest to enjoy RCC for a full 18 holes was mired in clusterphucked confusion. We were trying to fit too much in, and like true pigs, the real priority was the Texas Treasure.  No matter what happens, at all costs, get to the boat by 6:15. We needed our clubs and clothes from the hotel. We needed gas. We needed to eat.  We needed cash for the casino that night.   We had to cross the ferry.  The plan was to shower at the course and avoid having to cross the ferry again that evening, but the time we saved with that strategic move was lost in lollygag. We stumbled into the course around 2:30, yet still dicked around enough to postpone the first shot by another 20 minutes.  But it was all worth it.

rockport1A 1984 Bill Coore design (some say his first), with a little Jimmy Demaret influence, RCC is a top 25 Texas course hands-down.  And while it’s technically private, their policy is to reciprocate with other clubs and work with groups who’ve come to play.

The route rolls 6,500 yards from the tips through slight hills, dunes, and loads of bunkers—even one that stretches an impressive 400 yards.  Thousands of beautiful oaks litter the course, and water protects 12 holes. The fairways are mostly slim and the dogleg holes are short, requiring precise shot-making, but the course’s signature are its phenomenal greens.

The best hole might be the 14th, a 550-yard+ eye-opener that one of us reached in two with a 3-iron.  But there are plenty of signatures at RCC.  Coker caught up with us in the 4th fairway, quickly displaying his strong game by dropping a ball and sticking a 9-iron to two feet, ten seconds after he got out of the cart.

When the clock struck 5:30, we’d finished 16 and it was time to roll.  In our haste, we passed on the chance to get to know more about the charms of this  famous coastal hideaway for wealthy Texans since the 1880s, when trains brought vacationers from Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio.  We could’ve taken another shot at the reds and specks again, delving into the over 20,000 acres of flats, bays and marshes.  We could’ve cultured ourselves by browsing art galleries.  We could’ve at least paid our respects to the fishermen and ranchers who’d stamped Live Oak Peninsula with their own enduring, salty character by having a meal at an institution like Kline’s – a popular restaurant where anglers and guides gather for predawn breakfasts strategy sessions and cold beers, seafood, steaks, and Mexican food in the evenings.

But there’d be another time for all of that, because it was now our time to experience the Las Vegas of the Gulf Coast.

Maybe 100 cars filled the lot, and the characters filing into the casino to pay their $15 for the food, drink, and wagering fit the profiles of avid riverboat gamblers.  BudGirls greeted us and pointed the way to the buffet, where we ate light to stay sharp and soaked in the scene.  Cocktails on the deck helped the mood and killed a little more of the 55 minute delay from departure to gambling time.  I wandered to the back of the boat to think and watch the crowd mingle about.

Sometimes, the people make the trip.  No matter where you go, what you do, or how it all shakes out; whether it’s the good company of your buddies, beautiful women at the airport, a macho fishing guide with no fish but a story to tell, the playing partners in your foursome, or strung out souls at a local bar, seeing the characters of the world is what’s special.

“Yoh attencione pleece. Di cahseeno wi opan in figh meenoots.  Gracias.”

I wanted to gamble but I was too caught up in the Zen of the moment, my mind racing.  The sunset blaring every shade of orange. The relentless power of the wind found only in open water.  The blue waters of the deep Gulf.  The sound of the boat crashing through the waves. The Corn Palace. My wife and boys at home, and how blessed I was.  The powerful realization of how many little things I ultimately had no control over had determined my fate on this trip and in life.

We’d set out to experience Corpus and play golf at Padre Isles, Oso Beach and Pharoah’s, but some supposed force had taken us elsewhere. I didn’t know it at the time but that same $15 ticket that got me onto the boat would garner $1200 in winnings, the result of a twenty-minute run on the craps table and an improbable blackjack on both of the two hands I had maxed on the casino-mandated “final hand of the night.”

For only 48 hours along the Texas coast, what a long strange trip it had been.

-stone

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