With its Tillinghast golf course lovingly restored and a management team and membership that embraces its storied history, the San Antonio club is ready to reassert its role and place as it turns 100, while also taking important new steps that reflect the changing times.
When it comes to having a passionate and devoted following, A. W. Tillinghast doesn’t take a back seat to any golf course architect. This was once again confirmed to Ryan Polzin, PGA, the Head Golf Professional at Oak Hills Country Club in San Antonio, Texas, after Oak Hills had some new logo’d “Tilly” caps made up to sell in its pro shop, and Polzin quickly heard from other club pros and individuals from around the country who had gotten wind of their availability and wanted to buy them.
Many of the courses that Tillinghast is best known for are in the Northeast U.S. (Winged Foot, Baltusrol, Bethpage, Philadelphia Cricket Club), but in his prolific career he actually left his distinctive mark on over 265 courses in 36 states and two Canadian provinces—including the course at Oak Hills, when it was founded in 1922 as Alamo Country Club.
Alamo, like many clubs, encountered operating difficulties during the Great Depression and was closed for several years before it reopened as Oak Hills in 1946. Having a Tillinghast course provided a foundation that helped the club quickly reestablish itself-—not only on the national golf scene (its resume as a tournament site includes hosting 23 PGA Texas Opens and five AT&T Championships, and Jimmy Walker, who won the 2016 PGA Championship when it was held at Baltusrol, is an Oak Hills member)—but also as a highly in-demand place to join and play. Membership swelled to 750 in the 1980s, and over 40,000 rounds were being played annually on the golf course.
But then another period developed where Oak Hills once again found itself facing changing economic and social conditions that, while not on the scale of the Great Depression, still posed significant challenges for the club’s long-term future. Concern reached the point where a small ad hoc “Friends of Oak Hills” group was formed, to discuss how new plans for the club’s direction could be developed and implemented.
“There was serious concern about the declines we had seen in membership, and also about the outlook for being able to keep the golf course and club facilities up to the standards that our legacy called for,” says Clint Glenny, Oak Hills’ current President, who was part of the group. “We wanted to find a way to get things in motion to bring the club back to what it had been and should once again always be, so it will be here in the same way for our grandchildren.”
While golf course renovation projects had been carried out previously through the years at Oak Hills, Glenny notes, they were “not Tillinghast enough” to satisfy those who saw the club’s connection to the architect as its biggest distinction and draw.
“[The Friends of Oak Hills group] saw our most important priority, and our duty, as one of making sure to preserve the design and integrity” of what Tillinghast created, Glenny says. “How could we do that? It would only take money and a willingness to take a risk. So we went to the Board to outline what we wanted done and progressed from there, to raise the funds we would need from private lenders and other sources.”
One of those sources would be the sale of nine acres at one edge of the Oak Hills property that had been the site of the club’s original driving range. That helped to set in motion an investment of over $12 million that included $6.5 million for a golf course restoration, led by Tripp Davis, that included a regrassing of tees, fairways and rough from Bermudagrass to zoysiagrass varieties, and a regrassing of greens to G12 Bermudagrass, in addition to irrigation and drainage enhancements and subtle redesigns of greens, bunkers and tees that restored them to Tillinghast’s design tendencies. Another $5.5 million was spent on improvements and enhancements to Oak Hills’ classic clubhouse and other facilities.
A Renewed Sense of Purpose
All of the reinvestment that has been made in physical improvements at Oak Hills over the last few years has coincided with a restating of its mission, and a redefining of its position in the changing club business, that has been seen as equally critical to its future success. Roy Jones and Don Nelson, who were also part of the “Friends” group and who collectively have over 90 years of membership in the club, note that San Antonio has undergone explosive growth in recent years that has directly affected Oak Hills. The club property is now surrounded by busy commercial and residential activity (making it easy to sell the nine acres, which is already occupied by new condominiums). And with that has come a host of new club options in the area.
“There’s a lot more competition now [for membership] from country clubs that are part of developments,” notes Jones. “With our incredible core of so many single-digit and zero-handicap golfers, and with the incredible golf course and history that we have, we saw that we needed to go back to having a more exclusive focus on golf, and really emphasizing that as what sets us apart.”
Even with all its growth, Nelson adds, San Antonio still has only two private, member-owned clubs—and the other, San Antonio Country Club has a much larger membership and has taken on a much broader social and activity profile (“Keeping the Spirit Alive at San Antonio CC,” C+RB, May 2015). Oak Hills has also launched a national membership program to try to further distinguish what it offers.
Fortuitously, selling the space where the old driving range had been located literally helped Oak Hills put its new focus front and center, with the creation of a new practice area that is centrally located within the golf course (see photo, pg. 23). The redefining of Oak Hills’ mission was also reflected in new management changes, most notably the return of Cary Collins, PGA, to be Director of Golf and Club Operations. Collins’ current position marks his third turn at Oak Hills, after being an Assistant Professional in the 1980s and then Head Professional for five years at the start of the 2000s. Polzin’s hiring in 2018 as Head Professional, after 11 years at Royal Oaks CC in Houston, also marked a homecoming and another nod to the club’s golf history, as he learned to play at Oak Hills while growing up at San Antonio and using his family’s membership.
The latest addition to the management team, Director of Agronomy Jeff Visser, also reflects the reinforced sense of importance that’s now being assigned to golf at Oak Hills and the course on which it’s played. Visser came this past May from Florida’s Seminole Golf Club, where he was part of the team entrusted with the care of the Donald Ross course that is consistently ranked among the U.S.’s best.
And as one more indication of how seriously preserving the club’s Tillinghast legacy is now being taken, Visser and other managers do not work now with a Greens Committee, but rather a Design and Intent Committee.
A New Definition
Oak Hills is also taking steps—or not taking them—that demonstrate its understanding of what wanting to be known as a “golf club” means in today’s club environment. Changing the club’s name to reflect its renewed purpose is not anticipated, Collins says.
And in step with how its clubhouse project brought dining options up to date with the creation of venues that include a new adult pub/bar, an upscale casual Mixed Grille and expanded patio dining, Oak Hills rolled out new menus this fall through a unique collaborative initiative between Paul Weir, a member who operates successful Longhorn Cafe restaurants in the San Antonio area; Justin Ward, an instructor at the San Antonio campus of the Culinary Institute of America; and the leaders of Oak Hills’ culinary team, Food and Beverage Director Steven Todd and Executive Chef Upton Dennie. Dennie’s popular Jamaican specialties will be incorporated as special features that can further distinguish the new Oak Hills menus.
The F&B “reinvention” at Oak Hills also includes taking a very high road—Todd, a second-level sommelier who brought restaurant and wine-distributor experience when taking his first position in the club business at Oak Hills this past May, is also developing programs and special events for a new wine room (see photo at left) that includes an expanded wine library.
Tennis also remains a strong and growing part of Oak Hills’ activity mix, with Head Tennis Pro Rudy Obregon now also leading the club into pickleball.
Refocusing all that the club offers within a more exclusive environment does require some belt-tightening, too, and the club had success this year going to a code-access system at its pool, with users signing waivers, so it could reduce staff while still providing the amenity. “Basically, we’re focusing on finding common-sense solutions that don’t detract from the member experience,” says Collins.
That common-sense approach also has the Oak Hills team confident that it is on the road to new success, but aware that spending $12-plus million is only the start of the journey. “Come back in four or five years, and you’ll really have a story,” says Collins. And one that is sure to still have “Tilly” as its main character.
At A Glance: Oak Hills CC
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Founded: 1922 (as Alamo Country Club)
Golf Course Design: A. W. Tillinghast (Tripp Davis renovation and restoration, 2017)
Annual Golf Rounds: 14,000
Director of Golf & Club Operations: Cary Collins, PGA
Head Golf Professional: Ryan Polziin, PGA
Director of Agronomy: Jeff Visser
Food and Beverage Director: Steven Todd
Executive Chef: Upton Dennie
Tennis Professional: Rudy Obregon
Membership & Events Director: Rita Schuenemann
Comptroller: Henry Rivera