You can stroll down a dusty track and stand on the first tee box at Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course, where golfers fired drives on the same strip that 19th-century soldiers exchanged cannon fire.
The view is a bit different these days though. Weeds and shoulder-high grass grow unimpeded on the once-pristine fairways. To your left is a fence designed to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States, manned by patrol agents.
It remains to be seen whether President Trump will be successful in delivering on his campaign promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but such a barrier has already made this historic golf course in Texas’ deepest south unworkable and doomed.
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The imposing 18-foot fence, built as part of the Secure Fence Act passed in 2006, is made of iron columns. It is situated within the U.S. and near the border that runs along the Rio Grande. The golf course is stuck between the two.
“I had a business, the community had a place people could meet and socialize and enjoy life, and golf had an affordable spot,” Bob Lucio, the course’s former owner, told USA TODAY Sports as he walked along an overgrown path and remembered what once was. “Now it is like it never even existed.”
It did exist for more than 50 years but was stuck in what is quite literally a no man’s land for nearly a decade before going out of business in 2015.
The fence couldn’t be built in the middle of the Rio Grande, and Mexico had no reason to take it on its side the border. Lucio’s property butted up against the river. If there was going to be a fence, his course was going to end up behind it. And that’s exactly what happened.
“The government did what they did — they forced it on everybody,” Lucio said. “In 2009 they actually started building the fence. It hurt our business right away. We slowly started to lose our membership.
“People would say, ‘We don’t know what they are going to do with the fence.’ I don’t blame them for that. I wouldn’t want to pay for advance (membership) for maybe a place where you may not have access to it.”
Fort Brown was taken over by Lucio in 1987. The site was a cut-price alternative to the nearby country club set. High school teams played there. Locals remember it as a deceptive challenge. Lucio upgraded, put in a new clubhouse and spent hundreds of thousands in renovations.
But when the fence came in, it was a deterrent. Patrons had to drive through a gap in the fence to reach the clubhouse, and when they did, in 2011 at least, they could sometimes hear gunfire from a drug cartel turf war raging on the Matamoros side.
“I didn’t know what war sounded like. I never went to war,” former member Bob Prepejchal said, remembering a wild Thursday afternoon when a peaceful round was interrupted by sounds of carnage. “When the (Mexican military) helicopters (were) flying and hovering over and let go of these rockets, it was unbelievable what it sounded like. Then there are those electronic Gatling guns … they were just raining down shells like crazy, and it went on for a while.”
Typically, when shots were fired, American border agents collected not near the actual border but at the fence line. As far as Lucio and most of the course visitors were concerned, that was a clear indication that if you played at Fort Brown, the government considered you to be inside the U.S. but outside of its protection.
Insurance premiums skyrocketed. And people just stopped coming. By the end of 2015, Lucio had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
Much of the golf business in this area has always come from “Winter Texans,” visitors from chillier climes who would come chasing reasonably priced rounds and warmer weather. For the most part, they wanted no part of Fort Brown once the difficulties kicked in.
“It is pretty sad,” said Celso Medina, who runs Golf Headquarters, an impressive golf store in Brownsville. “It’s a personal thing, (it was) one of my favorite golf courses. That’s where I really learned to play the game actually.
“(It was) very affordable mostly for the average person that couldn’t afford to play at a country club. It really hurt.”
Lucio gets emotional when he sees the site now. Like Medina and Prepejchal, he remembers fun nights with the guys, when dozens of players would sit and barbecue and knock back beers hours after darkness called a halt to play.
No longer. It has taken just a few years for derelict course equipment to get swallowed by nature. A large pond that once needed to be avoided by players is now dry, with the balls of so many errant shots wedged in the dried mud.
Lucio tried to disguise the fence by putting up a course sign on it, tried to make it look like an entrance and not a stark reminder of political divisions. Perception is king, though, and it didn’t have much impact.
Yet here is the puzzling thing about the course and the border and just the odd nature of the U.S. and its interactions with Mexico. You can easily get onto the course from Mexico by crossing the river. The river is less than 50 feet across in some spots, and the water is usually slow moving.
The fence is there, but there is a gap in it you can drive through. At times the border agents are there, at others they are not, either patrolling the scrubland or just off duty. At those unattended moments, anyone can just walk through and be on the streets of Brownsville within a minute or so.
As Bob Lucio moves through it, he first takes a look back, then across to the fence. He gives a deep sigh and a small shake of his head.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t. I have lived here all my life, and we used to celebrate our joint history with Mexico. When I put my time into the course, it was because I thought I’d be here forever.”
He moves away sadly, both he, his course and its patrons victims of a political conundrum that’s no nearer to being solved.