Texas course suffers border confusion

Do not hit golf balls into Mexico. Violators will be prosecuted.

That's what a sign says near the tee box of the 16th hole at the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course in Brownsville, Texas. From there, you can hit a 9-iron across the levee into Matamoros, Mexico, and imagine what heinous crimes the Mexican drug lords have committed upon hearing the sounds of police sirens and gunshots.

Before the U.S. government built 700 miles of barriers in 2006 along the Mexican-U.S. border to curtail illegal entry, drug trafficking and security threats, you might have seen young families passing through the golf course on foot on their way to Houston and points north. If you stand on the back of the driving range, you can see the spot where Major Jacob Brown, the city's namesake, was killed by shellfire during the Mexican-American War during a bombardment of Matamoros.

A trip inside the clubhouse reveals that the golf course was built in the 1950s for Mexican-Americans who couldn't play the local country club and that the Pan American Golf Association was formed here by Mexican-American men to promote golf in the Hispanic community. The group still meets over beers every second Tuesday of the month. The first pro was a Mexican-American man named Escalante, who was a good player and a popular fixture in the community.

The 6,000-yard course on 165 heavily wooded acres of sable palms, ash and cottonwoods with Champion Bermuda greens is an ever-expanding repository of Mexican-American history. These days, the people are talking about the border fence that was built as part of the Secure Fence Act of 2006. As a result, the golf course is wedged between the Rio Grande and an 18-foot iron border fence on the American side of the river that ostensibly became the new border.

Bob Lucio, the club's owner, isn't sure about his course's exact location.

"I don't know where we are," said the 52-year-old Lucio. "I call it a no man's land. We really don't know until the government clarifies whether or not we are in Mexico or Texas."

The U.S. government didn't put the fence right along the meandering Rio Grande for cost reasons, so it built north of the river on a straight line around the levee system. Since portions of the golf course run along the levee, the club ended up on what, for all intents and purposes, is the Mexican side of the fence. Since the government owned the levy, it didn't have to compensate Lucio or other landowners for the inconvenience of being on the other side of the fence because the government could claim eminent domain.

In response, Lucio has formed a small local organization that he calls the No Man's Land Association, which consists of homeowners, local merchants and farmers who live or run their businesses between the river and the fence. In September, Lucio hosted a town hall meeting at the golf course for his older brother, Texas state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., to discuss the impact of the border wall on the residents of the Rio Grande Valley.

Eddie Lucio wants the wall torn down and the residents compensated for the adverse effects of the structure on their properties. Both brothers say the wall hasn't deterred undocumented immigration to the U.S., primarily because there are gaps in the fence for roads and to allow easy access for people who live between the river and the fence. So instead of scaling the fence, illegal immigrants attempt to simply walk through the gaps.

One of these gaps is the only entrance to the golf course.

Almost as soon as the fence was completed in 2006, Bob Lucio's members began leaving in droves. He said he lost 40 percent of his membership in the first year.

"A lot of the members thought that the golf course was just going to be fenced off," Lucio said. "They didn't know if they were going to be able to go in and out of the golf course. It's been very difficult overcoming some of the negative perceptions that people have about life on the border."

Though he is resigned to the fact that the course will probably stay in geographic limbo for the foreseeable future, Lucio is advocating to make the area a tax-free zone or an enterprise zone to revitalize the area.

"If we don't do something," he said, "this area is going to die off."

Lucio has strong sentimental attachments to the course. It was here where his late father and the men of his father's generation gathered to play golf. When he bought the course in 1987, it had been closed for a few years, so he had the unenviable task of molding a course out of acreage.

He wants to preserve the golf course and its great legacy for years to come. He's most proud of the 150 kids in its First Tee program, most of whom are Mexican-Americans in this predominantly Hispanic city.

"We don't want to ever forget our heritage and our culture," Lucio said. "It's important for the future of these kids."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.