No affinity for the Trinity

Pity the poor pro golfer who goes to the Colonial National each year knowing that he has to face tornadoes, trees and the Trinity River
May 16, 1965

The life of a touring professional golfer is so thoroughly arranged nowadays that he seldom has to think about anything more complicated than where he put the keys to his courtesy car. Tournament sponsors break broad-jump records to take care of the obscure (as well as the famous) player's hotel and plane reservations, to see that he understands how to sign for his meals and to guide him, almost by sonar beep, to the club parking lot. The majority of the 43 different courses that the pros may see in a year on the PGA tour are not what even their proprietors would describe as "think" courses—a think course being one that requires something more than a lashed-at tee shot, a flick of a wedge and a putt across a rhinoceros footprint. There are precious few think courses, no more than six or eight. So when one is encountered, as was the case last week at the Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth, a whole new type of golf game is needed. In the best of times Colonial confronts the pro with forests to avoid, rivers to shun, thickets to elude and gulches to escape from. And in the worst of times—when the creeks rise, as Texans like to say—Colonial tosses in more lightning and rain than a Dorothy Lamour movie. Tornadoes threaten, there is darkness at noon and the countryside looks like the Johnstown flood. The 1965 Colonial was the worst of times, and by the time it was over—if ever—this think course had given the pros a yearful of things to think about.

The loving phrase the pros use for most of the layouts on which they compete for $3.5 million a year is "rat course," which can mean either poorly conditioned, or short, or both. Colonial, however, like any U.S. Open course, or National PGA course, or the Firestone in Akron, or Pebble Beach during the Crosby, to cite examples, is none of those things. Instead, Colonial is 7,100 winding yards of Bermuda grass, old oak and pecan trees, flower beds, bunkers, fences, ponds and river. A brutal par 70, it has narrow, twisting fairways, shadowed greens tucked deep among protective trees, and it requires an almost unbearable variety of decisions. The long hitter is frustrated right away because there are only two par-5 holes, neither of which can be reached in two shots unless the player cares to risk threading a slender opening with a three-wood. Equally frustrating for the birdie-conscious pro is the fact that a quartet of the par-4 holes requires at least a five-or six-iron to the green, and usually something longer. Two of four long par 3s go across deep canyons that slope down into the brown Trinity River, another is across a pond and the fourth sits by an out-of-bounds fence. From start to finish Colonial puts a premium on placement. It is no wonder that par golf—280 or over—has been good enough to win in 10 out of the past 18 years.

"It must be the hardest course on the tour to shoot par on," said Mike Souchak, who in 1956 became the only relatively inexperienced player ever to win. Colonial's past champions have familiar names: Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff, Julius Boros, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper—that type of player.

"A lot of courses fight you back, and you kind of like that. But this place is different," said Arnold Palmer, who managed to play really well at Colonial just once, in 1962, when he won, and who had a 312 in the 1955 tournament. "You make a bogey and then spend all day trying to get it back. Or all week."

Despite Colonial's tortures, there is always one reassuring thing. As Mason Rudolph says, "You know before you start out that the best player that particular week is going to win. You have to be that good from tee to green. You can't scrape it around. And I think it's a small comfort to most of us that a par round here is plenty good. You can even shoot a 72 and not lose your spot." Rudolph should know. In 19 rounds at Colonial he has never broken 70.

The galleries at Colonial are as hip to the situation as the pros. And the 50,000 fans who followed the play last week seemed wholly familiar with the likely places to watch the experts flailing out of trees and climbing out of ravines.

The best such place was, as usual, the 5th hole, one of the most demanding par-4s in golf (SI, Feb. 15). A long dogleg to the right around the Trinity, it has been responsible for more poor shots than the hickory shaft. This year, through the first three rounds, there were 74 bogeys, 17 double bogeys and four triple bogeys on the 5th hole, but only 14 birdies. The thousands who lined the 5th fairway saw Palmer driving into a gully, Hogan hitting an oak limb, Art Wall ricocheting several shots off tree trunks and such experts as Johnny Pott, Lionel Hebert, Fred Hawkins and host pro Roland Harper making 7s in a lot of curious ways.

One can, if one must, trust in Colonial's bounces, which is part of the reason George Knudson managed to hold on to the lead or a share of it through three rounds of play. The very first day he drove off the 5th tee straight toward the river—-a wild slice—but the ball struck a tree, bounded back onto the fairway, and he salvaged a par. At the 8th hole, a par-3, he played from one bunker to another, and then sank a 10-foot putt for a bogey. Later, at the 10th, he scooped a chip shot after missing his approach, but sank a 20-foot putt for a par. So it went, and after 10 one-putt greens Knudson posted a 68, two under. In the second round he played five strokes better from tee to green, but his score went up to 71. "You feel like you're stealing when you make a birdie, and making a bogey can be a major accomplishment," he said.

Tony Lema came in after shooting a 70 on Saturday that moved him within a stroke of Knudson, and said, "I'm playing well, but do you know what kind of shots I had to hit out there? A 60-yard two-iron, a sky-high wedge to get the ball over a tree and a 100-yard chip. Knock it off line just a little around here, and you go to the trick bag."

"This is the toughest course I ever played," said Chi Chi Rodriguez after shooting a 69, and then English grammar deserted him as he added with awe: "You can't miss no shots or you're out there with the snakes." Little did Chi Chi know how close the snakes were. A water moccasin crawled out of a pond by the 18th green on Friday and a policeman drew his pistol to kill it. After two misfires he succeeded, to the relief of the gallery.

By Saturday night most of the field had bounced golf balls off enough trees to be playing the Colonial just for laughs, and there seemed to be plenty of those, for the club members bring an easygoing attitude to their tournament. There was, for example, the urgent messenger who rushed up to a member of Colonial's credentials committee and reported a snake had been found in one of the women's rest rooms. "I only want to know two things," said the committeeman. "First, if it's a woman snake, and second, if it's got a gallery ticket."

Colonial has a good time staging its event for several reasons. The main one is that the club is Ben Hogan's course, and the members always have a hero to root for. For two rounds this year they cheered as loudly as they had five times in the past when Hogan won, because Ben played so well he was just one stroke off the pace. The second reason is that Colonial, much like the Masters, is a social occasion as well as a tournament. It is an event that encourages its chairman, a pleasant, plump fellow named Frank Rogers, to bring nightclub acts to the clubhouse every evening and to put his own singing dog, Snuffy, on exhibition. There was a running debate as to whether Snuffy, a dachshund, actually sang or simply whined, but he did harmonize with Frank Rogers. While Rogers entertained, Hogan did his part by throwing a quail dinner for the press.

If the party was a first for Hogan, so was something that happened to him before the tournament started. Standing in a bunker on the 18th green after the completion of a practice round, Hogan was hitting sand wedges at the pin when he was startled by a shout of "fore" from down the fairway. He turned and stared at the approaching players for what seemed like several minutes, as if memorizing the names of everyone in order to find out whom to punish.

A player watching the scene said, "I don't think anyone's ever hollered at Ben before. He probably didn't know what fore meant."

On Sunday, Colonial turned loose its Sunday punch, the Texas springtime. Knudson had his one-stroke lead, Lema and Bruce Crampton were right behind him and nobody was going anywhere because Texas had to show off. The rains came, and so did the lightning and dire warnings of tornadoes. Play was canceled, a move that surprised no one because play is always being canceled at Colonial. Rounds were washed out in '47, '52, '57, '64, and in 1949 the whole tournament went down the Trinity when flood waters rose to the clubhouse door.

Sunday's weather, by Colonial standards, was routine. Monday's was bad. The leaders had hardly squashed their way out onto the soggy course when a downpour began filling the bunkers and sinking the fairways. By noon the Atlantic Ocean and the course looked like similar water hazards, and beset Frank Rogers shouted "Stop playing" once again. Out on the 16th hole the bleachers were floating away, while in the clubhouse the players were trying to get away. Many of them felt like Mason Rudolph, unhappily tied for 41st place—which would be worth exactly $240—and anxious to take off for the Greater New Orleans Open, which was due to start in 72 hours. "We'll play the last round Tuesday," announced Frank Rogers. "We won't," said a few people like Doug Ford, Tommy Jacobs, Bob Rosburg and Dick Sikes, who had little to lose by leaving. But most of the field stayed and sulked and fretted, especially poor George Knudson. There he was, now leader of the Colonial for five straight days, a $20,000 first prize in his grasp and nobody to hit golf balls with. But that's the way it is with the Colonial National Invitation. Come hail or high water, it gives the pros an event to remember.


Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)