There has always been this joke that if you took the average golfer out of Texas and put him on a lush fairway in the East—a Merion, say, or a Winged Foot—he would declare the lie unplayable. He needs some of that good old dry-red crust of the rangeland on which to hit his spectacular 40-yard putter-approach shot. He also needs a handful of dust to wash down his glass of beer in the clubhouse. Everybody knows a Texan plays golf in a Stetson and an undershirt when he's not shooting people or forming a conglomerate. Everybody knows his wife has the same hairdo she wore as a drum majorette and that his idea of absorbing culture is to stroll through Neiman-Marcus. And we all know what he thinks about society's problems. There wouldn't be no ghettos if everybody was a Lee Trevino (see cover). Old Lee, he just upped and win his-self out of poverty in the National Open. Lee's a real fine Mexican. Real fine.
In all of the above there is an element of truth, but there is more misconception than anything. In its bewildering vastness Texas is a lot of different places. The harsh, flat, windswept country is out there, to be sure, with an occasional fairway blending into the mesquite—and a man in a Stetson hitting pitch-and-run shots to the greens. But in all other directions one can find such surprising things as tossing hills, mountains, coastlines, meadows, pine thickets and hollows, and fairways curving through all of this. The truth is, there is more grass in Texas than crust—Bermuda, rye, bent—all of it green like at Winged Foot. And a pretty good example is the Champions Golf Club in Houston where the U.S. Open championship will begin next week.
Champions is plush enough and elegant enough to dazzle any non-Texan and it is so well-conceived that it outshines almost every country club that tries to cater especially to golfers. About 20 minutes north of the downtown Houston area, it is set in a forest of pine, water oak, cypress and hickory and along the bank of a deep, rushing creek, which comes murderously into play on a couple of holes. There are man-made ponds and man-planted shrubs to enhance the beauty and increase the shot value. It is a flat course, about the flattest the Open will have been played on, but it twists and turns and stretches out its length so that the pro is invited to hammer the driver repeatedly or come up short. The greens hump and sway and offer some fascinating pin placements—behind bunkers, behind ponds, beneath trees. In its subtleties it is much like Winged Foot, a course with only two or three truly memorable holes but one which offers a hellish lot of golf from start to finish.
The pros know Champions well. They know it as a demanding layout where 274 is the best 72-hole score on record—without rough or other USGA indignities—and they know it as a course that keeps the field bunched up. Over the last three years, when the club staged the Houston Champions International, each tournament was decided on the very last hole. Arnold Palmer edged out Gardner Dickinson on the final green in 1966, Frank Beard holed a 20-foot birdie on the 72nd to skim by Palmer in 1967 and Roberto De Vicenzo won last year when Lee Trevino bogeyed the closing hole.
June 8, 1969
To longtime followers of the Open, Champions will seem very different in atmosphere. Most Opens are held at ancient places like Baltusrol and Oak Hill, which have clubhouses that resemble castles and members who look as if they're headed for a world money conference. The Champions clubhouse is tastefully modern, a one-story used-brick building with white trim. It is simple but handsome and spacious, with high ceilings, thick carpets, much glass and a thousand or so tons of air conditioning flowing through it. The members are mostly young men still trying to make their first million. They are ardent golfers and healthy drinkers, joking, enthusiastic, open-collared and friendly.
In most endeavors Texans find themselves lassoed to their past. They bought that Alamo thing a long time ago, and you can't pry it out of their heads by closing the face on a sand iron. The land was hard won and hard worked, and therefore it is sacred. Somebody once said that Texans are at home wherever they are but that they only build things in Texas. Jimmy Demaret and Jackie Burke went home to build Champions. There they now live and work, home to stay, ordering any additional sophistication they need from the catalogs, as most Texans do.
It was as natural for Demaret and Burke to build a splendid golf plant (there is another 18-hole course, equally testing) as it was for the two old friends to make it a fun-loving place where just about anything might happen on or off the courses. Most clubs that hold the Open like to dwell on the days when Jones and Sarazen played there or how the green on 15 is eroding or how President Taft holed out from the 9th bunker one time. Champions members, however, talk about the day Demaret played on one leg and beat a group of them out of their money; or of his habit of getting some of them to grab their guitars so they can go serenading the cottages across the way; or about the banjo bands Jimmy brings into the dining room at night.
A Texan probably would have invented golf if a Scot hadn't. The land was there and so was the climate, and a hearty, lonely, challenging game was needed for the Texan to test his nerve, his discipline and his bankroll. "It was a stuffy rich man's game in the East," says Demaret, "but it was never that in Texas. Our towns were small when golf began to catch on after World War I, and our people were poor. For years Texas had more public-fee courses than country clubs. All you had to do to play was drive five minutes and tee it up."
Tournament golf reached Texas before it reached a lot of other areas. The Texas Open was originated in 1922. It was started in San Antonio by a newspaperman, Jack O'Brien, who lured the Walter Hagens to town and passed a hat in the crowd to get enough prize money to break even.
"The Texas Open got a lot of kids interested in golf," says Demaret. "In those days baseball was the only sport a kid could go into to make a living doing what he liked. Hagen showed there was a living to be made in golf."
The first major championship came to Texas in 1927, to the old Cedar Crest course in Dallas where Hagen won his fourth straight PGA title. It was a giddy week for Texans. They turned out to cheer for Harry Cooper, a home-town hero who learned to play at Cedar Crest, and to stare at the glamorous Hagen and to see all of golf's other professional stars of that era: Bobby Cruickshank, Tommy Armour, Joe Turnesa. Magic names.
By now a lively amateur circuit was growing around Texas, and tournaments like the Kerrville Invitation were being played throughout the spring and summer. And some youngsters named Jimmy Demaret and Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan were playing in them. The circuit still exists.
The tournaments begin in mid-March and continue into September. During the summer, from the plains in the West to the pines in the East and from the wind-torn mesas of the Panhandle down to the Gulf, there are 10 to 15 tournaments every week. There are invitations for players under 30 and over 30, there are junior tournaments and partnership tournaments, and to the winners go everything from TV sets to shotguns to bags of clubs and more crystal and silver than any college kid can use.
The publicity college golf has always received in Texas is enormous, second only to football. To the longtime follower of Texas golf, Billy Maxwell was more of a celebrity at 15 than he ever was later. Maxwell ravaged the state as a teen-ager, playing epic matches against the likes of Earl Stewart, Don Cherry, Don January, Joe Conrad and others. Maxwell, Conrad and January all wound up on the same college team at North Texas State. North Texas won four straight NCAA titles, then SMU won one and then Houston took over and with all of its Baxters, Fleckmans, Crawfords and Blancases the Cougars have now won 10 of the last 13 NCAAs. What other golf team can claim as North Texas State can that on one squad there was a U.S. Amateur champion (Maxwell), a British Amateur champion (Conrad) and an eventual PGA champion (January)?
Every pro agrees that Texas' amateur circuit deserves as much credit as the climate and the availability of courses for producing so many talented players.
"There's nothing like it anywhere else," says Byron Nelson. "If a boy can travel to different parts of the state, he'll learn to hit a tremendous variety of shots. He'll have to put backspin on the wedge one week and then pitch-and-run it the next. There's no question that these tournaments have helped popularize golf in Texas and encouraged us to turn out so many good players."
Not even Californians can deny that Texas has turned out more first-rate golfers than any other state. You can start with Hogan and Nelson from Fort Worth, Demaret and Burke from Houston and Ralph Guldahl, Harry Cooper and Lloyd Mangrum from Dallas and you've got something of a Hall of Fame right there. Only the worst kind of Texan would try to list them all, but a few other familiar names are Trevino, January and Frank Beard from Dallas; Dave Marr, Marty Fleckman, Homero Blancas and Howie Johnson from Houston; Charlie Coody, Ernie Vossler, Don Massengale and Jack Montgomery from Fort Worth; Billy Maxwell from Abilene; Don Cherry from Wichita Falls; Wesley Ellis and Joe Conrad from San Antonio; Shelley Mayfield from Seguin; Fred Hawkins from El Paso, and let's not forget some of the girls: merely Babe Zaharias, Betsy Rawls and Betty Jameson.
Obviously, golf got a mighty boost in Texas from the success of Hogan, Nelson and Demaret in the 1930s and 1940s but it was not exactly harmed by the coming of the U.S. Open. When the Open went to Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth in 1941, it was the first time the big one had moved south. A trio of well-to-do Fort Worthers, Marvin Leonard, Amon Carter Sr. and Dr. Alden Coffey, coaxed the USGA into accepting Colonial, a course Leonard had built, pioneering bent greens in the hot Southwest.
It would be a long-remembered tournament for several reasons. Craig Wood began the championship with a double bogey 7 on the 1st hole, bogeyed the 2nd hole and tried to quit. Tommy Armour, his playing companion, talked him into staying—and he won. In winning, Wood became the "duration Open champion," for World War II canceled the championship for the next four years.
Wood did a curious thing after making his acceptance speech, one of those little things that help promote the game and that pro golfers seldom think of. Driving back downtown to his hotel from Colonial with Fred Corcoran, then the PGA's tournament manager, Wood let Corcoran talk him into stopping at a practice range on the way. "The Open champion stops to hit a bucket of balls," said Corcoran, envisioning a headline. Wood did it. Corcoran phoned the newspapers, and the picture and story made Page One across the land.
So the first Open in Texas lived on—and so did a happy driving range owner.
The second U.S. Open in Texas was played at Northwood in Dallas in 1952. The Northwood Open is remembered for its heat, the temperature hovering around 100° throughout a tournament that Ben Hogan dominated but did not win. Hogan led the first two days with 69-69—138, tying the 36-hole record in the Open, but he melted into 74s the last day when two 18-hole rounds were still required. Up ahead of him, a relatively new star, Julius Boros, fell into one of those trances that Open competitors are familiar with. Boros, with an old Carolina friend, Clayton Heafner, walking with him and cheering him on, was up and down in two out of 11 bunkers over the last 36 holes to hang on and win by four strokes.
The same Julius then that he is now, casual and unemotional, Boros greeted his first major victory in a characteristic way. "I need a beer," he said.
Two other major championships have been played in Texas. Jack Nicklaus won the 1963 PGA at the Dallas Athletic Club in much the same kind of heat that Boros survived, and last year Boros, at 48, won the PGA at Pecan Valley in San Antonio. It is worth noting that all five of the big tournaments that have been played in Texas were taken by known players—Craig Wood and Boros in the Open and Hagen, Jack Nicklaus and Boros in the PGA. It suggests that the Open coming up at Champions will be no place for the Jack Flecks.
What will it be for Lee Trevino, Texas' latest contribution to golfing lore?
When Trevino won at Oak Hill last summer, clacking all the way with his Fleas, he looked very much like a one-timer, a happy accident, golf's living credibility gap. But Lee Trevino is alive and well and living at the bank.
He has followed up that Open victory with wins in Hawaii and at Tucson, and he went into June with more than $75,000 in prize money for 1969, which made him the second leading money winner behind Gene Littler. He doesn't care about the fact that few men win back-to-back Opens any more than he cares about the fact that Mexicans aren't supposed to play golf.
Trevino likes Champions, having performed extremely well there a year ago, and Champions may still like him. He drives with a fade, which is something of a must for Open courses since a fade is more easily controlled than a hook and since a fade won't run you into as much of that high Open rough as a hook will. As Jackie Burke has said, "Always hit a fade. You can't talk to a hook."
Moreover, Trevino is a low-ball hitter, and the flat terrain is perfect for him. There will be no hills for him to drive into like those that disturb him so at the Masters. All in all, Trevino goes into this Open with a better chance and a better attitude than most defenders and, regardless of what he shoots, Lee's presence will be felt in Houston, as it is everywhere he goes.
And so it all falls together for what should be a thrilling and unique U.S. Open. The defending champion is, after all, a Texan. And he goes to defend the biggest title there is in his home state. He goes to a truly superb course built by a couple of men who, like him, are brilliant players, amusing personalities and, of course, Texans. They are all part of the same legacy.