As other courses are stretched to ridiculous lengths, Colonial serves as a refreshing throwback. With its bending, tree-lined fairways, Hogan mystique and Texas hospitality, the Fort Worth event remains one of the game's most popular stops
This is an article from the June 1, 2015 issue
TIME STANDS still at Colonial Country Club. At least it seems to. Once you walk past the glorious white columns guarding the entrance to the redbrick clubhouse, it could be any-when inside the grounds.
Maybe 1959, when Ben Hogan won his record fifth Colonial title and cemented the Hogan's Alley moniker; or 1941, when Colonial hosted its only U.S. Open (won by Craig Wood); or 1997, the year of Hogan's death, a sort of cosmic balance because Tiger Woods burst onto the scene that year, winning the Masters in such obliterating fashion that he irrevocably changed golf and might have—might have—impressed even Mr. Hogan.
That time-stands-still thing, though, that's just talk, right? Because I'm walking toward the gate to the Crowne Plaza Invitational, and there, parked by the clubhouse curb, is Hogan's old Cadillac its ownself. It's big, black and boxcarlike, straight out of 1988.
Am I hallucinating? Did the space-time continuum spring a leak in Texas?
Relax, breathe. A white placard with red letters on the door of the Caddy reads, BEN HOGAN'S CAR. Ah, it's a museum piece, brought out of storage in tribute to the man who remains the pride of Fort Worth—or Foat Wuth, as the locals call home.
This is why Colonial is special. Its old-school course (circa 1936) has been updated without changing its classic personality, while the tournament (almost 70 years old) brings a triple helping of tradition to the very modern PGA Tour, which seems 15 minutes old by comparison. At Colonial Country Club history drips from its live oak trees like hot fudge off an ice cream sundae.
Colonial is not just a shrine to Hogan, although the club most certainly celebrates his legacy. Hogan artifacts are on display in the clubhouse, and his office is preserved in the golf shop. But Colonial is also a shrine to golf, a living example of how members make a club, and in this case how they make a unique invitational event.
"It's rare in this day and age to have a tournament where the membership puts it on and takes part in it," says two-time Colonial champ Zach Johnson, an Iowa native. "Augusta National would be an extreme example. I've gotten to know a lot of Colonial members, and they're tremendous. When you win, you're almost welcomed into their family. It's pretty special."
Steve Flesch, who won in 2004 and was in the field last week, says members like to say, You're not a past champion here; you're a champion. "Every year they treat you like you're the defending champion," Flesch says.
The week features a dinner for Colonial's past champions. Who does that? Besides, ahem, the folks at Augusta National.
Sixteen Colonial winners attended the Wednesday-night function, including Flesch, Ian Baker-Finch, Corey Pavin, Kenny Perry and Tim Herron. Defending champion Adam Scott was the guest of honor, and he gracefully survived a lighthearted Q&A with tournament chairman Bobby Patton, a Foat Wuth native and an oil-and-gas man who is a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The champs wore their Colonial red-plaid blazers and the uniform of the evening. "Not much goes with that coat," says Flesch. "So you pretty much have to go with a white shirt, navy slacks and a dark-blue tie. That's what most everyone wore."
Cody Gribble and Sam Saunders, the grandson of 1962 champion Arnold Palmer, were introduced as the special invitees, the two players annually selected to participate in the tournament by the champions committee. "You have a nice dinner," Flesch says, "then you say good night by nine o'clock."
As for the gaudy jacket, Flesch adds, "the first couple of years as a winner, everybody gives you a hard time. Now I look forward to putting it on."
The blazers, like Augusta National's coveted green jackets, are kept at the club year-round. "So I can't screw it up," joked Herron, a jolly Minnesotan who won Colonial in 2006. "I do have matching pants. My wife said I can't wear 'em out, only for grilling at the house. I don't know why. I've worn worse."
Dinner and drinks? Jackets and ties? Mingling and socializing? Colonial sounds positively civilized. You won't see this anywhere else on the PGA Tour. Colonial is the Tour's reigning champ of retro—and proud of it.
COLONIAL ALSO offers something that few other stops can: the chance to etch your name among the legends. The event was founded in 1946 as the Colonial National Invitational (Hogan won), decades before Tour sponsors such as Quicken Loans and MasterCard entered the picture.
"We don't play many events with a ton of history," Flesch says. "Sponsors change, courses change. Riviera, Colonial and Pebble Beach are kind of our staples. At Colonial, you get your name on a trophy with Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. You can't do that at a World Golf Championship."
Then there is Colonial's Wall of Champions, located next to the 1st tee. Each winner's name and score is engraved on a black-granite plaque.
Damon Green, Johnson's caddie, has been known to walk over to the wall and ceremonially polish his man's plaque—sorry, both plaques—while his man waits to tee off. It breaks the tension, but it's not a ritual.
"Did you even do it this week?" Johnson asked Green as he emerged from the scoring area after the second round. Green, seated a few feet away and buffing a few irons, looked up and shook his head.
"Well," Johnson added, "certainly it's humbling and an honor, but more than that, it adds a little confidence before you go out."
Flesch habitually glances at the wall for a different reason. "I check to make sure they haven't taken it down or sanded my name off," he says.
Designed by John Bredemus and Perry Maxwell, Colonial would stand on its own without the Hogan connection. In today's longer-is-better world, the par-70 layout remains a stern test even at a mere 7,204 yards. It's a shotmaker's course with bending fairways and angles of attack. Hogan once proudly observed that hitting a straight ball would get you in more trouble at Colonial than at any other track he knew.
Fittingly, for the first time last week, the player whose name will be added to the Wall of Champions was a winner of the Ben Hogan Award, which since 1990 has been presented to the top golfer in the college game. Chris Kirk was a finalist for the award in 2006 and won it the following year as a senior at Georgia. Those early visits to Colonial made quite the impression on Kirk.
"Seeing the incredible history of this place really made me love it," he said after shooting 65--66 on the weekend to scratch out a one-shot victory over Jordan Spieth, Brandt Snedeker and Jason Bohn.
Then, talking about the tournament, the golf course and the town, Kirk, 30, called Colonial "my favorite place to come, year in and year out."
And with a nod to Hogan, he added, "To now have even just a little bit of an association with him is very special."
OF COURSE, you can't separate Hogan from Colonial. When I started covering the tournament in the early 1990s, it was a thrill to spot Hogan as he roamed the grounds in a cart and watched shots while parked inconspicuously in the shade. Veteran Tour player Jerry Kelly saw him too, but he never spoke to him.
"Are you kidding? I was scared to death of him," says Kelly, now 48. "I'd heard all the stories about him being unapproachable. I never had the balls to go up to him. It would be like shaking the hand of Frank Sinatra. Now, though, I wish I had."
Herron, 45, did get the chance. He attended a luncheon with Hogan at Shady Oaks, the legend's home club, in a meeting set up by a friend of Herron's father's. "He signed an autograph for me," says Herron, who was on New Mexico State's golf team at the time. "I told him I was a golfer, but I don't think he cared. He was pretty old."
Hunter Mahan, a six-time Tour winner, has lived in the Dallas--Fort Worth area for almost 20 years. He is drawn to Colonial in part because of Hogan's mystique.
"It would be cool to watch him play some of these holes today and see the shots he'd hit," Mahan says.
If Hogan were here, I wondered, what would Mahan say to him? He grinned and answered without hesitation.
"Hey, you wanna go hit some balls?"