Tall Maples Miniature Golf Course (1930)
Like its big brother, miniature golf in America grew from elitist roots. When the scaled-down version of the game first appeared on manors in the English countryside around the turn of the 20th century it was known as “garden golf” or “lawn golf.” In America, the father of “Lilliputian” golf was James Wells Barber.
Barber was an Englishman with golf in his blood but no time to play as he built a steamship line with his brother Herbert that provided the only freight service between New York City and France for thirty. Eventually Barber began spending time in Pinehurst building one estate and then another. On his second property in 1917 Barber teamed up with another golf nut and amateur landscape architect from Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey named Edward H. Whiswell to makeover his garden with a small eighteen-hole course.
Everything was laid out on compacted sand, with tiny greens that were elevated to promote drainage. All of the holes were designed to theoretically be made in one shot and ranged from twelve feet to seventy-one feet. Four of the longer holes were intended to be played with a niblick chip shot. Some of the holes featured artificial obstructions like concrete mounds and others, like the opening hole, which sported a small oak tree sixteen feet from the tee in direct stymie of the hole. As Whiswell later wrote, “It is necessary to put a slight cut on the ball as to give it perfect distance. Then, you may get your one.”
The story whispered through the Carolina pines is that when the work was finished Barber stood back satisfied and said “This’ll do” in his British accent and the course was dubbed Thistle Dhu. Rules were drawn up and guests invited for tournaments. All were universally charmed. The finest American woman’s player of the day, Glenna Collett, said it was “a lovely course.” Thistle Dhu was always private but in 2012 the Pinehurst Resort opened an enormous putting course for its guests and resurrected the name Thistle Dhu.
Thistle Dhu and similar efforts in the 1920s were courses of sand or grass. That would change thanks to Thomas McCulloch Fairbairn, another Englishman who was stranded without golf on his Mexican cotton plantation. To fashion something resembling grass Fairbairn took crushed cotton seed hulls, mixed in some oil to bind the mash together and dyed it green. He patented his artificial grass but was not sure exactly how to profit from his invention.
John Ledbetter and Drake Delanoy knew. They had built a miniature golf course on the roof of a New York skyscraper in 1926 using Fairbairn’s product that they called “GrassIt.” Ledbetter and Delanoy quickly installed courses on 150 rooftops across the city. Garnet Carter knew as well and he bought Fairbairn’s cotton seed patent.
Carter was a traveling salesman with a promoter’s soul. He left the road in 1928 to settle on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee to build a resort and golf course. Carter’s wife was way into fantasy and she ordered garden statues of gnomes and fairy-tale characters to be sprinkled around the resort, which was called the Fairyland Club. Some of those elves and princesses wound up on the fairways of a small miniature golf course on the property called Tom Thumb Golf.
Carter’s Tom Thumb Golf was so popular that the grass greens could not stand up to the foot traffic and GrassIt was the ideal remedy. He added a patent for a miniature golf course design with hollow logs as hazards to the grass carpet patent and sold “Tom Thumb Golf” kits for $2,000, including shipping. The miniature golf mania was about to seize America.
By 1930 there were an estimated 25,000 miniature golf courses across the United States, set up in office buildings and vacant lots and college campuses. The Auditorium Country Club in downtown Wilmington, Delaware was typical. On a former basketball court the spacious felt fairways stretched four feet across with plenty of sporty hazards including traps, rough and water hazards. The highlight of the loop was a 50-foot drive across a long wooden bridge. The ceilings were painted an azure blue to enhance the illusion of real golf. A mini-clubhouse on the stage overlooked the course.
In October of 1930 Carter staged the first National Tom Thumb Open on Lookout Mountain. Two hundred players had fought their way through qualifying tournaments in 48 states (the first Open golf competition to have representatives from every state in the Union) to play for a top prize of $2,000.
By 1931 the craze was over. The Depression had something to do with it but mostly Americans had just moved on to the next fad. Almost all of the miniature golf courses were dismantled. One that wasn’t was Tall Maples Miniature Golf, a couple of long lag putts away from Lake Ontario in Sea Breeze, New York, north of Rochester. Robert Ocorr, a local newspaperman who built several courses in the resort area, designed Tall Maples using cobblestones from the fabled Erie Canal. The concession was owned by Paul Moore who brought the first ride, a Figure 8 Coaster, to Sea Breeze in 1903.
In 2002, considered the last windmill standing, Tall Maples was included on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest miniature golf course in America. By that time the game had branched out in dramatic fashion. In Europe, miniature golf took hold in the last half of the 20th century as a competitive sports, where devotees regularly lobby for it to be included in the Olympics. In the United States, miniature golf followed Americans out to the suburbs and to the beaches. By the 1980s, popular holiday spots such as Myrtle Beach with 50 courses, regularly saw exotic creations with million-dollar construction budgets.
Don Clayton was one American who did not fall in love with mechanized windmills. Taking a health break from his insurance business, he went to a miniature golf course in his hometown in Fayetteville, North Carolina with his brother. Clayton was so disillusioned by the experience that he returned home and started building his own course. Three weeks later the first Putt-Putt course was open for business.
Instead of dinosaurs Clayton’s courses had geometric blocks for obstacles. Instead of par threes, all Putt-Putt holes were par-twos with a chance for an ace of every tee. He franchise the concept around the country with eventually 126 copyrighted holes to build a course. To emphasize that his course were not children’s playthings Clayton started the Professional Putters Association in 1959 that has given away $8 million in purses. Syndicated television coverage of tournaments represented the second longest-running sports programming on television behind ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
In 2012, Tall Maples, now called Whispering Pines in an arboreal shake-up, like so many classic golf courses received a makeover. Bob Horwath, a miniature golf architect with a quarter century of experience, was hired for the job. Whispering Pines now has a nautical theme.
Augusta National (1932)
No North American golf course has been studied and written about more than Augusta National. And yet no one knows how its two creators, Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie, met. Or for that matter, why Jones decided to turn to MacKenzie to help build his dream golf course.
Golf’s greatest mystery is not on the order of Amelia Earhart or Jimmy Hoffa. Both men wrote books about their lives in golf and MacKenzie says the historic encounter first came in the 1927 Open Championship at St. Andrews when he was in the gallery to watch Jones lap the field by six strokes to win just six years after he picked up his ball in frustration and walked off the course from the 10th hole in the third round of the Open. Mackenzie would have been more than a casual observer - he was a consultant for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club and spent a year scouting the course for championship pin locations.
Later in 1927 Mackenzie sent Jones a signed copy of his book 13 Principles of Golf Architecture but there is nothing to suggest he was more than a fanboy. No record of a meeting nor discussions about golf between the two exists. Jones retained the book, however, and it is among the personal items on display at his boyhood club in East Lake.
The next chance for Jones and Mackenzie to cross mashies was in 1929. The United States Amateur was being contested on the West Coast for the first time ever and Jones arranged a number of exhibitions ahead of time around the championship at Pebble Beach. One was set up for the day after the Amateur championship at Marion Hollins’ new course at Pasatiempo, designed by Mackenzie. Jones and Hollins were slated to play against Cyril Tolley and Glenna Collett, the reigning British Amateur champion and U.S. Women’s Amateur champion.
It was fully expected that Bobby Jones would be announced on the Pasatiempo tee as the new U.S. Mens Amateur champion as well. But in one of the game’s monumental upsets Jones was bounced from the tournament in the first round by unheralded Johnny Goodman. With a few extra days to kill, Jones headed for neighboring Cypress Point where he had warmed up for his aborted U.S. Amateur run and found the design of the course “almost perfect.” This unscheduled time at Cypress Point is where most students of Jones and MacKenzie agree that Augusta National was conceived. Jones, incidentally, also lost his match with Hollins against Tolley and Collett.
The two men were clearly simpatico with their golf philosophies but one overriding principle stood out above all others - a golf course should be challenging to the best players while still engaging the handicapper. Or as Jones put it, “We believe that no good golf hole exists that does not afford a proper and convenient solution to the average golfer and the short player, as well as to the more powerful and accurate expert.”
But before Jones and Mackenzie’s theories on golf could be laid on the land there was the matter of money. After winning the “Grand Slam” in 1930 Jones quit amateur golf and turned pro - not on the course but in the movies. He signed with Warner Brothers studios in 1931 to produce a series of 18 one-reel instructional films called How I Play Golf.
Jones works his way through the bag giving lessons to the likes of James Cagney, Loretta Young, Douglas Fairbanks and W.C. Fields. The shorts in How I Play Golf were some of the first "talkies" Hollywood ever produced and Jones' easy southern charm meshes seamlessly with the movie actors who are eager to hear the pearls of links wisdom drip from the great golfer. The movies were not only fun and informative but highly sophisticated in capturing the key elements of the golf swing. Veteran Hollywood director George E. Marshall helmed the series and used groundbreaking slow-motion photography and low level camera angles that predate 3D movies and instructional how-to videos by decades.
The reports of Jones’ slice of the profits from How I Play Golf ranged from $250,000 to $600,000 - in other words, nobody knew. But whatever he earned he plowed a chunk of it into Augusta National, starting with the purchase of Berckmans Nursery, also known as Fruitland, for $70,000. Louis Mathieu Edouard Berckmans, a trained physician like Dr. MacKenzie, left Belgium with his son, Prosper Jules Alphonse Berckmans, in the 1850s to start the first commercial-sized horticultural nursery in the Southeast.
The land the Berckmans found a few brassies from downtown Augusta had been an indigo plantation but Prosper was mostly interested in peaches. He bred so many high quality varieties of peaches that he was recognized as the “Father of Peach Culture.” The entire state of Georgia became known as the Peach State although the Northwest China native was not designated as the official state fruit until 1995.
The Fruitland Nursery shut down after Prosper died in 1910 and when Jones and his partners first looked over the 365-acre property many of the evergreens and shrubs the Berckmans had introduced were still growing on the grounds. That included 30 varieties of azaleas that Prosper had propagated for use in home gardens and rows of 61 magnolia trees that were planted before the Civil War. At the end of that lane of magnolias was the Berckmans’ home, Fruitland Manor, which would become the Augusta National clubhouse.
Two of Prosper Berckmans’ sons helped out with the landscaping of the golf course which Mackenzie and Jones designed to take advantage of the rolling terrain. It was the contours that would provide the challenge rather than sand and water. When the holes were finished each was named for a different plant which could be identified from its fairway.
It was a rousing beginning but the Great Depression was hardening into the worst economic times in American history. Even with the stature of Bobby Jones the club was not able to attract the membership it was anticipating. During construction Augusta National was in dire financial straits. A sympathetic MacKenzie slashed his normal $10,000 fee to $5,000 but still he was not paid.
Augusta National was not the only club stiffing MacKenzie and he was suffering as well. He penned a regular stream of letters to Clifford Roberts, an investment banker and co-founder of Augusta National with Jones, pleading for his money. “I have been reduced to playing golf with four clubs and a Woolworth ball,” he wrote impishly at one point.
Matters grew more serious for both Augusta National and Dr. MacKenzie. By 1932 Roberts was issuing promissory notes to pay bills. A pair of of those $1,000 notes was sent to MacKenzie, whose wife was facing a medical crisis. He replied, “Can you possibly let me have, at any rate, five hundred dollars to keep us out of the poor house?” MacKenzie, probably because he could not afford the train ride from his house on the 6th fairway at Pasatiempo, did not attend the opening of the course on December 7, 1932.
Roberts meanwhile was tap dancing to keep the nascent club from foreclosure. The only revenue to meet the weekly payroll was guest fees - and anyone with cash was welcomed to play a round. He would later admit that if he and Jones had known that the Depression would become so bad and last the entire decade they would surely have abandoned the building of the club.
Finally it was decided to hold a golf tournament in 1934 to raise some money. It would be called the Augusta National Invitational for the world’s top professionals and the close associates of Jones who still had some cash left. As the big draw, Bobby Jones himself would come out of retirement to play. Horton Smith, a lanky Missourian and five-time Ryder Cupper, won the first tournament. Alister MacKenzie was not on hand for that event, either. He had died three weeks earlier, never having seen the finished Augusta National golf course.
Jones was not competitive in his own tournament and that would likely have dulled the interest in the event going forward save for one shot struck in the 1935 tournament by Eugene Saraceni. Saraceni had been born to an immigrant carpenter in Harrison, New York in 1902. He was besotted by golf at an early age after dropping out of school in the sixth grade to caddy at the Apawamis Club. he changed his name to Gene Sarazen because he thought it sounded like a golfer’s name.
He had the flair to match the name. Sarazen won the U.S. Open when he was only 20 years old at Skokie Country Club by becoming the first player ever to break 70 in the final round. He won the PGA Championship at Oakmont that year as well and the following year at Pelham Country Club in New York he dealt Walter Hagen his only defeat in a PGA Championship final. In 1932 Sarazen won the national opens of both the United States and Great Britain, brandishing a new sand wedge he had invented.
In the second Augusta National Invitational Sarazen, dubbed the Squire since he always played in knickers, was teamed with Hagen on the final day. Late on the back nine the Haig was well back and mostly concerned with making a dinner date and Sarazen was an unappealing three strokes back of the leader in the clubhouse, Craig Wood.
Jones had wandered out of the clubhouse to watch his tournament wind down and caught up with his two great rivals of the 1920s on the par-five 15th hole. Sarazen had drive well, down the right side with 235 yards left to the hole. He chose to challenge the pond in front of the green with a spoon (a modern day 4-wood). The shot arched over the water, landed on the green, bounced twice and rolled into the hole for a double-eagle two. Sarazen had tied Wood with a single blow, parred out the rest of the way and won the 36-hole playoff the next day 144 to 149.
Sarazen’s rare albatross was hailed as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Along with Jones’ cachet the tournament at Augusta National motored to the top of PGA Tour stops. By 1939 it was being called the Masters and when it was elevated into the quartet of modern majors along with the U.S Open, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship golf Sarazen became the first winner of the “career Gand Slam.”
One of the things that made the Masters stand out among other tournaments was that it was an “invitational” with a select field chosen by Jones and Roberts. The result is that the list of winners read like a virtual golf history book. Until 1961 all of those Hall of Fame names were Americans. That year Gary Player became the first international player to win the Masters.
There could be no more fitting representative of the world game than Player. He parred the first three holes he ever played at the age of 14 in 1949, the year fellow South African Bobby Locke was winning the first of four Open Championships. As he would throughout his career young Gary ignored the rest of the card filled with eights and nines and built positively on those early pars.
In 1955 as an assistant professional from Johannesburg Country Club Player won the Egyptian Match Play Championship, the first of what would be 165 victories around the globe. Player would fly over 15 million miles chasing those titles in becoming the World’s Most Traveled Athlete®, a nickname he would proudly trademark. In the days before non-stop flights the trip between Johannesburg and Augusta would take 50 hours.
In 1957 Harry Player, who worked two miles underground as a captain in the South Africa golf mines, wrote a letter to Roberts requesting an invitation for his son to play in the Masters. Pressing his case, Player added that he would “pass the hat” at home to come up with the travel money. Roberts wrote back, “Pass the hat.”
Player made the cut that year as one of eleven international players in the field. A year later he won his first PGA Tour event in the Kentucky Derby Open at Seneca Golf Course in Louisville. In a rain-plagued Masters in 1961 Player held off defending champion Arnold Palmer by a stroke to win the Masters. Palmer slipped the green jacket on Player who returned the favor when Arnie won in 1962. Player would go on to appear in a record 52 Masters, winning three.
During that time the Masters would become the most watched golf event on television. It was helped by being the first big tournament after a winter without golf but it is also the only men’s major that comes back to the same course year after year. Viewers tune in knowing the strategy required on each of the holes on the back nine from the tricky winds on the par 3 12th over Rae’s Creek in the middle of Amen Corner, as immortalized by Herbert Warren Wind in a 1958 Sports Illustrated article, to the approach mastered by Sarazen on the 15th.
But mostly the popularity of the Masters traces back to the golf course. There was a fortuitous switching of the nines after the first tournament in 1934 and Augusta National has more architects’ fingerprints on it than any course in the world but the essential genius of Jones and Mackenzie remains. The course is designed to yield to birdies with aggressive play.
That was never more apparent than in 1986 when 46-year old Jack Nicklaus, with his son Jackie on the bag, stormed through the back nine in 30 strokes to win a record sixth Masters and 18th professional major. Bobby Jones had been around to present his second green jacket to him back in 1965, telling him, “you play a game with which I am not familiar.”
Southern Hills (1936)
No one ever expected old Tulsey Town, as the Creek Indians called it, to ever amount to much. Everything changed on June 25, 1901 when the state’s first commercially viable oil well came in across the Arkansas River at Red Fork (soon incorporated in the city limits.) In 1905 an even bigger strike was made 15 miles to the south in what became known as Glenn Pool. Texaco built the first oil refinery here in 1910 and Tulsa was on its way to being the “Oil Capital of the World.”
By 1930, Tulsa had more buildings of ten or more stories than any city of its size in the world. Most of the skyscrapers were raised in the flamboyant Art Deco style and in the 1950s Time magazine anointed Tulsa the title of “America’s Most Beautiful City.”
If Tulsa had little promise as a city it had even less potential as a golf mecca. The Tulsa Country Club had an early 1916 A.W. Tillinghast layout and that seemed sufficient to satisfy the golfing needs of northeastern Oklahoma oilmen. But in the 1930s Bill Warren of the Warren Petroleum Company and Cecil Canary who made his money probing for oil in the Kansas flint, heard a rumor that their Tulsa CC was going public.
Alarmed, they cobble together a plan for a family retreat that would include swimming pools, horse stables, tennis, skeet shooting and golf and took it to the biggest power broker in town, Waite Phillips. The Phillips family were Oklahoma legends. Frank and his younger brother Lee were wildcatters without any fancy geological reports who brought in 81 consecutive producing wells to form the basis of the Phillips Petroleum Company. Waite, in the next generation, sold his family interests at the age of 31 and converted the money into a string of ranches, banks and land acquisitions. But he was not moved by the idea of starting a country club in the middle of the Great Depression.
Phillips did, however, agree to give the men 360 acres of South Tulsa land if they could locate 150 pledges of $1,000 each to join the country club within two weeks. The hustling Canary and Warren got the signatures and Southern Hills was underway. As it turned out, that rumor about Tulsa Country Club had been unfounded.
Philips did more than donate the land. He also gave the group his personal friend and former banker, Perry Maxwell, who had been working on golf courses with Alister Mackenzie. Maxwell’s fee was whatever remained from his $100,000 construction budget. Maxwell used only one tractor and took full advantage of WPA relief workers but he did not intend to move much land in the first place. He also pitched a tent and lived on the property.
Southern Hills opened in 1936 and Maxwell’s work has been acclaimed ever since. At least two major events have taken place at Southern Hills every decades since the 1950s. Even Robert Trent Jones, who rarely saw a golf course he couldn’t take apart and build tougher, made only minor tweaks when consulted for a redesign.
Bethpage Black (1936)
Golf has many shrines but none like Bethpage. Since the facility opened in a Long Island state park in 1935 there have been more than 15 million rounds played here, many starting the light before in the parking lot with the front seats reclined, waiting for the line for staring times to form in the pre-dawn hours.
Bethpage was the creation of Robert Moses who built a base of power from the innocuous sounding position of “Park Commissioner” that resulted in 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds and 150,000 housing units that altered the face of New York City. There were 288 new tennis courts, 673 new baseball diamonds and dozens of new golf courses. When Robert Caro sat down to write Moses’ story in The Power Broker it filled 1,296 pages and resulted in what David Halberstam called “surely the greatest book ever written about a city.”
It is no surprise that Robert Moses had big plans for Bethpage when 1,386 acres of Benjamin Yoakum’s estate - the largest piece of privately owned property in Nassau County - came into government hands in the 1930s. There was a golf course already on the property, the private Lenox Hills County Club that leased land from Yoakum. Moses sent the members packing but kept the Deveraux Emmet-designed golf course. He also planned to build three more, along with a polo field, bridle paths, ball fields, playgrounds, picnic areas and on and on.
This tendency for big thinking would have pleased the late Benjamin Yoakum who was a Texan who built out a railroad system from Chicago to Mexico that controlled over 17,000 miles of track. There are towns named for Yoakum in Texas but the new state park would be called “Bethpage” as this slice of Long Island had been known since Thomas Powell had named it after a biblical passage in 1695.
Moses hired A.W. Tillinghast to design and supervise the construction of the golf courses. All the work would be federally funded through Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and 1,800 men found employment building Bethpage State Park. The Red and Blue courses were opened on August 10, 1935 and Emmet’s handiwork rechristened the Green Course.
Robert Moses left his fingerprints on Bethpage as well, supervising and outfitting the expansive Colonial clubhouse to serve the courses. There was a Dutch-tiled fireplace installed at each end of the main dining room and all the Chinese Chippendale chairs and brass lighting fixtures intended to resemble pagodas were crafted by relief workers. Mosese directed that the club’s “Caddy Boy” profile logo be cut into the exterior shutters. Today that logo is rendered in red, green, blue, black and yellow to represent Bethpage’s five courses, the Yellow coming online in 1958.
Bethpage Black was ready for play in 1936 with an astounding length of 6,783 yards that anticipated the complete takeover of the game by steel shafts. Steel shafts had begun appearing in the 1920s but by 1938 they would become so dominant that the rule limiting golfers to 14 clubs was adopted since golfers no longer had to worry about the nuisance of wooden shafts snapping in the middle of a round.
“The Black” quickly established a reputation as one of the country’s hardest golf courses. After an exhibition with Byron Nelson in 1940, Sam Snead called it “an unfair test of golf.” And he won with a 68. New York State famously hung a sign on the iron railing at the first tee that read: “WARNING. The Black Course Is An Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers.” To make the task even more daunting for first-timers the first tee sits on a ledge directly below the practice green and the clubhouse so spectators can gather to watch that first shot and judge whether the advice on the sign is well-heeded.
The legend of the Black Course grew but as a municipally owned facility the maintenance did not always keep pace with the course’s stature in the golf world. Public course players, however, were always convinced that hidden under the scruffy exterior was a golf course every bit the test that Tillinghast’s Baltustrol and Winged Foot courses were to professionals. The reckoning came in 2002.
In 1997 the USGA issued a landmark announcement that the U.S. Open would be played at Bethpage Black in 2002, the first time America’s greatest tournament would be contested at a true public course. Yes, the golfing public could play at Pinehurst and Pebble Beach after parting with many hundreds of dollars but at Bethpage everyone at the time lined up and paid $35 to play “The Black.”
The USGA’s “U.S. Open Doctor,” Rees Jones, came and worked over the course, armed with a $2.7 million budget - the most that had ever been spent to ready a course for the championship. As Jones’ worked, anticipation for “The People’s Open” was more feverish than golf had ever experienced.
Many worried that the world’s best players would feast on Bethpage Black and deflate the chests of public course golfers everywhere. After all, most of “The Black’s” greens are relatively flat, unlike most of America’s most storied courses. After negotiating the minefields he had planted to reach the greens, Tillinghast had reasoned, any further torture administered by treacherous greens would be tantamount to sadism.
Bethpage’s boasters need not have worried. Tiger Woods was the only player in the field to break par for four days, winning with a three-under par total of 277. The curse received nothing but raves and the excitement generated by the tournament changed the course of U.S. Open history. After Bethpage, six of the following twelve Opens were contested on course with public access, including a return to Bethpage in 2009. What started as “The People’s Open” has evolved into the “The People’s Century.”
Colonial Golf Club (1936)
Soon after newcomers hit their first golf balls an obsession is often waiting just around the bend. For some it is equipment. For some it is lessons. For John Marvin Leonard it was grass.
Leonard was 32 years old when he played his first golf. Before that Leonard had spent his time laying the foundation for one of the Southwest’s most beloved retail empires. On December 14, 1918 he and his brother Green Thomas Leonard opened a small store in the shadow of the 194-foot pink granite Tarrant County Courthouse tower in downtown Fort Worth. Leonard Brothers specialized in salvaged merchandise and groceries but by 1926 the business had expanded enough to justify the slogan, “More merchandise for less money.”
And Marvin Leonard had time to take up golf. He could break 80 when the putts were falling but that didn’t happen all that often and Leonard believed a lot of that had to due with the greens. The greens in Fort Worth at the the time - and all of the South - were of native Bermuda grass which tended to be bumpy and grainy. The Bentgrass that produced the best putting greens back East was considered too wimpy to put up a fight against the Texas summer sun. Leonard believed the difference was so stark that it was worth a try to develop Bentgrass greens. He pestered the Greens Committee of his River Crest Country Club so relentlessly that the exasperated president suggested he go start his own club.
The Great Depression was certainly not kind to Leonard Brothers but after Presdident Franklin Roosevelt closed all the nation’s banks upon entering office in 1933 Marvin had continued to cash checks with “Leonard’s Script” that could be used with confidence around town. He was soon selling 7,000 loaves of bread and other necessities. That customer loyalty bought Marvin Leonard Colonial Country Club.
Leonard contacted John Bredemus, the Lone Star State’s first resident golf course architect, and Perry Maxwell of Oklahoma and asked each to submit five plans for 157 acres of pecan groves he had acquired along the Trinity River. This being the Depression there weren’t a whole lot of commissions coming through the door so both complied. Leonard looked over the work and asked them for five more. Then he picked the holes he liked best and built his golf course - seeded with Bentgrass greens.
He then went looking for members and issued personal invitations to Fort Worth’s golfing community to come try his wondrous new greens. They wouldn’t even need to pay a membership fee, just a $50 security deposit. He had 100 takers for the opening of the course in January 1936. Two of Colonial’s early supporters were brothers Royal and Ben Hogan. Royal was a fine golfer who would win four City of Fort Worth Championships and four Colonial club championships. He ran the Hogan Office Supply company that was the Staples of its day in Texas.
His younger brother Ben was 23 years old and trying his luck on the professional golf tour, so far without much success as he battled a wicked hook. Ben had gotten his start in the game caddying at Glen Garden Country Club where he sometimes looped for Leonard. In 1927 Hogan hooked up in a battle of Glen Garden henchmen for the club’s annual Caddie Championship with another 15-year old named Byron Nelson. Byron won an 18-hole playoff on the final hole and earned a junior membership and Ben moved over to River Crest. Over the years Hogan would meet Nelson in a championship match three times but never beat him.
Leonard immediately began lobbying the United States Golf Association to come to Fort Worth - he had those greens after all. After being stonewalled Leonard dangled a $25,000 guarantee and soon the U.S. Open was being held in the South for the first time. Thirty-nine year old Craig Wood, who was the first player to lose all four major championships in playoffs, won that 1941 championship to also become the first player to win the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year. The following year Leonard sold Colonial to the members for his $300,000 investment, figuring that would be the best way to insure the club’s long-term existence.
The USGA did impose one stipulation before taking Leonard’s money. The 4th and 5th holes were too weak for championship play and would need to be stiffened. Leonard cast the offending holes aside completely, bough up an adjoining nursery and had Maxwell reconfigure the course into what became known as the “Horrible Horsehoe,” culminating in a 472-yard journey along the Trinity River that became one of the most feared par-fours in America.
The pros began arriving at Colonial in 1946 and have been returning every year since; the Colonial National Invitational is the longest running event on the PGA Tour contested on the same site. Hogan won the first Invitational and the second and three more. That fifth win in a 1959 playoff with fellow Texan Fred Hawkins was the last of his 63 Tour titles. The place is called “Hogan’s Alley” as is Riviera Country Club, where he also won five times.
An inveterate road-builder, Hogan even built an alleyway at Carnoustie when he visited for his only Open appearance in 1953. “The Hawk” won in part by eschewing the safe route on the treacherous sixth hole and threading his ball down the left side between out of bounds stakes and a phalanx of treacherous bunkers. It took awhile but in 2003 the Scots started calling that passageway Hogan’s Alley as well.
Colonial is yoked to golf history not just by the great champions that have roamed its fairways. The course is the one most associated with Dan Jenkins, one of four golf writers in the World Golf Hall of Fame. British scribe Bernard Darwin - yes, grandson of that Darwin - wrote eloquently about golf courses and was the first “beat writer” for the sport in a 46-year career at The London Times; Herb Graffis founded the Golf Writers Association of America and a slew of golf magazines; and Herbert Warren Wind was the game poet laureate as a magazine writer for the The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated. Jenkins specialized in professional golf - dissecting the game and golfers with withering one-liners that were as revelatory as they were hilarious.
Jenkins grew up playing golf in Fort Worth at a municipal track called Worth Hills that opened in 1923. He wrote about those days in a piece for Sports Illustrated on August 16, 1965 called “The Glory Game at Goat Hills” that became a landmark for a generation of sports writers. The piece was a eulogy to the course that was sacrificed for Texas Christian University frat houses and dorms. The Glen Garden club of Hogan and Nelson’s youth held out much longer, not becoming the home of a whiskey distillery until 2014.
Jenkins met Hogan at Colonial when he was starting out at the Fort Worth Press as a student at TCU, where he was the school’s best golfer. Jenkins was good enough that Hogan believed he could become a U.S. Amateur level golfer and offered to work with him for three days a week for three months. Jenkins was honored but begged off. “All I want to be is a good sportswriter,” he explained to the number one player in the world.
And he did that for more than six decades, attending over 220 major tournaments in the process. In between he wrote the best book ever about college football (Saturday’s America), the best novel ever about professional football (Semi-Tough), the best novel ever about golf (Dead Solid Perfect) and the best book ever about the professional tour (The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate). The Colonial Country Club displays Jenkins’ World Golf Hall of Fame blazer in a glass case.
And out on the veranda overlooking the 18th fairway is a seven-foot bronze statue of Ben Hogan. But just as Hogan did not begin playing golf there he did not wind up his golfing days there either. By 1955 Leonard was looking to build another golf course and he had even more exacting ideas about what he wanted. he hired Robert Trent Jones and a posse of earth-movers to create Shady Oaks Country Club seven miles from downtown Fort Worth. Hogan became a charter member in 1958 and settled into a routine of lunch overlooking the 18th green and an afternoon quietly spent hitting balls with a five-iron on a secluded spot on the property, far from the traffic over at “Hogan’s Alley.”
Prairie Dunes Golf Course (1937)
For many years Prairie Dunes was considered to be the best nine-hole course in America, back in the days when playing nine hole rounds was not considered to be the the equivalent of turning in your SAT without bothering to do the math part. Perry Maxwell had written a full test but the Carey family opted not to build the entire course, this being the middle of the Great Depression and Hutchinson, Kansas in the middle of proverbial nowhere.
Samuel Carey brought his family to Hutchinson to farm in 1878. His son, Emerson, drifted off the farm to go into coal mining and then ice manufacturing. In 1900 he set up the Carey Salt Company that propelled Hutchinson into its position as “Salt City.” Carey and his four sons were enthusiastic golfers and during a Scottish golf trip in the 1920s they couldn’t help but notice how much the British linksland looked like their windswept dunesland north of the Arkansas River back in Kansas.
In 1935 the Careys turned over 480 acres of those “prairie dunes” to Perry Maxwell, a 55-year old architect who had just finished helping Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie build out Augusta National. Maxwell spent the first half of his working life as a banker before he built Oklahoma’s first nine holes on a one-time dairy farm he owned in Ardmore. The experience convinced Maxwell that his future happiness lay in golf course design.
After constructing enough courses in the Sooner State to insure his future enshrinement in the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, Maxwell began building a national reputation. In addition to Augusta, Maxwell showed up to work on such revered courses as Merion, Pine Valley and Crystal Downs in Michigan. His trademark became sumptuously undulating greens that were dubbed “Maxwell’s Rolls” - playfully invoking the names of two luxury automobiles, the Maxwell and the Rolls-Royce.
Maxwell carved the first holes out of the dunes with horses and mules pulling Fresno Scrapers that were designed for construction work in sandy soil. The only hum of an electric engine came from the Model A Fords that bumped along the sand trails to bring workers out from town. Labor came from the Works Progress Administration and Maxwell kept costs down with a sparing use of bunkers and planting no trees. Opening day for the 3,165-yard, par 35 course was September 13, 1937.
The Careys intended to finish Prairie Dunes but finances intervened one year, an early freeze another and by 1950, when the family sold the course for $95,000, the other nine holes never got built. Meanwhile, Southern Hills that Maxwell had designed in Tulsa around the same time had begun hosting national championships, bringing his work into the spotlight. You like Southern Hills those in the know said, you should see his nine-hole course up in Kansas.
Maxwell died in 1952 and when the new owners decided to make Prairie Dunes a full eighteen holes they brought in Perry’s son, Press, who had worked with his father on the original nine holes before becoming a sought-after architect as well. He interwove nine holes into the routing in 1957, although it is not known if they were his father’s originals or not. The next year the Trans-Mississippi Amateur, a venerated member of the national amateur circuit since 1901, stopped in Hutchinson. A promising 18-year old named Jack Nicklaus won the tournament.
The USGA couldn’t start holding tournaments at Prairie Dunes fast enough. Three U.S. Women’s Amateurs, a U.S. Women’s Open, a U.S. Senior Amateur and a U.S. Senior Open, among others. The golf powers-that-be will need to find another course to host the “National Nine-Hole Open,” however.
Langston Golf Course (1939)
In 1939 “separate but equal” was the law of the land, set down in the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. That year there were 5,209 golf courses in the United States and fewer than 20 of them were open to black golfers. In the nation’s capital “equal” meant that African-American golfers could tee it up only on a sawed-off nine holes with sand greens that extended west of the Lincoln Memorial.
Nonetheless, a spirited African-American community had grown up in Washington D.C. in the 1920s and 1930s. There was an all-black golfing group of men that called themselves the “Royal Golf Club” who travled “far and near” to play the game. When many of their wives tired of spending weekends alone they formed the first all-female black golfing group in America, the “Wake Robin Golf Club, Inc.”
For years these organizations peppered the local and federal governments with letters and petitions to open golf courses on public lands to blacks. Finally in 1938 they found a receptive ear in Harold Ickes, the longest serving Secretary of the Interior in United States history. Ickes, who began his political life as Republican, was a life-long political reformer in Chicago before he was recruited into Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet.
Ickes had been president of the Chicago branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and his first act in the federal government was to get rid of segregated rest rooms and dining facilities in his department. Then he ended segregation in the national parks. When he heard about the plight of black golfers in the city he was immediately receptive and directed the building of a nine-hole course on the site of an abandoned National Park Service waste dump. The first golf course constructed specifically for African-American golfers was named after John Mercer Langston, an abolitionist and educator who was the first black man elected to the United States Congress from Virginia.
Langston was expanded into an 18-hole course in 1955 and two years later hosted its first Capital City Open on the United Golfers Association (UGA) tour. The UGA started at Maplewood Dountry Club in Stow, Massachusetts in 1926 and staged the Negro National Open for fifty years. Howard Wheeler, a cross-handed player from Atlanta who played out of Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Golf Club, won six Negro National Opens as did Charlie Sifford, including five in a row in the 1950s. Sifford would make regular appearances at Langston even after being the first African-American to win a PGA event in 1967 at Hartford, winning the Capital City Open into the 1ate 1970s. Ted Rhodes, considered the first professional African-American golfer and tutor of Joe Louis, counted five National Opens among his 150 or so wins on the loosely organize black professional circuit.
Lee Elder came to Washington DC from Dallas in the early 1960s to give lessons at Langston, where he met his wife, Rose, on the course. Elder was in a stretch of winning 18 of 22 tournaments on the UGA Tour and left Langston after the PGA of America removed its “Caucasian-only” clause in its bylaws in 1961. Lee and Rose Elder sought to win the concession from the National Park Service to run Langston even as he was becoming the first black golfer to play in the Masters in 1975. The Elders finally won the concession in 1978 but the course closed due to financial difficulties in 1981.
In the decades since the Park Service has dodged plans to convert the course into a parking or a bridge or a highway as the course was added to the National Register of Historic Place. In 2002 Langston again emerged into a pioneering role as on of the first courses to host a First Tee program from the World Golf Organization to foster leadership through youth golf.