The "royal and ancient" game of golf is enjoyed by more than six million Texans. The state's mild climate and wide-open spaces have made it possible for golf to flourish. In 1990 there were 650 courses in the state, and the economic impact of the sport exceeds billions of dollars annually. Professional golf tournaments in Texas attract the world's best players and entertain thousands of spectators. Texans can also be proud of their golfing heritage, for some of the sport's most famous competitors hail from Texas, and the state has played a key role in the development of American golf. The origins of the game are somewhat fuzzy. Scotland claims the title as the home of golf, and historical records indicate golf was played there as early as 1457. Scots spread their game to neighboring England, Ireland, and Wales and eventually to the new world. By the 1800s the seeds of the game were being planted throughout America, including Texas, where it may have been played as early as the 1860s. San Antonio, Dallas, and Galveston were early centers of golf activity in the state. In the February 20, 1887, edition of the San Antonio Daily Express, Cumming Macdona, a local resident, described the history, rules, equipment, and attractions of the Scottish game. Galveston has the distinction of having the first legally chartered club and first recorded professionally designed course (1898). Golf, however, grew slowly largely because of the long distances separating amateurs from one another and from the golfing centers in the East. By 1900 there were only five Texas courses, in comparison to New York and Massachusetts, each with over 150, and California, which had forty-three. Social and economic factors also inhibited expansion of the sport.
Several developments during the first two decades of the twentieth century spurred golf forward. Men's (1906) and women's (1916) amateur organizations and state championships were established. Public or municipal courses were also built during this time. A notable example of the latter was Brackenridge Park Golf Course in San Antonio-the first eighteen-hole municipal course in Texas. Designed by A. W. Tillinghast, Brackenridge opened for play in 1916. By the 1920s an estimated 150,000 people played the course annually, and many more were turned away. Eventually, many Texas golf stars learned the game on public courses as well as country clubs. Exhibitions by prominent British and American professionals popularized golf early on. In the winter of 1913 two members of Britain's "Great Triumvirate," Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, toured the United States and made several Texas stops. They were thought unbeatable until they lost the 1913 Open championship of the United States in a playoff with a young Boston amateur named Francis Ouimet. The loss did not dampen their popularity, nor did it detract from the large number of Texans who turned out to see golf played at the highest level. The tour fueled a competitive fire among the state's amateurs and ultimately led to the annual winter exodus of pros to the southern states in the 1920s.
The prosperous 1920s brought a golf boom to America. Bobby Jones of Atlanta captured the imagination of sports fans, who admired his graceful swing, gentlemanly manners, and unmatched competitive record. Texas joined in the boom. Many new courses and clubs were built, some bankrolled by recently acquired oil money. In 1922 the first Texas Open was held in San Antonio at Brackenridge Park. The $5,000 prize-the largest in pro golf to that time-attracted the best talent to Texas, and the tournament was the inspiration of two-farsighted Texans: San Antonio newspaperman Jack O'Brien and pioneering golf architect John Bredemus. The Texas Open set the pattern for lucrative professional events around the world. Another important professional milestone was the 1927 National Professional Golfers Association Championship, staged in Dallas. It was the first major golf event held in Texas and was the last of five PGA titles to be won by the flamboyant Walter Hagen. Golf was not immune to hardship from the crash of the stock market in 1929 to the end of World War II in 1945. The Great Depression forced many private clubs to close or be sold to municipalities. Many club pros who had migrated to the state in the 1920s left, never to return. Wartime restrictions on travel and shortages of materials also limited growth, as did military service requirements, which took pros and amateurs away from the competitive scene. In spite of the difficulties, these years were a golden age of sorts because out of the hardship came, in writer Herbert Warren Wind's words, "the New Scotland," a state that generated a seemingly endless stream of fine golfers. It began with "Lighthorse" Harry Cooper in the mid 1920s and continued with Texans Ralph Guldahl, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Jimmie N. Demaret, Lloyd E. Mangrum, and even later Jack Burke, Jr., and Dave Marr. They won scores of titles and more than twenty-five major championships. According to Harry Cooper there was a time when "a team of Texans could beat a team from any country in the world." From 1937 to 1957 five PGA champions were Texans.
Two golfers stand above the rest. During the 1930s and early 1940s Byron Nelson dominated the game. From the mid-1940s through the late 1950s Ben Hogan did the same. Coincidentally, they were both born in 1912 and grew up as caddies at the Glen Garden Club in Fort Worth. Nelson was among the first to master the new steel-shafted clubs. He won an amazing eighteen tournaments in 1945, including eleven wins in a row, a feat as yet unmatched. Hogan is regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time; perhaps no other competitor brought dedication and intensity to the sport as he did. Success came slowly for small, slightly-built Hogan, yet he managed to rise to the peak of success not once but three times. He was at the peak of his game in 1943, when wartime service took him from the golf scene. Again, he rose to prominence only to be nearly killed in an automobile accident in West Texas in 1949. In 1953 he won five of the six tournaments he entered, and three of them were majors: the Masters, the United States Open, and the only British Open in which he competed. Hogan went on to establish a successful club-manufacturing business. Nelson retired from golf in the mid-1940s and became a rancher and one of golf's best-loved legends.
During hard times some of the best courses in Texas took shape. The most famous of these, the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, was opened on the Trinity River in 1936 by merchant John Marvin Leonard and designed by John Bredemus. Colonial became the first Texas venue to host a United States Open (1941) and a United States Women's Open (1991). Northwood Country Club in Dallas hosted the U.S. Open in 1952.
Texas women have also excelled on the links. Conceivably the first woman golf professional in the United States was San Antonian Gertrude Symons, who taught golf to other ladies around 1910. But it was the incomparable Mildred Didrikson Zaharias who popularized women's professional golf. "The Babe," an Olympic gold medalist in track and field, took golf lessons in the early 1930s in Dallas, where she was competing as part of a exhibition basketball team. Athletic ability, determination, and a marvelous sense of timing took her from the top of one sport to another, and ultimately she won five of the first eleven fledgling Ladies' Professional Golfers Association Tour events, after helping to found that organization. Fellow Texans Betty Jameson, Polly Riley, and Aniela Goldthwaite gave the Babe all the competition she needed, and following closely in their footsteps were Texans Sandra Haynie, Sandra Palmer, Betsy Rawls, and Kathy Whitworth. Whitworth owns the distinction of having won more tournament victories than any other golfer, male or female (eighty-eight).
In the 1930s and 1940s Texas male amateurs repeatedly distinguished themselves. Among these champions were Gus Moreland, David Goldman, Reynolds Smith, and Rufus King. They were followed by Morris Williams, Jr., and Ed White. The era of collegiate prominence in Texas golf began in the late 1940s with the domination of North Texas State University, coached by Fred Cobb. From 1949 to 1952 Cobb's golf team, which included such future pros as Don January, stunned the Ivy League schools by winning the NCAA men's golf championship. The University of Houston men's golf team under coach Dave Williams has been the most successful in competition, with sixteen NCAA championships from 1956 to 1985. As a result, the university has garnered a reputation for aggressive recruiting programs and excellence in tournaments. The University of Texas also achieved success in the later 1960s and early 1970s with golfers Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite. The two have enjoyed successful pro careers. Kite holds the all-time money-earnings title in pro golf ($8 million plus), and Crenshaw has long been admired for a silky-smooth putting stroke and reverence for golf history. Crenshaw won the 1984 and 1995 Masters titles; Kite, the 1992 United States Open. Lee Buck Trevino, a Mexican-American former marine from the wrong side of Dallas, stunned the golf establishment with his 1968 United States Open victory. A gallery favorite, "Super Mex" won four more major championships in the early 1970s and continued to earn millions on the Senior PGA Tour, which Texans helped establish. One of the most famous golf instructors was Harvey M. Penick of Austin, who died in 1995 at age ninety.
As the popularity of golf grew, racial integration issues were raised. In 1966, for example, the Babe Zaharias Open was moved from Beaumont to Cleveland, after tournament sponsors refused Althea Gibson, a black player, entry to the clubhouse. A Texan, Lee Elder of Dallas, was the first black man allowed to play in the Masters tournament at Augusta, Georgia, in 1975. In the 1980s and 1990s, though municipal courses were integrated, members of minorities still faced racial discrimination at some private clubs.
Texas played an important role in establishing the PGA, LPGA, and Senior PGA tours. The Senior PGA, for golfers over fifty years old, was the outgrowth of the first Legends of Golf tournament in 1978, organized in Austin by colorful veteran Jimmie Demaret of Houston and promoter Fred Raphael. The Legends gave such older players as Sam Snead, Julius Boros, and Roberto de Vicenzo a chance to compete again and cemented the reputation of golf as a lifetime sport. In the 1980s Texas hosted several annual PGA Tour events, including the Texas Open (San Antonio), the Byron Nelson Classic (Dallas), the Colonial (Fort Worth), and the Houston Open. Recognition of golf continues to grow. The Texas Golf Hall of Fame in The Woodlands, Texas, originated in 1978. The LPGA moved its headquarters from New York to Sugar Land (near Houston) in 1982, opened the LPGA Hall of Fame there in 1985, and then moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1995. Golf has now entered its second century in the Lone Star State. It was estimated that more than a million children played golf in Texas in the 1990s.