SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
June 09, 1969
U.S. Opens are often held in old clubs that look like castles and are as much fun as a bank, but this year's tournament at Champions in Houston promises to provide a swinging atmosphere
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June 09, 1969

Wide-open Eyes Are On Texas

U.S. Opens are often held in old clubs that look like castles and are as much fun as a bank, but this year's tournament at Champions in Houston promises to provide a swinging atmosphere

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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.

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."

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