Editor’s Note: This is the third in an occasional series on Pat Wheeler’s “When Golf Was Fun: Tales from the Late Great Beer & BBQ Circuit.” Pat, a former Tyler Morning Telegraph writer, played competitive golf at Robert E. Lee High School and SMU, where he earned his degree in journalism. He currently writes for DFW and Houston Links Magazines; and hosts a weekly radio show about golf, Texas Links on the air, Thursdays 8-9 p.m. on www.kvceradio.com. You can also find Pat on mytxgolf.com. The book is available via www.austinbrotherspublishing.com. The following column appeared in Texas Links’ September 2012 issue. Wheeler is playing in the Troup tournament this weekend.
— Phil Hicks, sports editor
“Whatever you do, don’t mess around and get in the third flight. They will beat your brains out!”
Crutch Wheeler (my dad) circa 1970
TROUP —For the 63rd straight year, dating back to 1949, they will have the Hilltop Invitational here in this small and remote town about 20 miles south of Tyler.
While most of the old beer and barbecue tournaments have gone the way of the pay phone, Troup still has an invitational for individual play — no partner, no scramble and no mulligans. It is real golf where you put a peg in the ground, hit it, go find it and hit it again. It is 54 holes of medal play for the championship flight and match play in the lower flights. It is definitely a throw-back to a different era.
In my just published first book, “When Golf Was Fun,” I write a lot about amateur golf in Texas during the late ‘40s and ‘50s. Subtitled “Tales from the Late Great Beer and BBQ Circuit,” the book is a collection of stories from the old barbecue circuit.
Most of the stories are about the well-known players like Ben Crenshaw and Don January and how they played in the barbecue tournaments before turning pro. But there is also mention of the players in those days that weren’t championship caliber but played individual competition in the lower flights. That competition, as my dad described, was also intense.
In researching the book, I uncovered an invitation to the 1955 Willow Brook Invitational in Tyler. Thanks to Larry Barlowe of Mineola, who donated the invitation, we reproduced it and showed that an entry fee of $12.50 entitled the participant to four days of golf and social events. But even more noteworthy was the written stipulation that the field would be limited to 14 flights of 16 players. That’s 224 men matching skills in individual competition.
T.C. Hamilton is the former greens superintendent at Dallas Country Club but now lives in semi-retirement near Sulphur Springs. He played in plenty of beer and barbecue tournaments during the ‘50s while growing up in Tyler, winning the prestigious Briarwood Invitational in 1959. He still remembers the guys who went at it in the lower flights.
“There were no handicaps back then so everybody had to qualify,” Hamilton said. “If you shot a high score and then won your flight pretty easily then you were called a trophy hunter and probably not invited back. The old story is the guy complaining that somebody shot a 69 on him in the finals of the third flight. When somebody asked how bad he got beat, he said 2 and 1.”
One of the stories in my book is titled Sage Advice. It is about Gerald Joyce of Palestine, now 88 years old. Back in 1942, Joyce was attending SMU on a tennis scholarship but also played some golf and was taken to Willow Brook in Tyler for his first beer and barbecue tournament. He played horribly in the qualifying round but ended up winning the fifth flight. The next week he tried again and by following the advice or older friend and mentor Emmitt Pryor, won the East Texas Invitational at Meadowbrook Country Club in Kilgore. That a guy could go from the fifth flight to winning the championship flight the following week is a proof positive that golf was much different than today.
My friend Howie Alexander of Tyler said it would be hard to get 224 guys to play individual match play today even if Willow Brook offered the same amenities for $12.50.
“Everybody just has too much to do now,” Alexander said. “Oh, this is our week to travel to Colorado or we are headed for the coast this weekend.”
Nevertheless, Alexander has committed to play at Troup. He told me just before we hung up the phone, “If you play at Troup, I’ll see you in the consolation bracket of the third flight.”