Pat Wheeler, a native of Tyler, has written “When Golf Was Fun: Tales from the Late Great Beer & BBQ Circuit.” The book has stories about Ben Crenshaw, Bruce Lietzke, Don January, Homero Blancas and many more PGA greats who grew up on the Texas golf circuit. He also looks at local legends such as A.J. Triggs, plus tales about old Briarwood, Hilltop and other East Texas courses. 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 is the first of an occasional series from his very entertaining book.
— Phil Hicks, sports editor
In the Dead of Night
That was when I found out that they don’t have co-champions in Center, Texas.
Bill Rogers still has an East Texas accent as thick as a milkshake at Guy’s Orange Stand in his hometown of Texarkana, Texas. So when he exclaimed that his most vivid memory of the beer and barbecue days was when his University of Houston teammate and close friend to this day, Bruce Lietzke, defeated another UH teammate Art Russell in the “dead of night,” some might think his account a slight embellishment of the facts.
Not so says the tall and friendly protagonist of this tale, known to his friends as Leaky.
“I remember that tournament,” Lietzke said. “It was getting so dark that with two holes to play, I considered quitting. But people said no, you have to finish.
“When we finished putting on the last hole, it was really dark, crazy dark. So we go into the pro shop and they take about 30 minutes to add up all of the scores and so forth. By now, it is about 10 at night in the middle of the summer. The guy gets up says, ‘boys, we have a tie between Bruce Lietzke and Arthur Russell.’”
At that, Lietzke said he went over to Russell and congratulated him as a co-champion.
“That is pretty cool,” Lietzke remembers saying. “Then whoever had me whispered into my ear that we don’t have co-champions in Center. So I asked them if we were coming back the next morning or doing a scorecard playoff and they said no.
“It was obvious that they had done this before because soon there were about 10 or 15 cars that drove out of the parking lot and onto a fairway going away from the clubhouse. There were five or six cars on each side of the fairway with their headlights on, shining into the fairway. And a guy had a flashlight to help you tee up the ball and see the ball when you swung.
“So we had this playoff at 10:15 or 10:30 at night. I can just remember thinking that you have to hit it inside the headlights so that you can find the ball. I hit a good one but Arthur hit one into the blackness of night and we never found his ball. I finished the hole and Arthur had to hit another ball and that was it. That was when I found out that they don’t have co-champions in Center, Texas.”
Rogers remembers the nine-hole track that the players just kept going around as they played 36 holes on the final day. A good test of golf built by the members with the help of longtime Tyler pro Ralph Morgan, the Center course had a good variety of holes but four trips around it in one day could do tricks to the mind.
While Lietzke would go on to win 13 times on the PGA Tour and seven times on the Champions Tour, Rogers won the 1981 British Open during a five-year run of good play from 1978 until 1983. Known as the Panther because of his gait while surveying a green for a chip or long putt, Rogers said he and Lietzke were present during a most interesting evening following the 1980 British Open at Muirfield, Scotland.
“It was a few hours after Watson had won the Open and we were all in the dining room having dinner,” Rogers said. “Whenever Ben (Crenshaw) would go over there, people would inundate him with gifts like books and they had given him some feathery balls and wooden shafted clubs. We were all toasting Tom and in a celebratory mood and somebody says, “Lets go play 10 and 18!’
“It was mostly Americans, you know, the ugly Americans, and we jump up and go out. We blew up the feathery but kept playing and sure enough, the captain of the club, his name was Hamner or something and man, he was not enamored at all, he was upset and felt like it was a disgrace for us to do that. He came charging out on the 18th green and wanted to know what we are doing and Watson had just won the Open a couple of hours before. And now he is giving us the riot act.”
So, Bill, what did you do?
“I ran into a pot bunker and tried to hide,” Rogers said with a laugh. “I was that scared.”
An account of the episode is now part of the lore of the Open Championship and proudly displayed in the halls outside of the bar at the Grey Walls Hotel adjacent to the splendid course.
Rogers, like Lietzke, a humble and extremely likeable man, seems almost embarrassed to discuss his 1981 British Open triumph. But he prevailed over a young Bernhard Langer and bounced back from a double bogey early in the round to claim the Claret Jug. That trophy was displayed for a year proudly in an East Texas bank in Texarkana.
“A local bank asked if they could house it for the year and they built a case for it,” Rogers said. “There were a lot of people in the four states area (Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana) that came to see it after the word spread. There were stories of people coming a long way to see it.
“Going home with it was fun because the pilot acknowledged it and I even passed it around the plane. It was fun looking at all the names on it. Every square inch is filled with a name.”
Rogers is also sometimes kidded about his austere ways with money and he recounted one of his first trips to a barbecue tournament, the Briarwood Invitational in Tyler.
“I had a crisp $100 bill that Jerry Robinson (his home course golf pro) gave me when I left for Tyler and I was consumed with the thought of that money the whole way down. I pulled into a barbecue place and ordered something and then pulled out than $100 bill and some young girl said they couldn’t make change for it. I had a lot of pride about carrying that money down to the tournament.”
Robinson said a few years later that Rogers came home with about $95.
Lietzke and Rogers enjoyed their days on the barbecue circuit just like they enjoy their friendship today. They were Crenshaw’s assistant captains at the 1999 Ryder Cup when the Americans came storming back to win at The Country Club. It has been a sweet ride for the two guys.
The Scots may have given us the game but unlike the folks at Muirfield, East Texas golfers like to have some fun. Lietzke can attest to that after his real life Tin Cup experience in the dead of night in Deep East Texas.
“That’s just East Texas,” Lietzke said.
“They had their way of doing things and it was a tradition. It was great to see that my friends like Don January and Miller Barber and others like Billy Martindale and Billy Maxwell, all played those tournaments. It left a lasting impression on me. During the summertime, we would travel up and down East Texas having fun and playing golf.”