Everything's bigger in Texas, including golf legends

By Randall MellApril 18, 2012, 1:49 pm

Texas isn’t the birthplace of golf.

It did not even get its American start in the state, but you could make an argument the modern game was crafted and shaped there.

With the PGA Tour returning to the Lone Star State for this week’s Valero Texas Open, it’s a fitting time to salute all things Texan in the game.

If Ohio is the cradle of coaches in football, Texas is the cradle of champions in golf.

No state has nurtured as many great players.

Photo gallery: Texas' greatest players

If you don’t believe it, just scroll through the World Golf Hall of Fame’s roster. Texas dwarfs any other state in number of Hall of Famers inducted. Seventeen players who were born or primarily raised in Texas are Hall of Famers. Florida, in comparison, has zero Hall of Famers. California has seven.

Any salute of Texans has to begin with the two greatest statesmen to play the game, two of the world’s best. In Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, the Lone Star State has twin stars, born in the same year, raised in the same city (Fort Worth) and groomed as caddie/players on the same golf course (Glen Garden Country Club).

Hogan and Nelson had as much to do with shaping the modern game as anyone.

They did so with their novel approaches to the sport, with style and tactics that would become blueprints for the players who emerged with them and then followed them.

With steel shafts replacing hickory, with painted persimmon woods in the game, Nelson and Hogan helped change the way the club was swung.

Nelson is often credited for being “The Father of the Modern Golf Swing,” his swing a radical departure from those fashioned when hickory ruled.

“It was about 1934, 1935, that steel shafts replaced hickory,” says James Dodson, author of the new book “American Triumvirate,” the story of Hogan, Nelson and Sam Snead. “If you look at the players who played with hickory, back to (Harry) Vardon and J.H. Taylor and (Walter) Hagen, they kept their hands very low and made almost no shoulder turn. They played with flat swings because of the torque of hickory, which made the club snap at impact. That was the classic swing of the time.

“Byron Nelson was the first great player with a really upright swing.”

Hogan almost singlehandedly turned the mechanics of the modern swing into a science with his best-selling book “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.”

In Hogan, the game had its first master tactician. He changed the way so many players approached competition. He might not have invented practice, but he popularized it on tour, making the practice range a workshop like it never was before. Hogan’s meticulous game-planning shaped a generation of new players.

“Hogan was the first to memorize golf courses, not just the places where you didn’t want to hit the ball, but the places you wanted to hit it,” Dodson said. “He was the first to really keep notes on golf courses where he wanted to win.”

Hogan and Snead weren’t the only Texans of their generation who made impacts on how the world viewed the sport.

Ralph Guldahl was actually the first dominant Texan on the PGA Tour. Guldahl won three times before Nelson won his first Tour event. He won 14 times, three of those majors, before Hogan won his first.

Guldahl also found fame for another reason, for inexplicably losing his game almost overnight.

A force from 1936-40, Guldahl wrote an instructional book about his golf swing, a book his family believed was his undoing. In intense analysis of what made his swing work, Guldahl is believed to have fractured whatever magical component made the swing work.

“He went from temporarily being the best player in the world to one who couldn’t play at all,” fellow Hall of Famer Paul Runyan once said.

Texas didn’t just give the game great players; it delivered great stories, with larger-than-life personalities.

Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias might have been the largest personality of them all.

An Olympic gold medalist in track and field, an All-American basketball player, this whirling dervish from Port Arthur helped found the LPGA. Though she didn’t take up the game until she was 21, she was dominant, winning 31 of 128 events she entered with flair and bravado unlike anything the women’s game has ever seen.

Once asked the secret of her golf success, Zaharias said: “Aw, I just loosen up my girdle and take a whack at it.”

Lee Trevino was as much an entertainer as Zaharias, a shot-maker with imagination beyond his game.

Born of hardscrabble circumstances, raised without a father in a three-room shack with no plumbing in Dallas, Trevino won as many fans with his humorous quips as he did his great shots.

“How can they beat me?” Trevino once said of his competition. “I’ve been struck by lightning, had two back operations and been divorced twice.”

Trevino won 29 PGA Tour titles, including six majors.

With Texas having so many great stories to be tell, it’s fitting the state delivered one of the sport’s great storytellers.

In Dan Jenkins, the Golf Digest and former Sports Illustrated golf writer and author of numerous best-selling books, Texas has its best wordsmith in telling the game’s best tales. Next month, he’ll become just the sixth member of the media inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Like Hogan and Nelson, Jenkins grew up in Fort Worth. Like Hogan and Nelson, he once finished runner-up in the Fort Worth City Amateur Championship.

A Golf Digest interviewer once asked Jenkins about today’s players believing he was too caught up in the romanticism of an era long since passed.

“I can't help it that I saw Hogan and Snead and Byron in their prime, and I know what great shot-makers they were, how inventive and creative they had to be,” Jenkins said. “But I loved it when David Ogrin called me `a hostile voice from a previous era.’ He nailed me.”

The list of Texans – just in the men's game – who shaped golf goes on and on. There’s Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret, Jack Burke Jr., Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Dave Marr and 'Lighthorse' Harry Cooper, who moved from England to Texas when he was 10.

There’s also Harvey Penick, one of the greatest teachers who ever lived.

There’s Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States and a World Golf Hall of Famer. He played 800 rounds of golf while in office and installed a putting green on the White House lawn.

Texas also gave us Kathy Whitworth, whose 88 LPGA titles make her the winningest woman in the history of the game. There’s also Betsy Rawls, Betty Jameson and Sandra Haynie.

The Lone Star state didn’t live up to its reputation where golf is concerned. Texas spawned a constellation of stars.

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Simpson, Noren share Honda lead after challenging Rd. 1

By Doug FergusonFebruary 23, 2018, 1:25 am

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Tiger Woods had what he called ''easily'' his best round hitting the ball, and he didn't even break par at the Honda Classic.

Alex Noren and Webb Simpson shared the lead at 4-under 66 in steady wind on a penal PGA National golf course, and felt as though they had to work hard for it. Both dropped only one shot Thursday, which might have been as great an accomplishment as any of their birdies.

''When you stand on certain tee boxes or certain approach shots, you remember that, 'Man, this is one of the hardest courses we play all year, including majors,''' said Simpson, who is playing the Honda Classic for the first time in seven years.

Only 20 players broke par, and just as many were at 76 or worse.

Woods had only one big blunder - a double bogey on the par-5 third hole when he missed the green and missed a 3-foot putt - in an otherwise stress-free round. He had one other bogey against three birdies, and was rarely out of position. Even one of his two wild drives, when his ball landed behind two carts that were selling frozen lemonade and soft pretzels, he still had a good angle to the green.

''It was very positive today,'' Woods said. ''It was a tough day out there for all of us, and even par is a good score.''

It was plenty tough for Adam Scott, who again stumbled his way through the closing stretch of holes that feature water, water and more water. Scott went into the water on the par-3 15th and made double bogey, and then hit into the water on the par-3 17th and made triple bogey. He shot 73.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Rory McIlroy was at even par deep into the back nine when he figured his last chance at birdie would be the par-5 18th. Once he got there, he figured his best chance at birdie was to hit 3-wood on or near the green. Instead, he came up a yard short and into the water, made double bogey and shot 72.

Noren, who lost in a playoff at Torrey Pines last month, shot 31 on the front nine and finished with a 6-foot birdie on the ninth hole into a strong wind for his 66.

The Swede is a nine-time winner on the European Tour who is No. 16 in the world, though he has yet to make a connection among American golf fans - outside of Stillwater, Oklahoma, from his college days at Oklahoma State - from not having fared well at big events. Noren spends time in South Florida during the winter, so he's getting used to this variety of putting surfaces.

''I came over here to try to play some more American-style courses, get firmer greens, more rough, and to improve my driving and improve my long game,'' Noren said. ''So it's been great.''

PGA champion Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Morgan Hoffmann - who all live up the road in Jupiter - opened with a 67. There's not much of an advantage because hardly anyone plays PGA National the other 51 weeks of the year. It's a resort that gets plenty of traffic, and conditions aren't quite the same.

Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who now lives primarily in West Palm Beach, also came out to PGA National a few weeks ago to get a feel for the course. He was just like everyone else that day - carts on paths only. Not everyone can hole a bunker shot on the final hole at No. 9 for a 67. Mackenzie Hughes of Canada shot his 67 with a bogey from a bunker on No. 9.

Woods, in his third PGA Tour event since returning from a fourth back surgery, appears to be making progress.

''One bad hole,'' he said. ''That's the way it goes.''

It came on the easiest hole on the course. Woods drove into a fairway bunker on the par-5 third, laid up and put his third shot in a bunker. He barely got it out to the collar, used the edge of his sand wedge to putt it down toward the hole and missed the 3-foot par putt.

He answered with a birdie and made pars the rest of the way.

''I'm trying to get better, more efficient at what I'm doing,'' Woods said. ''And also I'm actually doing it under the gun, under the pressure of having to hit golf shots, and this golf course is not forgiving whatsoever. I was very happy with the way I hit it today.''

Woods played with Patton Kizzire, who already has won twice on the PGA Tour season this year. Kizzire had never met Woods until Thursday, and he yanked his opening tee shot into a palmetto bush. No one could find it, so he had to return to the tee to play his third shot. Kizzire covered the 505 yards in three shots, an outstanding bogey considering the two-shot penalty.

Later, he laughed about the moment.

''I was so nervous,'' Kizzire said. ''I said to Tiger, 'Why did you have to make me so nervous?'''

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Players battle 'crusty' greens on Day 1 at Honda

By Randall MellFebruary 22, 2018, 11:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Tiger Woods called the greens “scratchy” on PGA National’s Champion Course.

Rory McIlroy said there is “not a lot of grass on them.”

Morgan Hoffmann said they are “pretty dicey in spots, like a lot of dirt.”

The first round of the Honda Classic left players talking almost as much about the challenge of navigating the greens as they did the challenge of Florida’s blustery, winter winds.

“They looked more like Sunday greens than Thursday,” McIlroy said. “They are pretty crusty. They are going to have a job keeping a couple of them alive.”

The Champion Course always plays tough, ranking annually among the most challenging on the PGA Tour. With a very dry February, the course is firmer and faster than it typically plays.

“Today was not easy,” Woods said. “It's going to get more difficult because these greens are not the best . . . Some of these putts are a bit bouncy . . . There's no root structure. You hit shots and you see this big puff of sand on the greens, so that shows you there's not a lot of root structure.”

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Brad Nelson, PGA National’s director of agronomy, said the Champion Course’s TifEagle Bermuda greens are 18 years old, and they are dealing with some contamination, in spots, of other strains of grasses.

“As it’s been so warm and dry, and as we are trying to get the greens so firm, those areas that are not a true Tifeagle variety anymore, they get unhappy,” Nelson said. “What I mean by unhappy is that they open up a little bit . . . It gives them the appearance of being a little bit thin in some areas.”

Nelson said the greens are scheduled for re-grassing in the summer of 2019. He said the greens do have a “crusty” quality, but . . .

“Our goal is to be really, really firm, and we feel like we are in a good place for where we want them to be going into the weekend,” he said.

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McIlroy, Scott have forgettable finish at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 11:03 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy and the rest of his group had a forgettable end to their rounds Thursday at the Honda Classic.

McIlroy was even par for the day and looking for one final birdie to end his opening round. Only two players had reached the par-5 finishing hole, but McIlroy tried to hold a 3-wood up against the wind from 268 yards away. It found the water, leading to a double bogey and a round of 2-over 72.  

“It was the right shot,” McIlroy said. “I just didn’t execute it the right way.”

He wasn’t the only player to struggle coming home.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Adam Scott, who won here in 2016, found the water on both par 3s in the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17. He made double on 15, then triple on 17, after his shot from the drop area went long, then he failed to get up and down. He shot 73, spoiling a solid round.

The third player in the group, Padraig Harrington, made a mess of the 16th hole, taking a triple.

The group played the last four holes in a combined 10 over.

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Woods (70) better in every way on Day 1 at Honda

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 22, 2018, 8:40 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Consider it a sign of the times that Tiger Woods was ecstatic about an even-par score Thursday at the Honda Classic.

It was by far his most impressive round in this nascent comeback.

Playing in a steady 20-mph wind, Woods was better in all facets of the game Thursday at PGA National. Better off the tee. Better with his irons. And better on and around the “scratchy” greens.

He hung tough to shoot 70 – four shots better than his playing partner, Patton Kizzire, a two-time winner this season and the current FedExCup leader – and afterward Woods said that it was a “very positive” day and that he was “very solid.”

It’s a small sample size, of course – seven rounds – but Woods didn’t hesitate in declaring this “easily” his best ball-striking round of the year.

And indeed it was, even if the stats don’t jump off the page.

Officially, he hit only seven of 14 fairways and just 10 greens, but some of those misses off the tee were a few paces into the rough, and some of those iron shots finished just off the edge of the green.

The more telling stat was this: His proximity to the hole (28 feet) was more than an 11-foot improvement over his first two starts this year. And also this: He was 11th among the early starters in strokes gained-tee to green, which measures a player’s all-around ball-striking. Last week, at Riviera, he ranked 121st.

“I felt very comfortable,” he said. “I felt like I hit the ball really well, and it was tough out there. I had to hit a lot of knockdown shots. I had to work the golf ball both ways, and occasionally downwind, straight up in the air.

“I was able to do all that today, so that was very pleasing.”

The Champion Course here at PGA National is the kind of course that magnifies misses and exposes a player if he’s slightly off with his game. There is water on 15 of the 18 holes, and there are countless bunkers, and it’s almost always – as it was Thursday – played in a one- or two-club wind. Even though it’s played a half hour from Woods’ compound in Hobe Sound, the Honda wasn’t thought to be an ideal tune-up for Woods’ rebuilt game.

But maybe this was just what he needed. He had to hit every conceivable shot Thursday, to shape it both ways, high and low, and he executed nearly every one of them.

The only hole he butchered was the par-5 third. With 165 yards for his third shot, he tried to draw a 6-iron into a stiff wind. He turned it over a touch too much, and it dropped into the bunker. He hit what he thought was a perfect bunker shot, but it got caught in the overseeded rye grass around the green and stayed short. He chipped to 3 feet and then was blown off-balance by a wind gust. Double.

Full-field scores from the Honda Classic

Honda Classic: Articles, photos and videos

But what pleased Woods most was what he did next. Steaming from those unforced errors, he was between a 2- and 3-iron off the tee. He wanted to leave himself a 60-degree wedge for his approach into the short fourth hole, but a full 2-iron would have put him too close to the green.

So he took a little off and “threw it up in the air” – 292 yards.

“That felt really good,” Woods said, smiling. And so did the 6-footer that dropped for a bounce-back birdie.

"I feel like I'm really not that far away," he said. 

To illustrate just how much Woods’ game has evolved in seven rounds, consider this perspective from Brandt Snedeker.

They played together at Torrey Pines, where Woods somehow made the cut despite driving it all over the map. In the third round, Woods scraped together a 70 while Snedeker turned in a 74, and afterward Snedeker said that Woods’ short game was “probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

A month later, Snedeker saw significant changes. Woods’ short game is still tidy, but he said that his iron play is vastly improved, and it needed to be, given the challenging conditions in the first round.

“He controlled his ball flight really well and hit a bunch of really good shots that he wasn’t able to hit at Torrey, because he was rusty,” said Snedeker, who shot 74. “So it was cool to see him flight the ball and hit some little cut shots and some little three-quarter shots and do stuff I’m accustomed to see him doing.”

Conditions are expected to only get more difficult, more wind-whipped and more burned out, which is why the winning score here has been single-digits under par four of the past five years.

But Woods checked an important box Thursday, hitting the shots that were required in the most difficult conditions he has faced so far.

Said Snedeker: “I expect to see this as his baseline, and it’ll only get better from here.”