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.
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.