History of Texas Golf
WHEN THE RYDER CAME TO (WEST) TEXAS
C 2009 by Frances G. Trimble
Once upon a time, the International Matches of the Ryder Cup were not a big deal. This was true as late as 1967 when the Ryder Cup Matches were played at Champions Golf Club in Houston where British golf fans turned out in small, but enthusiastic, numbers and the Rice University band played The Star Spangled Banner and God Save The Queen. The American fan base was larger but still small by comparison to today’s rowdy Ryder Cup galleries.
Since the 1960s, television has learned how to successfully capture and deliver match play and the PGA of America learned how to market the event.
It was British seed merchant Samuel Ryder who bankrolled the first international golf matches in 1926 and he followed up by sponsoring the Ryder Cup Matches between American and British professionals in 1927.
Two years earlier, Abe Mitchell and his colleague George Duncan had come to Texas where they competed in the Texas Open in San Antonio. Perhaps they came to scare up interest in the Ryder Cup competition premise.Few persons realize that in between the Texas Open and Ryder Cup at Champions there was a match featuring American team members and a group of challengers captained by Jimmy Demaret.
The year was 1955 — a long time ago — and most who knew about the matches are gone from this world. The event is a treasured memory for a few, including hospitable old-timers at Midland Country Club and one Houstonian who got to play golf with Texas golf icons Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan.
Bob Moncrief’s memories of the event include his teammates and the members of the 1955 American Ryder Cup team, an Army General named Paul Rutledge (who didn’t play golf), and oil tycoon Eddie Chiles.
Born in 1931, Moncrief was a small boy when his father first took him to Houston’s River Oaks Country Club, hoping that golf would catch the kid’s attention and keep him out of trouble.
Moncrief spent a day outrunning former Masters champion Jack Burke Jr., who had charge of the club’s caddie pen as a teen. River Oaks professional Jack Burke Sr. told Robert F. Moncrief that, all things considered, he would pay good money to keep young Bobby at home.
Eventually, professional Dick Forester took Moncrief under his wing in the 1940s while the Michigan native was subbing at River Oaks for Jimmy Demaret, who was in the Navy.
After high school and two years at The University of Texas where he played on the Southwest Conference championship team, undersized Moncrief entered the Army.
Stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Moncrief found himself managing the old Valdespino Golf Course, formerly El Paso Country Club, which was owned by the military. He was allowed time off to play as an amateur in the Texas PGA Championship at El Paso Country Club the first week in October, 1955. And, he won.
Dick Forester, then Vice President of the PGA of America, presented him with the trophy and confirmed that his next gig was the Ryder Cup Challenge Matches to be held at Midland Country Club.
Bob Moncrief presented General Rutledge with the trophy to keep in the Fort Bliss trophy case. Rutledge was so impressed that he told Moncrief he could play golf anywhere so long as he kept winning.
The Houstonian flew from El Paso to Midland for the Challenge Match and was so nervous that he forgot to pack socks. He did remember that someone would meet him at the airport and take him to a hotel.
“At the airport, a gentleman came up to me and said, ‘Hello Bobby, I’m Eddie Chiles and I’m here to give you a ride.’”
The two rode in Chiles’ new Lincoln and Moncrief noticed a plaque on the car’s dashboard. It said, “No. 2 car off the assembly line.”
According to Moncrief, “Eddie Chiles wasn’t real famous then but was working on it. I asked who got car No. 1 and he told me the President of the United States.”
Chiles presented Moncrief with a pairings sheet that said his playing partner the next day was none other than Byron Nelson.
“I started shaking and the matches were still two days off. I didn’t sleep much, thinking about a million things – good and bad – that might happen,” Moncrief says.
As a 23-year old, Moncrief had met some important people, but none as famous as Lord Byron Nelson.
The next day was a practice round. Byron Nelson and Moncrief were about to tee off when none other than Ben Hogan – Honorary Captain of the matches – arrived at the first tee. Moncrief’s mouth went dry and his knees felt like butter. He tells the story:
I knew a little about Hogan because my older brother, Frank, had dated Valerie Hogan’s sister, Sarah. Sarah told Frank that
Valerie and Ben never went out at night because Ben was always too tired from hitting practice balls all day. This conversation had taken place long before Hogan became famous, but I asked him about Frank and Sarah and he said he remembered the two dating.
That round of golf, with two giants of the game, is something I will never forget. They talked a lot to one another and I just listened.
Later, there was an exhibition where the pros hit three shots with their club of choice. Mr. Hogan actually joked, turning his cap around, sticking his tongue out, and making a funny face. At that moment, life could not have been better for Moncrief. But,
life has a way of turning on you.
The next day, Mr. Nelson and I teed it up against Jerry Barber and Marty Furgol. During this round that something happened that was undoubtedly my most embarrassing moment in golf. We were playing alternate shot and were all square through the third hole. On the fourth hole, a par five, Nelson hit a great drive in the center and long and I knew that I could reach the green and asked my caddy for the 3-wood. He took it out of my bag, held it out for me and thought I took it. I didn’t. Neither of us did. The club dropped to the ground
and moved the ball. It was counted as a shot, although I had not addressed the ball.
Barber had played Furgol’s drive and was about 40 yards short of the green. Nelson then played what was our third shot and put it on the green about 45 feet from the cup. Furgol played their third shot and the ball was about five feet inside our ball. I putted to within a foot of the hole and they conceded a par. Jerry Barber then stepped up and, deadly putter that he was, put it right in the middle. My error cost us the hole and we lost the point for the front nine, one down.
On the back nine we were both three under coming to No. 18. Mr. Nelson hit another great drive on the par four. The opponents played Barber’s drive and Furgol hit the second on the green to about 60 feet.
I hit the best 2-iron of my life to about a foot from the hole. I pranced up the fairway thinking that I had vindicated myself from the dropped club disaster and were going to finish tied at 1-1/2 points each.
They conceded our birdie and Barber got ready to putt. From the moment the ball left the putter head, I knew it was going in.
In the words of Willie Nelson, “Some days are diamonds and some days are stones.”
Golf fans will remember Jerry Barber as a small man, a short-hitter and a great putter. He had done the same thing he did to Nelson and Moncrief many times before, once to Don January when Barber beat him 1- up in the finals of the old match play PGA Championship by holing putts longer than 40 feet on the last three holes.
The 7,035 yard Midland Country Club, designed and constructed by Fort Worth’s Ralph Plummer in 1950, was somewhat immature the week of October 22, 1955, but was and is a good test of golf. Plummer is perhaps best known for his work at Dallas’ Northwood Country Club where the 1954 U. S. Open was contested and Champions Golf Club Cypress Creek course which hosted the 1969 U. S. Open.
In 1955, the American Ryder Cup team was on its way to Palm Springs, CA, where Captain Chick Harbert led the Yanks to a 8 points to 4 points victory over British Captain Dai Rees’ team to retain the Ryder Cup. The American line-up that played in Midland included Cary Middlecoff, Chandler Harper, Tommy Bolt, Doug Ford, Jack Burke Jr., Jerry Barber, Marty Furgol, and Sam Snead.
Jimmy Demaret’s hand-picked team included Vic Ghezzi, Mike Souchak, Al Besselink, Bo Wininger, Fred Hawkins and Texans Byron Nelson, Billy Maxwell, Don Cherry and Bob Moncrief.
Moncrief turned professional in 1962, the same year as Jack Nicklaus. He says the Golden Bear’s pro career “turned out decidedly better.”