Origins of Valero Texas Open include a journalist, civic boosters and record prize money
March 28, 2022
By Kevin Robbins , Special to PGATOUR.COM
- March 28, 2022
- The Valero Texas Open was first contested in 1922 at San Antonio muni Brackenridge Park. (Courtesy of Legendary PMG)
The Valero Texas Open, which begins this week at TPC San Antonio, made its debut a century ago at a municipal golf course in a river-crossed public park that included a zoo.
It left Brackenridge Park in 1959. But it never left San Antonio.
Now, the Valero Texas Open is the oldest tournament on the PGA TOUR to have been played exclusively in the same city. Its origin involves a journalist, a group of civic boosters, a pile of money never before seen in professional golf and the aspiration to entice players from the Midwest and Northeast to the pleasant climes of South Texas in the dead of winter. (Footnote: those climes weren’t always pleasant. But the enticement worked.)
The following is an excerpt from “It’s Been a Journey,” the new centennial history of the golf tournament that opened the TOUR to Texas and the modern Southern Swing:In 1923, Walter Hagen won the Valero Texas Open in a playoff over Bill Mehlhorn. (Courtesy of Legendary PMG)
Jack O’Brien, the Denver-born sports editor at the (San Antonio) Evening News, found himself one day early in 1921 with some idle time. He wandered over to the machine in the newsroom that spit out dispatches from the wire services. There he found two bulletins about upcoming sporting events and, more importantly, the prize money they paid. He brought them back to his desk and settled in to read.
One was about the 1921 U.S. Open, played that summer at Columbia Country Club in Maryland. O’Brien read that first place paid $500. The other was about an upcoming light heavyweight prizefight featuring Mike McTigue and Louis Mbarcik Fall, known as “Battling Siki” of Senegal. The purse for that boxing match: an astounding $25,000.
“What struck Jack smack in the face was the fact that a professional golfer would spent almost a lifetime making that much money,” reporter Wesley Marrito wrote in 1941 for the San Antonio Express. Like many newspaper editors of the period, O’Brien embraced competing roles. He was, first and foremost, a chronicler of the sporting scene in San Antonio in an era when athletes and their conquests took on heroic, even epic, proportions. But O’Brien also saw himself as a civic watchdog and promoter — what might be today called an influencer. He had staked an interest in the evolution of San Antonio as a good place in which to visit and live.
The disparity in earnings between golfers and boxers gave O’Brien an idea. What if he could raise more money than ever before offered at a golf tournament?
Such an event would show professional golfers from northern states the pleasant San Antonio winter climate. They might, in turn, tell their friends, which could boost tourism dependent at the time almost exclusively on the mission trail. A tournament on the pro circuit would introduce professional golf to residents of San Antonio. It could give the city another identity. It could make San Antonio a city known for golf; it could even grow golf as a pastime seen as beneficial to health, industry, and prosperity. It could be called the Texas Open.
O’Brien saw broad potential. He made a list of people who could help him make it happen. He enlisted the San Antonio Junior Chamber of Commerce, known as the Jaycees.
The newspaperman and his cadre chose as a venue Brackenridge Park, which had been open since 1916. Designed by A.W. Tillinghast, one of the principal golf-course architects of the period, Brackenridge Park was the first 18-hole municipal golf course in the state. Tillinghast, whose career portfolio would include Baltrusrol Golf Club in New Jersey and Winged Foot Golf Club in New York, employed fifty arrestees in the construction of the course, which housed a wolf den near the sixth green. He imposed his famous “reef” bunkers, diagonally crossing the third and eighth fairways. The San Antonio River curled through the back nine.
John Bredemus had been appointed the professional at Brackenridge Park in 1919, by which time golf in the United States was becoming enormously popular. This was six years after the 1913 U.S. Open, won by an amateur named Francis Ouimet, a onetime caddie at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he beat the great British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff. The emergence of the Texas Open rode a wave of American enthusiasm for golf that rose from Ouimet’s conquest as a 20-year-old amateur.
But there was much more to it than that. San Antonio was one of the 45 American cities with municipal golf courses (85 existed at the time). To citizens of the city, golf was something they could play, not just read and wonder about. Brackenridge Park brought them together. It gave them a hub, a sanctuary. “It is around the public golf course that you get your cross-sections of humanity,” the celebrated sports reporter Grantland Rice wrote in 1920. These were the people, Jack O’Brien knew, who would come to a Texas Open.San Antonio Evening News sports editor Jack O'Brien had brain waves that helped bring the Valero Texas Open to life. (Courtesy of Legendary PMG)
With Bredemus and his far-reaching connections in the game, O’Brien and his collaborators planned their new event for February 1922 as the first stroke-play tournament ever in Texas. O’Brien cajoled the management of the Crockett, Menger, and St. Anthony hotels to join his effort. He got the support of business leader Frank Huntress, mayor O.B. Black, and Jack Lapham, whose wife, Edna, was a six-time Women’s Texas Golf Association champion. They raised $14,000 by November 1921. The $5,000 purse would exceed any amount that had been offered in a professional tournament. O’Brien was named — or had appointed himself —tournament manager.
The three daily newspapers in San Antonio (the Light was the third) kept track of which players had arrived for the Texas Open and where they were staying. The list of committed players included Charley Hull (known as the “Babe Ruth of American Golf”), Will Maguire, Bill Mehlhorn, Abe Espinosa, Harry Cooper, and Gene Sarazen, who had yet to win the first of his eventual 48 titles worldwide.
“We would play in a cow pasture for five thousand dollars,” Sarazen told a reporter upon arriving in San Antonio.
Bob MacDonald of Chicago won that first Texas Open with a score of 72-67-77-80—281. The Menger Hotel threw a party after the tournament and invited all the pros to attend. The menu featured “Fore,” a shrimp cocktail, “Noisy Gallery” (consommé), “Down in Two” (relishes), “Birdie” (chicken, of course), “Sand Bunker Fruit” in the form of yams, and “Grass Greens,” a salad. Arthur Seeligson, the president of the Jaycees, announced that $1,500 already had been raised for the second Texas Open in 1923.
“All our boys will be back next year,” said runner-up Cyril Walker, “(and) not only because of the unprecedented liberality of the purses, but because of the people you have down here, their cordial hospitality and because of your delightful climate, contrasting with the snow and sleet we left behind.”
Professionals would come to San Antonio for the right amount of money. They would tell friends and acquaintances about the warm winter climate of San Antonio, which would become known for golf. The Texas Open would pay dividends for a city rebuilding and rebranding as a tourist destination for years to come.
“Visiting golf experts, discussing the aftermath of San Antonio’s success with its first National tournament, estimate the number of people, largely of the wealthy tourist class, who will learn of this city as America’s winter playground as a result of the event, at around 25,000. This was arrived at by assuming that, on a low average, every one of the 60 visiting professionals comes into direct personal contact with 400 such people in his own club,” one newspaper speculated.
“San Antonio’s winter charms have been concealed from a large part of the world for a long time,” the story continued, “but the secret is out and will travel far.”Bob MacDonald won the first Valero Texas Open in 1922. (Courtesy of Legendary PMG)
A strong field entered the 1923 Texas Open, including some new and very notable names: Tommy Armour, Jack Burke Sr., Joe Kirkwood, and Fred McLeod. Harvey Penick, not yet 20 years old, got permission to leave his post as head professional at Austin Country Club, seven decades before his little red book was published as the “Little Red Book,” to enter.
Walter Hagen, the first American-born winner of the Open Championship in 1922, also committed.
The first touring professional without a club affiliation, Hagen — Sir Walter, the Haig, impossibly stylish and larger than life, the indomitable winner of 45 PGA TOUR titles, 11 majors and the career Grand Slam — was a celebrity long before he won the second Texas Open. He shot a course-record 65 in the third round that thrilled a crowd of 6,000, most of whom had never seen a golfer score with such skill. Hagen and Bill Mehlhorn tied at 9-under after four rounds. Hagen won the playoff by a shot. He banked $1,500 of the $7,000 purse.
Damon Runyon, the famous celebrity sports writer and short-story author from New York, covered the 1926 Texas Open on his way back from the new Los Angeles Open, whose creation was a direct result of the popularity of the San Antonio event. Another record field entered the tournament, which, for the first time, sent off groups of three. Macdonald Smith rallied from behind after two rounds to win.
The Texas Open was here to stay.
Kevin Robbins' book, “It’s Been a Journey: The True Story of the Oldest Golf Tournament in Texas,” will be available for purchase starting Saturday, April 2.