Ask anyone in San Antonio about the evolution of the city’s visitor economy and they likely will cite the Alamo, the River Walk, and maybe the impact of HemisFair ’68 and the opening of the Henry B. González Convention Center.
Local history buffs should add the founding of the Texas Open a century ago to that list if they want to fill in what until now has been a big missing chapter in the story.
Now known as the Valero Texas Open, the oldest golf tournament in Texas and the biggest charitable event on the PGA Tour marks its 100th anniversary this week. The celebration will include an outdoor concert, appearances by World Golf Hall of Fame members and other past Texas Open winners, and publication of It’s Been a Journey: The True Story of the Oldest Golf Tournament in Texas by University of Texas at Austin journalism professor and sports journalist Kevin Robbins.
The large-format book is a visual and a narrative treasure trove for golf fans, especially those of us who have heard the stories of golfing greats coming here and winning, from Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead to Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw and Hale Irwin.
Palmer won three years in a row, 1960-62, while Crenshaw made his first professional start here after leaving the University of Texas two years shy of graduation and actually won the event. He, too, would go on to win two more times to equal Palmer.
Jordan Spieth, another former University of Texas standout who left school early to turn pro, will be on hand this week to defend the Texas Open title he won at TPC San Antonio last year.
History buffs who have never played the game will appreciate Robbins’ book, too. While the book chronicles 99 years of golf played at eight different San Antonio courses over the life of the Texas Open, it’s how the tournament was born that makes for its own intriguing story that is not widely understood in San Antonio.
Flash back to 1920 when San Antonio, population 161,300, was the largest city in Texas, with history dating to the early 18th-century founding of the Spanish missions and the town, and a flood of people that came to train for World War I at the city’s military installations.
In an idle moment, Jack O’Brien, the enterprising sports editor at the San Antonio Evening News, came up with the novel idea of using a golf tournament to boost the city’s winter visitor economy.
O’Brien convinced others in the city to pony up $5,000, an unprecedented sum in professional golf, a sport largely played during the spring and summer months on golf courses and at country clubs in the Northeast and Midwest. Most golf pros in those days worked as teaching pros and repaired clubs to make ends meet.
O’Brien and his fellow tournament organizers lured 60 of the sport’s top players down to San Antonio and Brackenridge Park Golf Course, a public course owned by the city, to compete in a mid-winter tournament where the winner was promised a check for $1,633.33, the largest prize ever paid out to a touring winner.
It didn’t hurt that Brackenridge, like Oak Hills Country Club and the San Antonio Country Club some years later, was designed by noted golf course architect A.W. Tillinghast, a familiar name to pro golfers who had played better-known Tillinghast-designed courses such as Winged Foot on Long Island and Baltusrol in New Jersey.
Golfers were not wealthy elites in those early years, so some of the 60 pros who played in 1922, the first year of the Texas Open, arrived behind the wheels of their own vehicles. Most arrived by train at Sunset Station.
O’Brien and his fellow boosters built on the tourney’s popularity with players and fans, and excepting for the Great Depression and World War II, the Texas Open and its money purse grew with each passing year. Equally important, the event contributed to the city’s growing reputation as a desirable winter destination for people living in more wintry climates with the means to travel.
O’Brien could not have known at the time the impact he would have on the sport of golf itself.
The prize money, San Antonio’s moderate winter climate and the city’s penchant for hospitality gave birth to the sport’s so-called “winter tour” as cities from Los Angeles to Miami imitated San Antonio in the following years and added their own tournaments, as did Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth. Golf as a sport no longer went into hibernation for the winter.
Professional golf is now a big-money sport where winners bank seven-figure checks and make even more from endorsements, and where the winter tour begins in Hawaii, moves to California, stops in Arizona and swings through Florida before arriving in San Antonio and the Valero Texas Open.
San Antonio is the city — and the Texas Open is the tournament — where all that began. The sport’s most successful players will arrive in private jets this week, but they will be playing the same game played here a century ago, drawing galleries filled with fans from near and far. The purse has grown from $5,000 in 1922 to $7.9 million in 2022. This year’s winner will collect $1,386,000.
Spring break, the Valero Texas Open and then Fiesta are all part of that winter visitor economy that the city has built over the decades. More than a little credit should go to O’Brien for his original idea, and to Robbins for telling the story so well.
The author will be on hand this week at TPC San Antonio to sign books, which will be for sale there.