Crowne Moments

Looking back at legendary tournament excitement

No need to mark your calendars, because you already know about it. The Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial Country Club. The year’s biggest social event tees off the week of May 20 and runs through the following Sunday. This year’s total purse is $6.4 million, with the winning golfer receiving $1,116,000. And the golfers aren’t the only winners.
With the money they make parking cars in their yards, some nearby residents could easily cover a year’s worth of house payments, or two glasses of wine at Eddie V’s.

It wasn’t always that lucrative. The inaugural tournament was played in 1946 and became known as the Colonial National Invitational. Ben Hogan took first place, along with the whopping sum of $3,000 in prize money. He went on to win four more times, but the one I remember was his last victory in 1959. I was 11 years old and lived just a few houses away from the clubhouse on Colonial Parkway. By that time, I’d already become pretty familiar with the names of some of the more successful professional golfers who played there in the ‘50s.

Names like Ed “Porky” Oliver; Cary Middlecoff; the Hebert brothers, Lionel and Jay; Dow Finsterwald; and my mother’s favorite, Lloyd Mangrum. But Hogan always got the lion’s share of the gallery. And he was something to watch. To this day, I have never seen anyone that serious and intense. He made Dick Cheney look like a rodeo clown.

I also can’t ever recall seeing him without a cigarette. I guess it wasn’t all that uncommon on the tour back then. Arnold Palmer was even making L&M commercials. But he had the coolest way of flipping that cigarette butt on the ground before each shot. And he had every shot in the book. Well, almost every shot. He had difficulty with putts inside 2 feet. A bad case of the yips. It certainly wasn’t from lack of concentration.

Hogan was very methodical and had the same routine on every putt. He’d first place the putter in front of the ball. Next, he would gently place the putter behind the ball. Then after what seemed like an eternity, he would finally putt it. And in 1959, thousands of us gathered around the 18th green on the final day of the tournament to watch him do just that. He had a putt not much longer than a gnat’s tongue to win the championship. He stood over the ball, and we all waited. And waited. Then he finally gave it a tap, and what followed was what may be the loudest collective groan on record. He somehow left the putt short. I don’t think anybody who was there that day will ever forget that moment. However, what they may not remember is that he won an 18-hole playoff with Fred Hawkins the very next day.

Colonial is one of the finest golf courses in America. If you play it, you will probably use every club in your bag. And every cuss word in your vocabulary. It was always tough on the pros too, but the hardest it ever played was in 1971. This was before the PGA controlled the golf course conditions, and tournament officials just decided to let the rough grow. And did it ever. If players were a foot off the fairway, they couldn’t find their ball. More than 3 feet, and they couldn’t find their caddy. The eventual winner had no idea he had won when officials retrieved him at the airport. When they got him back to the club, a pleasantly surprised Gene Littler was crowned champion with a total score of three over par.

The player I enjoyed watching the most was Chi Chi Rodriguez. You couldn’t find a more entertaining act in Vegas. He weighed about as much as the clubs he was swinging but could hit the ball well over 300 yards. With today’s equipment, he’d have hit it a half mile. Plus, he was an incredible shot maker. I watched him hit an intentional hook shot, that had it stayed in the air two seconds longer, would have hit him in the back of the head.

But my most memorable moment of Colonial was one you never heard or read about. It happened during the Wednesday Pro-Am back in the ‘70s. My dad had a friend who was a great golfer until he lost a hand in an industrial accident. But Raymond was not about to turn down a chance to play in the Pro-Am with a young pro named Roger Maltbie.

Playing with a prosthetic, Raymond was nervous, but Maltbie went out of his way to make him feel more comfortable. Virtually ignoring his own game, Roger spent the entire round helping Raymond with playing tips and advice. He was incredible, and the few of us that were following the group that day won’t ever forget Roger Maltbie.

I’m going to try to make it to the tournament at least one day this year. Probably on Friday. And like most of the guys these days, I’ll be staring at some of the women covered in lethal amounts of tanning spray, with hair that’s a color not found in nature. But when I make it to a tent and order that first margarita, I just know I’ll sit down and start reminiscing about the old days. Hogan, Littler, Chi Chi and Maltbie. Especially Maltbie.

illustration by Charles Marsh