Glory of the Goat

Remembering Worth Hills Golf Course

| by Mark MourerRemoving golf courses from city topography is nothing new. Typically, condos or malls cap the former fairways and greens like a crown over a root canal. Country clubs that lose surrounding property value, memberships, tee times and corresponding revenue are prime targets for whiskey distilleries and, perhaps more frequently, real estate developers. Over the past several years, they have been swooping in across the country, looking to reinvigorate parts of a city and rezone old courses to welcome more modern facilities. Regardless of the city council initiatives and ambitions of visionary architects, the tragic loss of a home course can rival a death in the family for the links’ regulars.

Over the last decade, there have been a lot of funerals for these links. A 2013 report issued from the National Golf Foundation listed 155 courses that were shut down in 2012 alone, while no more than 14 opened that same year. Economic realities and the backlash from a building boom toward the end of the 20th century get credit for the downsizing.

Fort Worth golf facilities have not been spared the carnage. This is true in current events with the repositioning of our historic Glen Garden Country Club, but it also stretches back decades while Fort Worth grew into its own. One course in particular, which closed more than 50 years ago, still captivates sports historians, literary enthusiasts and 19th-hole philosophers.

This map represents the layout of Worth Hills Municipal Golf Course. This framed piece on loan from writer Mark Mourer has been signed by sports writer Dan Jenkins.

Worth Hills Golf Course was buried by TCU fraternity and sorority houses, dorms and other buildings on the southwest end of campus in the early 1960s. The metamorphosis of its hills and creeks continues to this day, evolving with limestone brick buildings designed to house the Academy of Tomorrow. But it was the golf course’s limestone outcroppings and brushy landscape features that resembled terrain only a mountain goat could clamber up and down. Thus, the course’s nickname, “Goat Hills” was born. It isn’t known who coined the nickname, but it stuck better than a pitch shot to soft bent grass green. Elegant bent grass greens, of course, did not exist at Worth Hills.

The original 96-acre tract now contains the second generation of athletic facilities, campus residences and cafeterias, standing as tributes to revised campus master plans and estate gifts from alumni. Luckily, a couple of visages of the venerable Worth Hills links remain, but the casual passerby might miss them without some knowledgeable tour guiding.

Dan Jenkins (left) and Vance Minter recently returned to the site of one of the tees at Worth Hills Golf Course.

The stone bridge over the pond connecting the TCU Greek housing with the intramural fields once carried the golfer from the elevated 18th tee across a very wet ravine and onto the uphill 18th fairway, unless, unhappily, his tee shot wound up out of bounds across bordering Stadium Drive. That bridge contains as much Fort Worth history as the bricks that line Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards. According to Will Stallworth, who retired as TCU Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities in 2011, the bridge was fashioned together from stones that were originally part of the old Fort Worth Courthouse.  One other souvenir from the course, Worth Hills’ No. 3 tee, is still visible at the western entrance to the Bayard Friedman Tennis Center and baseball stadium parking lot. It takes a little creativity and a dash of want-to, but a sightseer can discern the mesa-like elevation just to the right of the sidewalk leading south to TCU’s Lowdon Track and Field Complex.

Vance Minter knows the No. 3 tee well. He walked the course thousands of times as a player and caddy, once for a 128-hole round in one day. He spent a lot of his young life working and playing at Worth Hills and narrowly avoided losing his life there too.

“I was on the No. 3 tee when it started raining one afternoon,” Minter said, “so I sat down under the tree to wait it out. Lightning struck the tree, and I could smell the tree and leaves starting to burn. But it never killed the tree.”

(left to right) John O'Connell, Dan Jenkins, Jerry Edwards, Ed Revercomb

Or him, thankfully. The lone tree is still standing like a marshal over that tee box. Minter recalls his near-electrifying experience every time he goes by it.

To embrace golf history and culture in Fort Worth is to know the stories of Worth Hills and also to appreciate how public golf came to exist here. It’s to drive by La Gran Plaza on I-35W and Seminary Drive and know that Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan learned to play golf on that site. This was, of course, long before it was the Town Center Mall or even Seminary South, as it was previously known. Understanding golf’s grip on Fort Worth is to be slightly dismayed that a driving range on the banks of the Trinity River just off Hulen Drive is now an apartment complex replete with garages for residents. Embracing golf in Fort Worth is to go beyond revering Byron Nelson’s 18th and final tournament championship of 1945 – that’s 18 wins during the 1945 season, folks – in Fort Worth, at the Glen Garden Open.

Knowledgeable golfers will be quick to point out that Worth Hills was not the first set of links to grace our city. Many of those scholars may also be members at River Crest Country Club, which gets credit for the longest-running active golf course in town. But, even River Crest was not technically the first golf course in Fort Worth.

Golf first arrived here in 1902 in the form of a nine-hole course and country club near the intersection of Merrick and Crestline streets. Called Fort Worth Country Club, the course hosted the 1908 Texas Amateur Championship won by R.H. Connerly, but that wasn’t enough for the local club set. Members wanted a full 18-hole course, and a group of men purchased additional land to incorporate FWCC and build what is now River Crest Country Club, which opened in 1911.

The bridge over the pond by the Greek housing at TCU was once part of Worth Hills Golf Course.

Golf courses were not new developments in Texas. They had been popping up across the state for years before immigrating to Fort Worth, albeit primarily in the country club setting. A Fort Worth Star-Telegram article from 1902 announcing the arrival of FWCC pointed out that “(golf) has been played in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Galveston and elsewhere in the state and has done much to promote the joy of living in these cities.” 

The same article makes reference to other highbrow activities afforded country club members.

“Within the last few years, a remarkable impetus has been given to the establishment of country clubs by the game of golf,” the article stated, adding that “the purpose of the club is to promote outdoor life and sports. There should be golf, tennis and croquet – the first three are essential. And, if any be so inclined, polo, baseball and football fields should be provided.”

The growth and popularity of golf would eventually reach Fort Worth’s common player when Worth Hills opened in 1923. But first, the city convened a meeting in February of 1917 to discuss the viability of public golf. Committee members approved the measure to move forward with a municipal course, but with all of the charming patience that Fort Worth has been known to operate, work actually began on the course four years later. Land just south and west of TCU was identified and purchased by the city. A December 17, 1922, Star-Telegram article mentioned that the first nine holes of the planned 18 would be open by Feb. 1, 1923.

“The land was sold to the board for $375 an acre, which is a remarkably low price considering the market value of the lands surrounding the tract,” the article said. “Location of the golf course at this point is expected to greatly enhance the value of the contingent tracts.”

The city’s Public Recreation Board budgeted $25,000 to build the clubhouse and develop the land into playable links. The fee to play Worth Hills in 1923 would cost a golfer a quarter, which was reported to be the “smallest fee charged by any municipal course in the country,” according to Marvin Evans, chairman of the Recreation Board. Worth Hills was designed to play at 6,482 yards, with 3,141 allocated to the front nine while the back nine stretched a little further to 3,341 yards.

Other municipal courses followed within a few years, and country clubs continued to open in the 1930s, ’40s and beyond. Fort Worth can boast a Nike Golf facility tucked away in its western corner and also hosts national qualifiers and junior events annually. Our city is home to several PGA players, and the esteemed Hogan name will once again begin operation as a golf club business here. Fort Worth means a lot to golf. Our legacy for the sport may be best summarized in one article, too, which was published 50 years ago. It was penned by Fort Worth’s Dan Jenkins, the most honored writer in golf’s history. To understand how Fort Worth and golf fit together like glove and hand, perhaps knowing Jenkins’ The Glory Game at Goat Hills is to know Worth Hills and Fort Worth itself.

Published in the Aug. 16, 1965 edition of Sports Illustrated, Glory Game set the bar for what municipal golf means to the game and its players. It also established a new high-water mark for sports writing. New Journalism was the literary rage when Jenkins penned Glory Game, as editors were looking for writers to take the reader into the story. The drive to craft experiential journalism was a sweeping trend driven by the rapid growth of magazines that our culture had a voracious appetite for. Jenkins, fresh from writing for Fort Worth and Dallas sports pages, was quite adept at setting the scene and taking the reader along for the ride. Convening at New York bars after deadline, Jenkins was telling Worth Hills stories to his SI cohorts when, one night, the magazine’s golf editor suggested he put the stories down on paper. The rest is history, and often found in books with titles like Best Sports Writing and Golf’s Best Articles.

“The only reason I ever wrote the Goat Hills piece for SI was because I kept telling these stories in the bars where the staff gathered after work,” Jenkins said, “and the golf editor, Ray Cave at the time, said, ‘You have to write that for us. It’ll make a great bonus piece.’ ”

“So I did.”

This is an aerial shot of Worth Hills Golf Course from 1942. The early campus is visible near the course.

Jenkins went to work bringing characters to life in Glory Game, characters we all know, have played against or maybe married into a Thanksgiving dinner with. The article talks about players like Cecil the Parachute, who was named because he flew through the air after attacking the golf ball with a mammoth drive. Cecil, who drove a truck peddling Grandma’s Cookies, was a cornerstone of the action that took place at Worth Hills. When you saw his Grandma’s truck parked at the course, Jenkins said, you knew the game was on. And every golfer has known someone like that. John the Band-Aid rarely observed golf etiquette and often led the group in poor luck and lost wagers. Easy Reid could get distracted from the golf outing if the need to sell someone insurance arose. Minter was Magoo. Matty became a doctor. The Edwards brothers, Kenneth and Jerry, worked hard to never pay for a round. Kenneth was known in Glory Game as Foot the Free, which was short for “freeloader.” He and his brother Jerry would take turns distracting the pro in the shop so they could steal golf balls from the jar.

These and other kids that grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in Fort Worth were told about Nelson and Hogan, or Houston’s Jimmy Demaret, or Ralph Guldahl and Lloyd Mangrum – both from Dallas. Aspiring young golfers would grow up reading about local tournament champions in the newspapers or hear about them as their parents ushered them out the door and onto the courses.

“They shoved you onto the nearest course and said not to come home until you were ready for the Ethiopian Four Ball,” Jenkins explained in Glory Game. “So you stayed 20 years curing a shank and learning to love a duck hook.”

Minter played but also worked at Worth Hills. He and his cousin, Walter Rainwater, would take the Berry Street shuttle west from Hemphill where they lived. The shuttle, which was essentially a city bus, followed a line that would dead end at Worth Hills. Shuttle travelers, with golf bags in tow, could be delivered straight to the club house.

“It cost 10 cents to ride the Berry Shuttle,” said Minter. “It ran every 30 minutes. Sometimes, if we missed it, we’d just start walking and keep the dime.”

Minter caddied at the course, usually making at least a dollar per golfer.

“Some would pay $1.50,” Minter said. “Very few would pay $2.”

Minter was lucky enough to caddy a regular round for one of the few who would shell out two bucks. Assistant City Manager Porter Henson played every Saturday, and Minter was his regular caddy.

Before ESPN glorified slam dunks, or any number of Fox sports channels showcased NASCAR drivers/pugilists, either of Fort Worth’s newspapers would be reporting on local sports legends. Switch-hitters in Seattle garnered much less fame and notoriety. So kids naturally grew up admiring area players like Fort Worth’s Ernie Vossler. Vossler, who was on Paschal’s championship golf teams (along with Jenkins) won the city championship at Worth Hills in 1951 and went on to win the 1954 Texas Amateur Championship.

“He became the most successful of all Goat Hills golfers,” Jenkins said. “Fine amateur record, city and state champion, and went on to play the PGA Tour and won some tournaments. He later became a golf course owner and entrepreneur in Oklahoma and California.”

Vossler would graduate from the wide open fairways of Worth Hills to polish his game at a more narrow and challenging Ridglea course. And who could blame him? That was his big chance to escape the Worth Hills club house, which had a chunk broken out of its concrete front porch that doubled as target practice for golfers practicing their chip shot.

After all, Ridglea offered some confines of prominence that the club house at Worth Hills could not. Granted, the Worth Hills club house featured a restaurant known for its greasy meatloaf, Moon Pies and RC Colas, according to Jenkins. Fran Gattis ran the cafeteria, Minter said, and would offer a plate lunch special for 75 cents.Gattis also operated a beverage stand on Worth Hills’ back nine, behind No. 13 green, which is now likely left field at Lupton Stadium. Minter would work selling soft drinks, often netting $5 or $6 per day. The club house was situated atop the hill that now bears the sidewalk connecting the Worth Hills residences to the main campus. The sidewalk ran next to the Worth Hills putting green for years after the course closed. The putting green served as the lecture lab for “Introduction to Golf,” a popular TCU PE credit course, and held its own vs. backhoes and bulldozers until the late 20th century.

Teeing off from the club house, which was near the intersection at Bellaire and Stadium, golfers would head west down ravines and across gullies for holes 1 and 2, then south along Bellaire Drive West for No. 3. The front nine would wind back and forth throughout what is now the Bayard Friedman Tennis Center parking lot and courts. The No. 9 hole, a par 4, brought you back to the club house where you’d tee off on No. 10 and head south along Berry, essentially playing alongside the current Kappa Alpha Theta, Delta Gamma, Sigma Chi and Kappa Sigma houses.

The back nine wound around the curve and TCU intramural fields and headed west. The No. 12 green sits today where the southwest entrance to campus is marked with brick arches. From No. 12, the golfer would head northeast to tee off on “one of the hardest holes in America,” according to Jenkins, which was the 221-yard No. 13. Minter recalled No. 13 with great fondness, not just because of the windfall he made from soft drink sales.

“I was qualifying for the Paschal golf team,” Minter said, “and hit a 2 iron for a hole-in-one on No. 13. I hit a low hook, and it hit and kept rolling toward the pin and fell in the cup.

“I made the team,” Minter said with a grin.

Leading back to the club house, No. 18 was an easy par-4, where the golfer could leverage the south wind off the tee and hit a drive that would carry the pond. If struck well, the shot would simply require a 50-yard approach shot, Jenkins said.

Worth Hills was more than just public golf. It was “all we had,” Minter said. The links served as a home away from home, a day camp, a community, a workplace, a training ground, a gambling hall and much more to the city. TCU students and city employees also benefited from its operation for nearly 40 years.

“When I attended TCU, we were required to take four semesters of P.E.,” said Barbara Heinen. “One semester, my roommate and I took golf. We were never very good, but we had a lot of fun on that course.”

Ray Markum began working at Worth Hills and moved on to other courses in town later. “I went to work at the golf course in 1955,” Markum said. “A year later, I became superintendent of the golf course. I was there until 1960 and was then transferred to Rockwood and was there until 1964. Wells Howard was the golf pro while I was there, and Son Taylor was the assistant pro. I still have dreams about being on that golf course.”

Howard’s wife, Lola, also kept the books for Worth Hills, Jenkins said.

“Wells Howard was the pro forever,” he elaborated. “J.R. (Son) Taylor eventually became Wells’ replacement, but he was a local amateur golfer and not related to Wells.”

The city sold the course to TCU in 1961. Growth and prosperity loomed for the university, and the fairways and greens were roadblocks to progress. Initial campus projects, outside of dorms for TCU students and a home for Greek organizations, included the tennis center. Remnants of the Worth Hills course have been mostly plowed under, and most scars from the players who called Goat Hills their home have healed. Most.

“Writing for the Fort Worth Press, I was dead set against selling Goat Hills to TCU,” Jenkins said. “ ‘Let the school buy other neighboring property to expand,’ I yelled. But, eventually, I was won over by a lie. And I can’t remember who was behind it.”

“I was told that TCU would keep nine holes open as a public course, and students could work their way through school by maintaining and running it,” Jenkins said. “But along came the idea for a tennis center, and the school dug around in the contract and found an escape from golf clause. It merely said that so many acres would be kept available for ‘recreational use.’ Not a golf course. Goodbye golf, hello tennis.

“Now I see it was probably all for the best. This was happening shortly before I was leaving for New York (to write for Sports Illustrated) and, while I was pissed, I went on to other things.”

As time has turned, and bulldozers have continued to turn soil, campus master planners continue to make progress on new facilities and campus amenities. New residence halls opened nearly two years ago around the area where the Worth Hills club house once served meatloaf. Now, it is home to more than 400 TCU students. Rent probably generates more profitability than the quarter-per-round rate – even when adjusted for inflation – that was offered when the city opened Worth Hills. Those campus residences were financed for nearly $40 million, after all.

One TCU student, Hannah T, concluded in her blog for TCU’s John V. Roach Honors Program that living in Worth Hills was…well…“worth it.” Blogging under a semi-nom de plume, Hannah T is likely unfamiliar with the other nicknamed characters from Jenkins’ classic Glory Game article. Characters like Cecil the Parachute, Foot the Free, Moron Tom or others who walked the paths she does now when playing Goat Hills. She may be surprised to know that the Greek residences, which she inadvertently, but correctly identified as “a testament to the 1960s,” sit atop the grounds that allowed a city to first play public golf and gave sports writing – and Fort Worth – a place of record in the history books.