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Lions Muny-Preserving an Austin Landmark

Lions is more than the oldest (and most affordable) public course in town – it has real historical significance to the city of Austin.

This Saturday I will join three other old reprobates from our days at KTBC to play a round of golf. We will tee it up at Lion's Muny.  Friendships will be renewed, bad shots will be hit, stories will be swapped (with the truth stretched to the limit in most of them) - all for a good cause.

It is the annual "Forever Green Tournament & Party," to support the efforts to help find a solution to saving the green space the venerable course sits on while finding a financial solution that fits the needs of the University of Texas, the city of Austin and golfers.

In 1924 the Austin Lions Club made a deal with the University of Texas to lease part of the Brackenridge Tract. A 9-hole course was up and running that fall, and it expanded to 18 holes by 1926. The city of Austin took over the lease in 1936 and the latest extension of that lease expires in 2019.

Currently UT receives almost $1 million a year from the Brackenridge tract, but of course if developed it would give a much higher return. The Board of Regents has already spent $15 million with a master planning firm to find out just how much they could make.

One proposed development includes a hotel, spa, clubhouse, conference center and 16-acre practice ground, as well as 18 to 20 "business development areas" around and inside the golf course. There is talk of saving as many as 13 of the current holes (although redesigned) and adding others across Lake Austin Blvd. It would become a high dollar "resort" course, with green fees well above a municipal course level.

When completed, the development could put as many as an additional 50,000 car trips through the area on a daily basis.

One of the leading forces behind the "Save Muny" movement is Ben Crenshaw, and he sums up the feelings of a lot of Austinites.

"Muny provides green space, quiet tranquility, as well as providing recreation to the whole of the community. It has provided a healer for traffic, noise, and a natural buffer between downtown and Lake Austin. In other words, it is a transition from urban setting to a peaceful neighborhood.

If development plans proceed within the golf course, this atmosphere will be broken, and I think this is the thing that I am most opposed to. It will cease to be a municipal golf course with its arms wide open to everyone in this community. Muny has provided a chance for golfers of all ages to enjoy the game and yes, affordable and reliable, which adds to its timelessness. My story is no different than that of countless youngsters eager to play the game, but we were provided a lovely place in which these memories will last us a lifetime. I regard these things as irreplaceable."

Historic, affordable golf courses are a tradition in the major cities of Texas. Memorial Park in Houston, Tenison Park in Dallas, Brackenridge Park in San Antonio and Sycamore Creek in Ft. Worth. Lions Muny has certainly earned its way onto that list.

Muny - Historically Significant for the Game & the City

In 1950 Austin resembled most other towns with segregated public facilities. Taylor Glass was the Mayor and he proposed that the city build a 9-hole course for blacks.  In April of 1951, council woman Emma Long countered that it would be more cost effective to simply open the city course to everyone.

While the city council was still deliberating the issue, two young black men walked on to Muny and started to play. Mayor Glass got a call from the course apprising him of the situation. Glass, who was not planning to run for reelection, called Mayor Pro-Tem Bill Drake to inform him of the situation - and how he planned to deal with it.

"They never did bother me and that old golf course is pretty big open space out there and I don't see why it ought to bother anybody and I'm for leaving them alone and not even calling the newspaper and see what happens."

A majority of the council agreed, and a motion was eventually passed. With a simple "let them play" Muny became the first desegregated public golf course in the South.

No open protest. No confrontations.

Just "let them play."

Marion Milroy "Doc" Curry, a native of Corpus Christi, moved to Austin in 1951 to complete his doctorate at UT after earning a master's degree at Ohio State. , Doc, along with Lawrence Britton, Calvin Lynch and Lee Hicks became the first regular all black foursome to play at Lions. They soon noticed that carloads of black golfers from around the state would drive to Austin to play.

A couple of years later former Heavyweight champ Joe Louis came through town and played Lions Muny.

Junior Golf

There is a small scar on the underside of my right forearm. It's not as obvious as it used to be, as it has been there for 50 years. One afternoon after finishing the day at O'Henry Jr. High, I headed across the street to Muny to get in a quick 9.  Jumping the fence along #17, I reached out to balance my fall - and snagged my forearm on the top of the fence. A quick check of the risk/reward factors validated my decision to play 9 holes and explain the bloody shirt and pants to my mother later.

Junior golf was and is a big deal in Austin and at Muny. It didn't matter your skill level there was always a place at Muny to store your clubs and always an adult willing to let you hit some practice balls and get some swing advice.

Of course some of us took the advice closer to heart than others. A 15-year old trying like hell to break 100 could look down the practice tee and spot a 15 year-old (Tom Kite) shooting in the 60's, with a 13 year-old (Ben Crenshaw) also consistently breaking par.

The thing is there were other juniors in town who could flat out play. Randy Petri and Gib Kizer had led Austin High to the state championship three straight years from 1957-59. A few years before Kite and Crenshaw, Lester Lundell and Joe Hornaday were other junior golfers who could go low.  Chuck Munson was a contemporary of Kite and Crenshaw who could play a little as well. Austin, and specifically Muny, has always been a haven for teaching juniors the game.

Throughout the years Muny head pros like George Hannon (longtime UT coach), Joe Balander and Lloyd Morrision made it a point to have junior programs that gave young players cheap access to coaching and the course. That trio eventually formed the Austin Junior Golf Academy, which still hosts over 400 kids a year at the Hancock golf course, teaching all facets of the game from full swings all the way to rules and etiquette.

Hogan's Hole

Golf Legends & Hogan's Hole

A little over a year after barely surviving a head-on collision with a bus, Ben Hogan's comeback to the game included an exhibition match at Muny.

On May 13, 1950, Hogan teamed up with Harvey Penick to play UT golfers Morris Williams and Ed Hopkins. They reached the tee box at #7 (now #16). Hogan peered out at the hole and commented, "This is the only hole I have ever seen without a fairway."

The 381-yard par 4 is tree lined from tee down to a pond at the bottom of the hill. Your approach shot is to an elevated green, which slopes off to each side. Hogan placed his drive near the trees on the right, hit a beautiful approach and sank the putt for birdie. It has been called "Hogan's Hole," ever since.

After he and Penick won the match, Hogan commented about Muny, "It's so good, it makes you think you're not in Texas."

17 years later, Ben Crenshaw won the first of his three straight City Men's Championships, with a similar performance on Hogan's Hole. During the last round, Crenshaw hit is drive into the trees on the right. After chipping out in front of the water, he hit a pedestrian wedge up on the green - and proceeded to sink a 30-foot downhill, sidehill par-saving putt. His opponent could only look on with the knowledge that it would be a long, long day.

Ben Crenshaw won the Austin City Men's title three years in a row -- and then graduated from High School

Ben Crenshaw won the Austin City Men's title three years in a row -- and then graduated from High School

The Wolfpack

Any regular at one of the public courses in Austin has probably heard of the Wolfpack. Headed up by former Travis HS basketball coach B.J. Wolf, it is a group of retired coaches, as well as some folks still (reluctantly) a part of the work force. The group plays three times a week, with about 30 golfer on the "eligible to play" list.

While some outliers, like myself, are allowed to play whenever possible, the core group includes such former High School Coaches as Dan Schroeder and Jim Davis, both of LBJ, Ron Schroeder of Westlake, Jimmy Craig of Johnston, and Sam Harper who coached at Sinton.

While they make the rounds of all the public courses, Muny is the unofficial home of the Wolfpack, getting the most play during the year. It's always a high stakes game. You pay your $4 for low team and individual, and there are 25c skins on the par 3's. It is about as much fun as I have ever had on a golf course.

You can walk Muny during the week for as low as $13.50 (senior discount), a damn good price for all the incoherent swings, lost balls and stubbed putts along the way. But it also includes some entertaining stories of games past, and the competitive fires will still flare up among the coaches when given the chance.

There is an egalitarian aspect to Lions. It is built on 141 acres of greenbelt with over 60,000 rounds of golf played annually.  Almost 4,000 of them are by junior golfers 18 and younger, as well as 16,000 by people 62 and older.

Obviously the University of Texas is not "maximizing its value" in those 141 acres from a financial standpoint.

I hope that like other major cities in Texas, all parties involved can find a way to maximize the value of this historic relic, saving 141 acres that helps makes Austin Austin.