History can’t be erased, but it can be easily forgotten.
So, we shouldn’t get bent out of shape about someplace as storied as Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, getting bumped off the PGA Tour next year after having hosted tournaments since 1954.
Or the Houston Open, likely to be defunct next year. It doesn’t have a sponsor or a place to play since the Golf Club of Houston sent a letter this week to club members informing them that it no longer will serve as the tournament’s home. The Houston Open, born in 1946 as the Tournament of Champions, had Byron Nelson as its inaugural champion and went through later iterations that included the Michelob Houston Open and the Independent Insurance Agent Open. The PGA Tour is restructuring its schedule in 2019, and with Detroit reportedly landing an event, there probably isn’t room for Houston.
Tournaments come, and tournaments go. That’s how it is on the PGA Tour. Golf goes where the money is. This is a business first.
History is nice, but our memories often are nearly as short as our modern gnat-sized attention spans. Remember the Western Open? It was a cornerstone of the PGA Tour lineup for decades. Butler National Golf Club, the tournament’s long-time Chicago-area home, was considered a beast by Tour players. The event was seen as being just a notch below a major championship during the 1980s.
Today, the Western Open is long gone, having hit a low point – in my eyes, anyway – when Cialis, an erectile-dysfunction drug, became the title sponsor for a few embarrassing years. Imagine being a female tournament volunteer and having to wear a big Cialis logo on your shirt.
Among other things, the Western Open introduced us to Bill Murray, the golfer. In one of the first Tuesday celebrity shootouts, maybe even the first, Murray and Peter Jacobsen defeated the team of Michael Jordan and D.A. Weibring after Murray executed a Tour-quality flop-shot on the final green and caused Jordan, who forgot that he was wired for sound, to hiss, “I can’t believe we lost to a comedian!”
Among my collection of PGA Tour memorabilia is a Western Open media badge with my name erroneously listed as “George Van Sickle.” I love that badge. I’m still around, more or less, but the Western Open isn’t. You wouldn’t have bet that in 1985.
The last remnant of the old Western is the BMW Championship. It’s part of the FedEx Cup series. Although it’s still played in the Chicago area every so often, the BMW Championship has as little to do with the old Western Open as the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone has to do with the Rubber City Invitational.
Tommy Bolt won Firestone’s inaugural Rubber City title, in 1954. That tournament became the American Golf Classic in 1961. In 1962, Firestone took on the World Series of Golf, a 36-hole match between the year’s four major champions, which was pretty glitzy because it usually had some combination of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Firestone held three PGA Championships, too, in 1960, ’66 and ’75. Al Geiberger won in 1966 and became famous for stocking up on peanut butter sandwiches during rounds to keep up his energy.
Firestone has been a history buffet. Lon Hinkle hit a shot for the ages, a low one under the trees that skipped twice across the pond – intentionally! – and up onto the 16th green during the 1979 event’s second round. Tiger Woods has won eight tournaments at Firestone, including when he stuffed an 8-iron shot close at the final hole in the dark to close out his 2000 NEC Invitational victory. In 2006, his errant 9-iron approach shot at the ninth green hit pavement and bounced off the clubhouse roof. Because the clubhouse wasn’t marked as out of bounds, Woods got a free drop and played a wedge shot back over the clubhouse and onto the green, where he narrowly missed a 30-foot putt for what would’ve been the most miraculous par in Akron golf history.
At Firestone, Jose Maria Olazabal shot a course-record 61 en route to a 12-stroke victory in 1990. The 61 was equaled in 2014 by Spanish compatriot Sergio Garcia, who posted a back-nine 27 at a time when such a score on such a feared track was unthinkable. In 2001, Jim Furyk holed a dramatic bunker shot to stay alive in a gritty playoff with Woods, who won it on the seventh extra hole. Firestone was the scene of a parking-lot scuffle between John Daly and the father of another contestant, club pro Jeff Roth, in 1994.
No, the PGA Tour won’t be the same without Akron, and vice versa. Bridgestone’s bailout as sponsor includes a three-year term as host of a PGA Tour Champions tournament at Firestone, so that’s something. “We’ve had a great run at Firestone,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said, “but you’ve got to have a sponsor.”
The Tour has dozens of defunct events, including the Lucky Invitational, Waco Turner Open, Blue Ribbon Open, National Airlines Open, Kentucky Derby Open, Fig Garden Village Invitational, Dow Jones Invitational and the Greater Vancouver Open.
Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, was on the verge of joining those ranks, but Charles Schwab stepped in as sponsor to rescue it. Colonial, too, drips with history, and has a large sculpture of favorite son Ben Hogan that greets visitors at the tournament entrance by the clubhouse.
It would have been a shame to lose stalwarts Firestone and Colonial at the same time, but after traditionalists finished gnashing their teeth, golf would have moved on without blinking. Ditto, Houston.
“Nobody wants to see it [Houston Open] go away, but the sponsor drives it,” PGA Tour player Rickie Fowler said recently. “You’re not going to have a tournament just for loyalty’s sake. That would cost the Tour money, and that’s not going to happen.”
So, thanks for the memories, Firestone and Houston. You’ll be missed … for a while.