HOUSTON – For many of you watching Golf Channel and this week’s British Open, it is hard to miss the imposing figure of Billy Ray Brown roving the links at Carnoustie and reporting the action. Many of you know him only as a fine golf commentator. Others who know him better remember him as a successful professional golfer who won three events in the 1990s on the PGA Tour. His peers thought he possessed a swing as great as that of another longtime Houston-area resident, former PGA champion Steve Elkington. And for those of you who are extremely knowledgeable about golf, you might remember his achievements as an amateur in Texas while playing for the University of Houston. He won the 1982 NCAA title as a freshman and contributed to NCAA-winning teams in 1984 and ’85 before turning pro.
But was it ever mentioned this week that Brown recently was inducted into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame … as an amateur?
I had the pleasure of being paired with him in a U.S. Open qualifier many years ago, and I can say unequivocally that only a few golfers could play the game better than Brown. More importantly, Brown is a great guy, a fellow Texan and a shining example for his hometown of Houston.
What I am about to write is not a criticism of him but of the Texas Golf Hall of Fame that watered down the standards of excellence and allowed his name to be placed in nomination this year as an amateur. Professional, maybe; lifetime achievement, quite possibly (that went to broadcaster Bill Macatee); but amateur? I think not.
Stepping over and upon the likes of amateurs Randy Sonnier, Robert McKinney and Mike Booker to nominate a celebrity is beyond the pale. Brown likely never paid an entry fee or expenses to an amateur event, nor did he play and compete in his spare time while working a full-time job. Did he ever take his vacation time to play a tournament, join a club to support his efforts or spend thousands of dollars every year to compete nationally in the highest levels of competition? No. He was on scholarship for four years, playing on someone else’s dime.
Did he devote 40-plus years to those efforts like Sonnier, McKinney and Booker? No.
Consider Sonnier. While traveling as a commercial-airline pilot, he worked his way up the ranks until he won the Texas State Amateur (twice), the Texas Mid-Am once and lost in the semifinals of the 1984 U.S. Amateur to eventual champion Scott Verplank in a tournament for which Sonnier qualified and played more than a dozen times. Sonnier was a runner-up in the 1983 U.S. Mid-Amateur and medalist in three U.S. Mid-Ams. He played for the U.S. in the Walker Cup and World Amateur Team Championship, competed in two Masters and qualified for three U.S. Opens – the first and last 17 years apart. And this is only about half of his accomplishments – as an amateur.
Those who know Sonnier well, as I do, know his devotion to the game and to helping others with theirs, because he loves the game like few others. It was never about the money. It was about the kinds of things that money can’t buy: the respect of your peers, an acknowledgement of your success and the satisfaction of winning. He’s a student of the game and a credit to its traditions.
So, I ask the Texas Golf Hall of Fame this one question: Where is an example anywhere in the country – not just Texas – of a golfer who has a finer record? There are very few, and it is time for the voting members of the Texas Golf Hall of Fame – e.g., state golf writers, past inductees and the hall’s board of directors – to make it right in 2019. Others who share this sentiment, like me, will be waiting to see this omission corrected.
(Pelham played the PGA Tour in the late 1970s and early '80s and is the author of “Burke and Demaret: The Wit and Wisdom of Golf’s Most Colorful Duo.”)