By RENE TORRES
Special to the PRESS/NEWS
Golf has always been a popular sport in Brownsville and throughout the Rio Grande Valley. You can give credit to the soldiers at Fort Brown for bringing the game to town. The fort was established in 1846 with the beginning of the war with Mexico.
With Zachary Taylor leading the way, and as time progressed, the fort was a mecca for sports. One of those games they introduced to this area was golf.
Brownsville Country Club (BCC), now called Valley International Country Club (VICC), had its regulars—men and women—who were well known among Valley golfing circles. Even the caddies got into the act: for at least once a year, they too had their tournament to determine city and Valley champions.
The Brownsville Herald, Valley Morning Star, and McAllen Monitor were actively involved in getting kids to participate in Valley-wide tournaments.
It was also here that the youth of then could find employment—as teenagers, they made their way from the neighborhoods to the golf course to have a chance to be the ultimate master caddy.
The Brownsville course, just like in Harlingen, played host to many PGA golfers. In the 1940s, two of the Valley’s best, Al Escalante and Tony Butler, played alongside Ben Hogan and Jimmy Demaret at the BCC.
Since the business of golf was a good proposition, in 1930, as part of the 4th of July celebration, the city conducted a golf driving contest that attracted the best golfers from the Rio Grande Valley. The event also included a closest to the pin contest.
It was an era when Brownsville was coming up in the golfing world. The game was so popular that the city had its own practice driving range located across the street from “The Terrace,” a miniature golf course on the main street of the city, West Elizabeth.
The event was well supported by the business community. The winning prizes were donated by the following merchants:
Prizes— Men’s driving: Dorfman’s Jewelry Store, 1st place winning cup, 2nd place El Jardin Garage, dozen balls, 3rd place, J.C. Penny Co., golf shoes, 4th place, The Fashion, golf hose, and 5th place, Crankcase of Socony Oil by Chas. Brown, Magnolia Service Station.
Prizes—Women’s driving: 1st place, dozen balls and one gallon ice cream given by The Terrace Shop, 2nd place, Gold Pencil by Hargrove Stationery and Book Store, and 3rd place, a case of “Orange Thrill” by Valley Bottling Co.
Prizes –Boy’s driving: 1st place, a Brassie club (equivalent to today’s two wood), given by A. Escalante, 2nd place, five buckets of balls by driving course.
Prizes—Men’s Approaching: 1st place, approach iron given by Escalante, 2nd place, Smoking stand by Edelstein’s, 3rd place Golf knickers by Bollack’s, 4th place, wash and grease job by Alexander Tire Co., and 5th place, month’s pass to Terrace miniature course.
Judging by the practice rounds, it looked like Jimmy George would be the favorite in the driving category, as he caught one flush and traveled 265 yards. In the closest to the pin warm-up, it was Escalante that made the best approach shot, placing the ball two feet from the flag.
Everyone looked good in practice, but how good were they under pressure? Well, it was slim Charles Puckett that surprised them all. The former Brownsville High School all-around athlete who, two years prior, captained the baseball and basketball teams, won the driving contest, smacking the ball 226 yards.
Chief George was a close second with 221 yards; Jimmy George came in third with 217 yards; Robert Champion followed with 215 yards and “Red” Heaner was fifth, hitting the ball 208 yards.
Mrs. Works led all girls in the contest with a drive that carried 129 yards; Mary Cooper drove it 95 yards and Mrs. Stone, 92 yards. Joe Carvey won the event for boys under 15 with a drive of 157 yards; Mike Saldana came in second with 149 yards.
Sweeney captured the approach contest; followed by Robert Champion, Leon Perl, Mrs. Works and Harry Stegman (winning marks were not given).
As the contest came to an end, interest continued at the driving range, particularly among women. The Brownsville gals were getting ready to host the ladies state tournament which was to be held in Brownsville in 1931.
For the first time in history, Brownsville High School ventured into forming a golf team. J.W. “Red” Irvine was the first golf coach for the Eagles. The line-up of boys were no strangers to the game. All had been engaged in learning the game at a very young age, walking the links at BCC.
Among the most promising eligible boys were “Babe” Harrison, Al Escalante Jr., Billy McDavitt, Henry Bowman, Francis Kowalski and Freddie Celaya.
The golfing “Babe” topped the charts for Brownsville High: he was a 10 handicapper, who then had won a tournament with a net 75. He was followed by Escalante, who was on the top of the list in a Harlingen tournament, winning the “C” flight of the Lower Gulf Coast Golf Association. Bowman was given the other spot for his consistency in shooting in the low 8Os.
Ervine commented, “We have the making of a very strong team.” Hints were given that the “Flight of the Eagles” would take them to a match-up with Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Harlingen, Edinburg, Mercedes and McAllen.
By 1930, the RGV had five golf courses. In a future column, we shall revisit that era in Valley golf history.
Editor’s Note: Rene Torres is a retired assistant professor from the University of Texas at Brownsville, and Texas Southmost College. He has a long history in the Rio Grande Valley as an educator, sports historian, and humanitarian with a wealth of community service to his credit.