“Muny”: 85 Years And Counting At Austin’s Lions Municipal Golf Course
Nov. 19, 2009
By Jim Apfelbaum
Austin, Texas - A set of speakers flanked the temporary podium on the first tee beside plants donated for the occasion. The Lions Club provided flags. The historical marker was covered for the unveiling as the crowd settled in for a program of speakers. A choir performed “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Just beyond the fuss, atypical for a weekday morning at Lions Municipal Golf Course in Austin, Texas, a second commemoration was also getting underway. The 10 a.m. Sherrard threesome (same time every Monday, Wednesday and Friday) waited for the fairway to clear, then teed off.
There was golf to be played, even on the day that “Muny” got a medal.
Two young African-American golfers were the anonymous catalysts. Fifty-eight years ago, before Brown v. Board of Education,
The Lions Municipal Golf Course has served the residents of Austin for 85 years. (Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)
before libraries, pools, public schools, transportation, restaurants or fire departments integrated in the South, they also teed off here. By the time they made the turn, the Jim Crow barriers quietly fell. Venerable golf ground for 85 years, Lions Municipal Golf Course is now officially a cultural historic landmark, validated as the first Southern course to integrate. The designation is no less remarkable given that segregation was not unknown on Texas courses into the late 1960s.
“We just wanted to learn to play the game,” said 73-year-old General Marshall, a retired professor of mathematics at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, who also served as the school’s golf coach.
A three-time Austin Senior Golf Association champion, Marshall added: “It was off-limits to us. We wanted to learn to play. … Some of the golfers would hire us as caddies and we’d go out. A few of them would allow us to hit balls from time to time with their clubs.”
History Happened Here
On a spring day in 1951, Austin mayor Taylor Glass got a call from City Hall that two “colored boys” were playing golf. He then
phoned mayor pro-tem Bill Drake. According to a 1974 oral history interview, Glass told Drake: “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.”
Drake agreed, as did another council member, and eventually a majority. When Emma Long, the city’s first woman council member, later emphasized the cost and absurdity of building an additional, separate golf course for minority golfers, as some cities did, the informal directive became a motion and passed.
They came on the weekends in carloads, black golfers from Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. They were shouted at on holes by the roadside, but ignored the taunts. Marshall caddied at a still-segregated Muny as a 10 year old in 1946.
Marshall said that many golfers come out of the caddie yard, including guys like Alvin Propps, who shot four rounds in the 60s at Muny in junior high, or Freddie Carter, who went on to win a state black title. “People went on to do good things,” he said.
Marvin Douglas, 81, was another black player who grew up through the segregated era. He was the first black officer of the Austin Fire Department, joining it in 1954, and the first fire prevention officer in the state of Texas. He moved to Austin to attend Tillotson College in 1943 before it merged with Samuel Huston College in 1952.
Once the Lions Municipal course opened its doors to African Americans, Douglas noticed that blacks flocked from all over the state. A step in the right direction, there were still restrictions.
“You could go in [to the pro shop] to pay your green fee but you couldn’t buy any food. You had to do that through the window on the south side of the building. They even built a little shack for the caddies,” said Douglas.
Said Marion Milroy “Doc” Curry in the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 24, 2000: “It was really a big deal when Lions Municipal finally permitted us on the course. They would allow us to tee off between 6:30 and 7 in the morning. Black players from Houston even heard about it because Memorial Park was still closed to blacks. Sometimes there’d be six or seven carloads come up from Houston. You could pay your greens fees inside, but if you wanted peanut-butter crackers, you had to go back outside to one of the old caddie windows and order it that way.”
Sandra Haynie, the winner of 42 LPGA titles and a member of the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame, attended O. Henry Jr. High just across the street from Muny. “The capital city’s half-pint city champion” won the first of three consecutive city titles on the Lions Municipal course.
Muny was also kind to Betsy Rawls, who played many times while attending the University of Texas. Her beloved teacher, Harvey
Local resident John O'Connor has been playing the 'Muny' for 20 years and currently has a regular Friday morning game. (Darren Carroll/USGA)
Penick, used to best advantage the tight fairways and especially the local knowledge of those vexing greens, some with putts that appeared to break uphill, with his Texas teams in dominating the old Southwest Conference.
Ben Crenshaw honed his peerless putting stroke and competitive will under Muny’s majestic oaks and pecans. He grew up on Muny stories, like the one about Titanic Thompson betting he could throw a pecan over the clubhouse; the lead-laden ringer would be discretely retrieved, along with his winnings. Crenshaw’s friend, a junior high transfer from Dallas named Tom Kite, also played a lot of golf at Muny. Everyone did. Easily walked, reasonably priced, it still runs more than 60,000 rounds a year, a perennial on the lists of golf’s best values.
A magnet for good players, Muny continues to host one of the premier amateur events - the Texas Public Links Golf Association Championship, first played in 1946. Now known as The Firecracker, it is held over the July 4 holiday.
No one knows who designed it. It may have been Penick’s uncle Tinsley (his older brother Tommy was Muny’s pro for more than 35 years), or John Bredemus, the eccentric genius immortalized in The Little Red Book. Fort Worth’s Colonial Country Club and Houston’s Memorial Park are his two most significant bequests, but he often worked for free, cared little for notoriety and left no records. A.W. Tillinghast is another possibility. He designed the state’s first municipal course, San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park, in 1916. A convict laborer broke his nose during construction. He later wrote, “That one visit…provided much to turn over in the mind in after years.”
Tillinghast returned several times to central Texas. He visited Austin in the mid-1930s on a national tour at the behest of the PGA of America. He may or may not have then emboldened the seventh (now 16th) hole by moving the green back up a hill and inserting a pond, invisible from the tee. Surveying what remains a daunting, claustrophobic tee shot on a long and tight dogleg par 4, legend holds that Ben Hogan once turned to ask, “Where’s the fairway?”
Though short (6,000 yards), Muny still teaches all the shots, if much of its menace has been cleared out by generations of golfers unmindful of Penick’s sage advice of what the woods are full of. A post-war city champion once put things in perspective. To retrieve a ball that left the fairways – let alone play it – he said, “You didn’t so much go in as back in.”
The Future of Muny?
Muny’s future is as clouded as its past. The University of Texas owns the 141-acre course, part of a much larger, and desirable, tract of upscale west Austin that includes a world-class biological field lab and a mile of unspoiled lakefront. Built on a handshake by the local Lions Club and later transferred to the city of Austin, the current lease expires in 2019. Neither of two ambitious development plans presented to the university’s board of regents retain the course, although no decision has yet been made.
The new state historical marker honors Muny’s “quiet desegregation.” As golfers played on behind him, Marshall proudly acknowledged this part of Austin’s heritage as “truly a course worthy to be praised.
“Golf has been a shining example of integration as far as the city of Austin’s been concerned.”
Jim Apfelbaum is a freelance writer who is based in Austin, Texas.