THE MEMBERSHIP LIST AT PRESTON TRAIL GOLF CLUB IN Dallas reads like a mini-Who’s Who from the world of pro-fessional golf. The most recent captain of the United States Ryder Cup team, Lanny Wadkins, is a dues-paying member. So is former U.S. Open champion David Graham, who later this spring embarks on a second career on the Senior PGA Tour. The current Masters champion, Ben Crenshaw, is a nonresident member. So is Tom Watson, who won the Masters twice, the U.S. Open once, and the British Open five times before his putting stroke deserted him.
One of golf’s living legends, Byron Nelson, now 84 and catching his breath after a whirlwind 1995 during which he was feted for the golden anniversary of his remarkable achievements in 1945 (18 PGA Tour wins, including 11 in a row), is an honorary member. So is Arnold Palmer, another pretty fair country golfer in his day.
“If you’re a golfer, the fact that nil these great champions and tour players would choose to belong there, when they could have their choice of any club in the area, tells you everything about what kind of facility it is,” says Doug Bruton, a Dallas developer and two-time Preston Trail club champion, who relinquished his membership in 1991. “It’s the premier training ground in Dallas for improving your game. It’s golf.”
The roster of Preston Trail members is not restricted to professional golfers anil crack amateurs, however. Being an accomplished player is not one of the requirements for admission to the club-the prerequisites are, among others, having some serious discretionary dollars (the membership fee reputedly is $75,000) and being a male. Still, having a low handicap would help anyone confront the doglegged fairways and fast greens at the 7,092-yard, par-72 layout, unquestionably one of the finest, and best manicured, golf courses in Texas.
From its inception in October 1962, Preston Trail has been populated by men who have helped engineer, bankroll, and orchestrate the city’s development. The roster has, at various times, reflected die names of Dallas dynasties like Murchison and Hunt; Dallas mayors like Robert Folsom, Jack Evans, and Starke Taylor Jr.; bankers like James Aston and Bobby Stewart; newspaper heavyweights like Jim Chambers Jr. and Felix McKnight; manufacturers like J.M. Haggar, his sons, Ed and Joe Jr., and his grandson, Joe Haggar III.
At Preston Trail, as the saying goes, everybody is somebody.
Preston Trail’s charter members, who paid $4,000 for a share of voting stock (the initial fee for nonresident members was $1,000), represented “a hand-picked group of community leaders,” recalls Kerrville resident Stuart Hunt, the club ’s co-founder who spearheaded lite roundup. “We wanted to make it a prestigious place. We all felt like having a men’s golf club was a plus for the city of Dallas.”
For a golf club of such pedigree, Preston Trail maintains a low pro-hie. The officers and staff eschew publicity, preferring to conduct their affairs quietly. (A request for an interview was politely declined by club president Wayne Winters.) The two-level clubhouse sits unobtrusively in Tar North Dallas, a few blacks from [he noise and congestion along Preston Road, a two-lane blacktop when the club opened. There’s no visible signage, and a gated wall blocks any view of the late-model luxury cars (predominantly Cadillacs) in the parking lot. You would not know, unless forearmed with the information, that behind the wall stands one of the epicenters of Dallas power.
Preston Trail Golf Club was organized by the foursome of Hunt, Chambers, John Murchison, and Pollard Simons. Murchison made available to the club, at what Hunt recalls was a “fair-market” price, approximately 170 acres of farmland, some of it cotton fields, much of il located in the Hood plain of White Rock (“reek. The transaction price was roughly $465,000.
The founders’ primary motivation was to create an alternative to what they considered overcrowded conditions at the three primary country clubs in North Dallas-Dallas Country Club, Brook Hollow Golf Club, and Northwood Country Club. These were, by and large, men of vision, so perhaps they could see a future in which preferred tee-times would be a golfer’s constant worry and four- to five-hour 18-hole rounds would become commonplace (two players can breeze around Preston Trail in about two hours and 15 minutes and be back in the office practically before they are missed). The organizers also intended to create a “pure” golf environment-no swimming pool, no tennis courts, no Sunday brunches, no dinner service. And no women or minors (under 21) allowed on the premises, either.
The brain trust hired the team of Byron Nelson anil Ralph Plummer to design the golf course, which broke ground in the spring of 1963 and which, after a series of weather-related delays, was opened for play on May 1, 1965. Nelson recalls that the tab for building the course ran about $477,1)00, which in today’s dollars wouldn’t be sufficient to secure the services of a first-tier golf architect. “It’s funny to think about now, but I remember people telling me that we were crazy to build a golf course 17 miles from downtown Dallas,” chuckles Lord Byron.
Nelson and Plummer plowed out of the rich, black dirt a challenging golf course, not a backbreaking one. By strategically placing the fairway bunkers beyond the landing area for all but the longest hitters and moving the bunkers around the greens to the sides (leaving the front open for access by an assortment of wormburners and other mis-hits). Nelson and Plummer weren’t particularly punishing to players of average ability. Nor did they build the putting surfaces with severe undulafions, or bury elephants under the greens, a trend that would evolve 15 or so years thereafter. Many of the original members soon discovered they were carrying lower handicaps at Presto!) Trail than at their “other” clubs, ( Most of the Preston Trailblazers retained their memberships in full-fledged country clubs, if for no other reason than to placate their wives and children.)
The club quietly went about rilling up the ceiling of 250 memberships, To help offset costs, including nearly $400,000 spent on die clubhouse, the board raised prices for voting stock first to $5,000, then to S7.000, and finally instituted a high-bid system of ownership, the price for which steadily escalated, You would never have known, unless you were part of the inner circle, that professional golfers like “Champagne” Tony Lema, the popular 1964 British Open champion who perished in a plane crash in 1966, or Gay Brewer Jr., the 1967 Masters champion, frequented the club. Or that the legendary Ben Hogan and some of his pals from Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, including Monty Moncrief and Marvin Leonard, the man who built the famous Colonial Country Club and created the Colonial NIT, cameover to tee it up with the Preston Trail crowd. They’d play gangsome games, with six to eight players a side and so many bets flying back and forth that the settling up would tax a team of Price Waterhouse auditors.
Preston Trail became more familiar to North Texas area golfers and golf fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s after The Salesmanship Club of Dallas moved the old Dallas Open there in 1968, renaming the annual PGA Tour event the Byron Nelson Golf Classic. Begun in 1944 at Lakewood Country Club as the “Texas Victory Open”- which Byron Nelson won-the Dallas Open had bounced around like a bad check, In 1945, Sam Snead won the Dallas Open at the Dallas Country Club; in 1946, Ben Hogan won the “Dallas Invitational” at Brook Hollow Golf Club; in 1956,entrepreneur Jimmy Ling revived the tournament after it had been mothballed for a decade and conducted the “Dallas Centennial Open” at Preston Hollow Country Club (now the EDS employees’ course near Medical City Dallas); in 1957, die tournament became known as the Dallas Open and was played at Glen Lakes Country Club, where Sam Snead tied the all-time PGA Tour record (since broken) by shooting a 60.
In 1958, the Dallas Open moved to Oak Cliff Country Club, where it found a home for the next eight years. In 1962. Earl Stewart Jr. made golf history by becoming the first and only host pro to win a PGA Tour event. By 1966, the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, which operates camps for troubled youths and family centers, took over the event’s operation and promotion. Because Oak Cliffs facilities were being squeezed, and because a fair number of the Salesmanship Club leaders belonged to Preston Trail, they decided to move the tournament north.
Miller Barber, a nonresident member, won die first Byron Nelson Classic at Preston Trail in 1968, Golfs two preeminent names, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, engaged in a sudden-death playoff in 1970, which Nicklaus won with a birdie on the first extra hole. For good measure, Nicklaus won the tournament again in 1971. Serious golfers, casual golf fans, and even mildly curious sports (ans, drawn by the marquee names, set foot on the Preston Trail property for the first time.
By the late 1970s, Tom Watson, who had succeeded Nicklaus as the game’s premier player, turned Preston Trail into his private playground. Drawing on inspiration from the tournament namesake-Byron Nelson was not only his mentor, but a close friend- Watson won the Byron Nelson Classic three consecutive times from 1978-80. Watson was gunning for a fourth consecutive win in 1981 when he uncharacteristically missed a three-foot putt and lost a playoff to Bruce Lietzke. Lietzke had made news earlier that week by speaking sharply about the course. (“I’m really not in love with Preston Trail,” he said, causing several faces to turn crimson. ” I don’t have a lot of fun playing this golf course. It’s not in very good shape.”) Referring to Lietzke’s remarks during the awards presentation, tournament chairman Morris Hite asked, “Hell, Bruce, what do you reckon you could have shot if you liked this place?”
As well as becoming known as Tom Watson’s private domain, Preston Trail also gained a reputation beyond its boundaries as the site of the infamous Nelson Pavilion, a boy-meets-girl-fest that carries on to the present. With Preston Trail’s clubhouse (which underwent a major expansion in 1985 ) barely able to accommodate the touring pros and club members, the Salesmanship Club set up a massive outdoor tent (the “Pavilion”) for tournament sponsors, guests, and anyone else with a thirst for cold beverages.
This was back in the ’70s, mind you, when PGA Tour players didn’t have their own entourage, weren’t besieged by autograph hounds and, for the most part, actually enjoyed hanging out with golf fans. Once word got out that the Tour pros were in the Pavilion, either having a cold one or dancing to the driving beat of the Floyd Dakil Band, here came the Dallas women. And once the Dallas women were located, ogling the pros, here came Dallas men to ogle the Dallas women, The mood was electric. The beer was cold. The people were hot. Human nature took its course.
The spotlight shifted and the public s window on Preston Trail closed in the early 1980s, when the Byron Nelson Classic outgrew the site and moved to its present home at The Sports Club at the Four Seasons Resort in Las Colinas. For many area golfers, the 1982 tournament, won by Bob Gilder, was their last look at one of the landmarks of Dallas golf.
SEVERAL PRESTON TRAIL MEMBERS INTERVIEWED FOR THIS STORY describe the club as having “250 chiefs and no Indians.” The Native American metaphor seems apropos, in that the club’s logo features an Indian chief with full war bonnet and for years the club has sported a cigar store wooden Indian known as Chief Sinkum Putt. Another descriptive noun they use, without prompting, is “fraternity”-presumably one without hazing or Hell Week.
The atmosphere inside the clubhouse is loose and informal. As one member, who made his fortune in oil, puts it, “What I like most about the club is the absence of rules. To my knowledge, there are only two rules at Preston Trail: no eating in the dining room without any clothes on; no parking your golf cart within a club length of the hole,” The reference to attire, or lack thereof, has special significance-it’s supposedly not uncommon in the summer months, when temperatures reach three digits, for members to play barechested. Rumor has it that, years ago, a few of them played in the altogether-until Bent Tree Country Club was built nearby.
The other rule, obviously, is that women are not allowed. Except for the board of governors’ annual dinner and a Ladies’ Cocktail Party to which wives and significant others are invited, Preston Trail is a bastion for boys. The Rev. Billy Graham once brought his wife to the club; she had no prayer of being admitted. “He told us he understood completely,” says Stuart Hunt. “He even told us he liked our rule.”
James MacAfee, former executive director of the Northern Texas PGA, recalls the time he was arranging a tournament at Preston Trail and a female assistant pro at one of the area’s courses called to ask what would happen if she decided to enter. “Then I’ll have to get busy and find somewhere else to have it,” he replied.
With its membership limited to 250, some of whom live outside the North Texas area, the Preston Trail course doesn’t get much play, especially in the winter months when members jaunt off to their second (or third) homes in places like Palm Springs, Scottsdale, or Carmel. Most mornings at the club are quiet, which permits touring professionals like Lanny Wadkins and David Frost, the recent runner-up in the Anderson World Championship of Golf, to hone their swings and putting strokes without distraction.
Activity at the club tends to increase as the noon hour approaches. The prime attraction at Preston Trail, besides golf, is the daily lunch buffet. Chef Carlos Stewart and his staff put out a sumptuous spread of soups and salads, hot entrees, cold entrées, and killer desserts. By all accounts, it’s one of the great meals in the city and, at $10, not a bad deal. At the end of the line, by the plates and silverware, sits a freezer of homemade vanilla ice cream and canisters of chocolate syrup and nuts.
For Wadkins, who joined the club in the early 1980s and has since served on its board of directors, choosing the Preston Trail experience amounted to a no-brainer. “First, it has an excellent golf course, one of the finest in the area,” Wadkins says. “Second, there are notée times, and with golf being my business, I find it a valuable use of time to come over here to practice and play. Third, I like the membership. They are really a group of good guys. “
“They are a bunch of community leaders, but no one flaunts it,” continues the native Virginian, whose 21 PGA Tour wins include the 1977 PGA Championship. “If you think you’re something special, there’s someone at the next table who will cut you down to size in a heartbeat. The club gives some important Dallas people a chance to relax and enjoy themselves, just as human beings.”
One of the most widely circulated stories about Preston Trail concerns a 1989 “worst ball” match between Wadkins and Jim Leake, an 8-handicapper. Under the terms of the match, Wadkins had to play two shots on each hole and take his worst; Leake got to play two shots and choose his best. To the surprise of all who wagered against him, Leake won. Wadkins declines to discuss the match, other than to say he had none of his own money at risk and that “worst ball” is a good practice game. Leake, meanwhile, supposedly made off like a bandit with all the side action he took.
Ironically, the most famous of all Preston Trail members during its 30-plus year history was neither a corporate mogul, civic leader, nor professional golfer, but an athlete who made his mark in another sport, baseball. After he doffed the New York Yankee pinstripes for good before the 1969 season-his legs shot, his once-specimen body ravaged by injury and excess-Mickey Mande whiled away many an hour at Preston Trail.
Mantle played golf without the mechanics of a polished performer. He held the club the way he’d hold a Sonny Bryan barbecue sandwich, his right hand almost underneath the club. He hunched over the ball, his stance open, and he took a short backswing. “He had the worst grip and worst setup you ever saw,” says Bill Hooten. “You’d watch him take a cut at the ball and think this clown can’t beat anyone. But he was the most competitive guy I’ve ever played with. He got everything out of his game that he could.”
When Mantle swung, you could see the innate strength and timing that enabled him to launch an offering from Washington Senators pitcher Chuck Stobbs some 565 feet, introducing to baseball the concept of the “tape-measure” homerun. “He had great, remarkable hand-eye coordination,” recalls Doug Bruton, whom Mantle befriended in the late 1980s. “When he wanted to, he could hit it 30 yards past my best shot.”
Dick Dillingham, one of Mantle’s regular playing partners, tells of the day that Mantle drove the green at the 393-yard second hole and sank bis putt for an eagle two. “Mickey had birdied the first hole for a net two, and then he eagled the second,” said Dillingham, who won the club championship four times and who organized and ran the Mickey Mantle Golf Fiesta at exotic venues around the globe. “I started out 3-3 (birdie-birdie) on my own ball and we were immediately down two holes. I told my playing partner, Pat Patterson, ’1 think we can find ourselves an easier game than this one.’ ” On another occasion, Mande supposedly hit his drive 440 yards on the par-five 10th hole; following a bladed wedge over the green, a chili dip, and a scuff, he had to sink a 20-footer for par.
Mantle’s game might be described as long, with intermittent wildness. The same temper he evidenced flipping his bat after striking out in Yankee Stadium would surface now and again at Preston Trail. “One lime, he topped his drive on the ninth hole and immediately threw his driver into the water right after the ball,” said Dillingham. “We were headed to the 10th tee when Mickey realized he didn’t have a driver in his bag, so he went into the pro shop and rummaged around through the racks, looking at three or four drivers before finally choosing a new Spalding model.
“He brought that driver out, teed up a ball. and hooked it out-of-bounds to the left. Then he re-teed and hooked another one out-of-bounds. Then he proceeded to beat that Spalding driver to shreds, banging it off the tee-box marker. He literally destroyed the golf club. So I told him, ’Hell, Mickey, you might as well get rid of that driver. You never could hit it.’ “
On another occasion, Mantle muffed his approach shot to the 17th green. Fuming, he reached into the bag to get another club and in the process inadvertently snapped the heads off both his driver and 3-wood. (That incident was the exception to the rule: Most of the time when Mantle broke his golf clubs he did so on purpose,) “Mickey’s temper could be pretty dramatic, but that was just his competitive nature,” says Dillingham.
Innately shy around strangers. Mantle could be effusive with his pals at Preston Trail, often making himself the butt of his own jokes. He liked to tell the story about being invited to a banquet honoring Native Americans and being seated next to actor Chief Dan George (Little Big Man). Man tie tried to start a conversation-“You wantum bread?” he asked, offering a dinner roll, “You wantum butter?”-without success. George subsequently was called to the podium, where he gave an elegant, extemporaneous speech that triggered tremendous applause. When the chief returned to his seat, he turned to the stunned Yankee slugger and asked, “You likeum talk?” Mantle cackled loudest at the punch line, flashing his famous dimpled grin.
“Joe Haggar MI and I had one of the greatest experiences you could ever imagine,” said Todd Meier, president and general manager of the Meier automotive group, referring to a better-ball match against Mantle and his partner, Dale Dodson, during a club tournament last May. “When we found out who we were playing against, we were as giddy as 12-year-olds. You could tell Mickey wasn’t feeling very well that day (Mande entered Baylor Hospital shortly thereafter, and his liver ailment was diagnosed) but what 1 remember most was his competitive spirit. He was tenacious to the last. He tried hard and never gave up. ” Haggar. the third-generation chairman or the board and CEO of the Haggar Clothing Co., echoes Meier’s sentiments. “Todd and I were two kids in a candy store. We were just beside ourselves the whole time,” he said. “I think we might have won the match, but I can’t really say for sure. We were too caught up in the moment.”
If Mickey Mantle was the biggest celebrity in Preston Trail history, Jack Stroube may have been its biggest character. Stroube. an oilman raised in Corsicana, exuded a Damon Runyonesque demeanor during his days at Preston Trail (he’s now inactive in the dub). A loud and lively raconteur, Stroube was prone to bellowing out “There aren’t enough good listeners in this club! ” His stories, like fine wine, grew richer and more textured with age. One of Stroube’s favorite expressions-“I’m telling the truth as fast as I can make it up”- captures the essence of a man who once wrote that he loved a stand-up cocktail party, especially “when I am giving it and have a good group of listeners who interrupt me only with applause.”
Preston Trail member Charles Summerall remembers a round when Stroube, in the middle of one of his stories, followed him into a bunker next to the eighth green and kept jabbering away as Summerall set up for his explosion shot. “He actually walked into the hunker with mc to finish his story. Have you ever heard of anything like that? The caddie had to rake two sets of footprints, mine and his.”
Another Stroube story, perhaps apocryphal, has h that he once began raising hell in the first fairway when he couldn’t locate his golf ball. only to have his caddie point out that Stroube had been so engrossed with his story thai he’d neglected to hit a drive.
Stroube served as master of ceremonies for a 1968 tribute to Byron Nelson held in conjunction with the tournament’s move to Preston Trail, keeping a crowd of 1,000 at the Sheraton Dallas howling. At one point, Bob Hope got up and cracked a few one-liners but the response paled in comparison. Hope finally popped his hand into the microphone and said, “Would someone get me one of those funny microphones like the one Stroube’s been using?”
Years earlier, when he was introduced to President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Eldorado Country Club in Palm Springs, Stroube supposedly said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Did you know we have something in common?”
“What’s that?” asked Ike.
“We both served in World War II,” said Stroube.
Aliterate Ivy Leaguer who traveled extensively and had a deep appreciation for art. Stroube for years put his penchant for verbalization into the Scurrilous Screed, a chatty newsletter he sent to Preston Trail friends and others. He also took it upon himself to write and produce in 1987 a 25-year history of Preston Trail, a book replete with everything from the club’s origins to heartfelt tributes to Trailblazers like Lin Gower, Jack (Mungo) Munger, Gene Quentan, Bill McPartland, Eddie Kahn, Sammy Lobello, and Smith (Big Daddy) Ferebee. More than anything else, the book captures the sense of camaraderie these business titans share and their devotion-or addiction-to the game of golf.
Stroube had die right idea with his book. Preston Trail, with its heritage and tournament history, its celebrities and notables, its dignitaries and downright characters, is one Dallas institution that shouldn’t keep all its good stories to itself.