Back to the Future

Three generations of the Coody family converged at Colonial, and the memories came flooding back for one writer.

By Mark Godich - May 25, 2023

FORT WORTH, Texas — We all remember the first time. I attended my first Byron Nelson Classic in 1970. I was 13, and Dad surprised me on a Sunday morning with the news that he and I would be attending the afternoon 18 at Preston Trail Golf Club. (After church, of course. Mom insisted that we never miss church.) Rain had necessitated a 36-hole Sunday finale, so we rushed home, changed out of our Sunday best and headed to the course. We arrived as the final group was heading down the 1st fairway:

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and young John Schroeder, who had to be thinking, What have I gotten myself into?

As an Arnie fan, I wasn’t particularly thrilled that Jack had invaded his turf. But I also knew that Jack was on the verge of eclipsing my hero. Arnie was 40, 10 years Jack’s senior. It was only a matter of time. They traded blows for the next several hours, and were still tied when they walked off the 18th green. This was long before the days of lavish corporate sponsorships, so the playoff started not at the home hole, but rather on the par-5 15th. Dad and I raced to find a spot around the green. I craned my neck to get a glimpse, but relied mostly on others for the play-by-play. The playoff ended in a blink, Jack stuffing his approach to tap-in distance. It was yet another sign that the torch was being passed.

It was an afternoon I’ll never forget, the day I became hooked on golf.

Now more than 40 years later, I’m sitting in the press center at Colonial Country Club as the Charles Schwab Challenge unfolds, and I can’t help but be reminded again about where this glorious game has taken me and how things have come full circle.

I went back to the Nelson several times before high school graduation, and one year I vividly remember being in the Pavilion, the rollicking after-golf party tent at Preston Trail. I was there with one of my best friends, Scott Nixon, when I saw Arnie not two tables away, an alluring blonde sitting on his knee. My eyes locked in on him, as would any teenager’s whose golfing hero was so close by. He shot me a glare.

Fittingly, I covered my first Tour event at Preston Trail about a half-decade later, gainfully employed at the Abilene Reporter-News. Charles Coody, pride of Abilene and the 1971 Masters champ, was in the field, so I persuaded my boss to let me cover the event, using the free room and board at my parents’ humble abode as a bargaining chip. I found Charlie on the range early one evening, a solitary figure grinding away. As I waited for him to finish his work, I noticed a teenager standing nearby, bending the ear of an attractive lass. He was loud, and he tossed around a lot of golf talk. He was critiquing the swing of a young player at the end of the range. Then he threw this out there: “You know, Byron Nelson is going to watch my swing next week.” The girl didn’t seem impressed.

When Charlie left the range, I approached him and introduced myself. He seemed surprised the Reporter-News saw fit to cover the event. (All news is local!) We exchanged pleasantries, and then somewhat intimidated, I rattled off a couple of perfunctory questions. Typical of the West Texans I came to know, he was polite and patient. With a wry chuckle, he told me to watch myself in the big city. A golfer watching out for a golfer. 

My passion for golf proved to be a bonus. A year or two later, in the spring of 1982, I covered Charlie’s son, Kyle, and the Abilene Cooper High Cougars on their march to the Class 5A state golf championship. (It would be the first of three straight state titles for the Cougars.) That team was loaded.

And I do mean loaded. All five kids would play major college golf: Coody (Texas), Bob Estes (Texas), Mike Standly (Houston), Ron English (TCU) and Cole Thompson (Stanford). I sensed a friendly competition among the five over whose score wouldn’t be low enough to count. The Cougars won the 36-hole regional tournament by 30-something shots, throwing out a 72 in the second round. They won the state title as well, by a dozen shots. In the first round, they threw out a 74. Standly, Coody and Estes finished in the top six. English was T-12.

Emerging from a talented field, relatively unknown Jeff Maggert won the individual title in a playoff. The kid whom I had heard critiquing swings and whose own swing would be dissected by Lord Byron himself finished out of the playoff. His name was Scott Verplank.

All told, four players who competed in that state tournament would become PGA Tour winners: Maggert, Estes, Verplank and Standly. They won a combined 13 Tour events. Verplank was the first to cross the finish line, at the 1985 Western Open. He was 21, the first amateur in 29 years to win a Tour event. After Standly won in New Orleans in 1993, thereby punching his ticket to play in his first Masters the following week, Charles Coody invited him to play a practice round at Augusta National. A golfer taking care of a golfer.

Pierceson Coody is in the field at Colonial this week. He’s the son of Kyle and, of course, the grandson of Charlie. He’s playing as a Captain’s Choice, an invitation handed out to two young guns each year in a vote of the Colonial membership. Pierceson had a decorated college career; this time a year ago, he was leading Texas to the national championship. He has already won on the Korn Ferry Tour and has made three of six cuts on the PGA Tour. Parker, his twin brother, also instrumental in the Longhorns’ title run, just cashed his first check on the PGA Tour. At the Nelson, the same tournament his grandfather Charlie won in 1964, when it was the Dallas Open.

Pierceson went off the 1st tee at 1:28 on Thursday afternoon. Featured pairing too, live camera feed and all—unheard of for a group that was assigned a penultimate time in the first round. Why all the buzz? Well, Pierceson was playing in a group with Michael Block. Certainly you’ve heard of the club pro from Southern California who took the PGA Championship by storm: the three even-par rounds, the Sunday pairing with Rory, the ace at 15, the T-15 finish. T-15! Smartly, the Colonial wasted no time extending a sponsor’s exemption.

On Wednesday, I scheduled a lesson with Craig Freeman, the director of golf instruction at Hackberry Creek Country Club. We’ve been at it for more than a year as I try to rediscover some semblance of a golf swing: Bigger shoulder turn, Mark. Turn your right hip. Higher finish. A golfer helping a golfer. Trying his best to, anyway.

Craig hails from Oklahoma, but before landing at Hackberry last year, he spent 30 years in Southern California. I asked if he knew of Block. Of course he did. They were in different PGA sections, but everybody around Southern California knew of the legend of Michael Block. Craig never played with Block, but his brother did. He has always been, in a word, a player.

Sadly, the Nelson and the Colonial have become casualties in the battle between the Tour and LIV Golf. For years, they were scheduled on back-to-back weeks. It made perfect sense. Pretty much everybody not named Arnie was getting from event to event on something other than a private jet, and Dallas and Fort Worth are a mere 30 miles apart. Those two weeks in May were a celebration of the game across the Metroplex. Golf’s fortnight.

Now the two events bookend the PGA Championship, and for the first time the Colonial has competition from the PGA of America, which this week is hosting its Senior PGA Championship in Frisco, 25 miles north of Dallas. (The PGA recently moved into its sparkling $500 million headquarters there.) Who wins in that situation? The Nelson moved to TPC Las Colinas in 1983, and for a good stretch, the fields were strong and the champions worthy. Most notable: a three-year run starting in 1995 when Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods won. Lord Byron was always there to greet the players when they walked off the last green, but he died in 2006, and I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The winner the year after Nelson’s death? Dallas’s own Scott Verplank. He broke down in tears after holing the decisive putt.

Colonial has had a better run, largely because of its connection to a storied course. While the Nelson has bounced from TPC Las Colinas to Trinity Forest to TPC Craig Ranch, Colonial CC has hosted the eponymous tournament since its inception in 1946. The locals like to remind you that it’s the PGA Tour’s longest-running event played on the same course. Ben Hogan won the inaugural tournament, repeated in ’47 and won for the fifth and final time in 1959. Hogan’s Alley! Arnie won three years later and Jack prevailed in 1982. The Wall of Champions, hard by the 1st tee, is loaded with Hall of Famers. One of the knocks about Colonial is that it is too short, that it has been rendered obsolete by the modern game. Yet since Jordan Spieth won in 2016, look at the who’s who of world-class players who have finished second: Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa, Tony Finau and Spieth (twice).

I arrived at the 1st tee a little before 1:30, hoping to find Kyle Coody. A large crowd had already assembled, looking to capture Block’s opening tee shot. Lo and behold, I saw Charlie. I introduced myself, then told him about our meeting at Preston Trail. He is a spry 85 now, still living in Abilene. I told him how great he looked. He mentioned that he felt good, other than “having to get around with this thing.” He pointed to his cane. Only later did I realize he had fashioned his walking stick out of a golf club, a persimmon-headed PowerBilt 4-wood, turning the club upside down to use the head as a handle and the butt end as a stabilizer. I jokingly said I hoped he hadn’t used the club to win the Masters. Charlie said he hadn’t, before adding it was in the bag for at least a few tournaments. In suffocating 85-degree heat, he and Lynette, his bride of 63 years, walked every step of the front nine, watched Pierceson hit his tee shot on 10 and retired to cool off in the clubhouse. They were sitting in a shaded grandstand near the 18th green when their grandson came up the home hole.

I caught up with Kyle near the green on the short par-4 2nd hole. He reminisced about what a special time those high school days were and how connected the players were. They were teammates but they were also blood brothers. I asked if he could recall how much Cooper had won regional by; he couldn’t, but he knew it was a lot. He does remember that the Cougars were so deep they advanced two teams out of the district tournament. Because the top two teams in regionals would advance to state, the players pleaded with coach Tommy Estes, Bob’s dad, to shuffle the lineup and move a couple of the top players to the second team. Coach Estes kept the lineups intact, and Cooper finished first and third. Records are scarce, but oh, what that 72 might have done for the second team. As we chatted, Pierceson hit a deft pitch to within a foot, setting up a kick-in birdie. One under through 2.

The Coody-Block-Min Woo Lee group generated as large a following as any in the afternoon. It was a sight to behold—young fans in their “Block Party” T-shirts walking outside the ropes oblivious that the 1971 Masters champion was in their company. When one fan leaned in for a better view of the tee shots on the 9th hole, a volunteer marshall, ever dutiful, said, “Sir, please don’t lean on the rope.” It was Charlie.

Block made the turn in 2 over, almost jarring his second shot at the 9th from 137 yards. In a presumed nod to hometown TCU, he was decked out in a light purple shirt. As he approached the green, he drew some cheers as he attempted, rather sheepishly, to flash the Horned Frogs’ hand signal. But the energy he expended at the PGA appeared to catch up to him on the back nine. He looked exhausted, and he came home in 44. His 11-over 81 was the highest score recorded in the 120-player field, by four shots. Golf is a humbling game, isn’t it?

Pierceson signed for a solid 1-over 71 and headed directly to the practice green, where he grinded under the watchful eye of Kyle and caddie Daniel Gregory. On Thursday he led the field in strokes gained off the tee but was 98th in strokes gained putting. He was the only player on the practice green. Kyle stood behind his son, then to the side. Using a tee, Pierceson propped up his cell phone to shoot video of his down-the-line stroke. At T-68, he has work to do on Friday if he wants to play the weekend. He goes off the 10th tee at 8:48.

By chance, I bumped into Charlie and Lynette outside the clubhouse as I was heading to catch the shuttle. Considering his grandson couldn’t buy a putt, Charlie said Pierceson’s 71 was a pretty good score. Asked if he’d be back on Friday, he replied, “Oh, yeah. We’ll probably walk the back nine with him.” We chatted for a couple more minutes before going our separate ways.

I’ve been walking around Texas golf tournaments for more than 50 years. They have a timeless quality, like the Coody family. I hope I’m still attending Colonial when I’m 85. I have a good idea for a walking stick.