Culture / Sporting Life

Why The Colonial is Such a Fort Worth Original — With the PGA Tour Stop Celebrating 75 Years, We Look Back at the Man Who Started It All

Building Something That's Uniquely Fort Worth

BY // 05.23.21

With Phil Mickelson turning back the clock for a historic win and Brooks Koepka fading on a Major Sunday, the entire golf world remains fixated on what an unforgettable PGA Championship in South Carolina means. But North Texas is embracing the storied Colonial Country Club for the Charles Schwab Challenge.

While The Colonial is getting the anything but coveted week-after-a-major date in the schedule (which usually means fewer big name golfers will play the tournament — though World No. 2 Justin Thomas and Mickelson are both playing this week), the fact it’s the 75th anniversary of the Fort Worth staple still ensures there will be plenty of pizzazz.  When everything tees off this Thursday, May 27, the fun will be back.

Aside from the Fort Worth Rodeo, what is affectionately known by locals simply as The Colonial is the city’s most enduring and beloved sporting event. It also lays claim to being the PGA Tour’s longest running tournament. Colonial Country Club has hosted a Tour event every year since 1946.

Now, it is The Colonial’s diamond jubilee.

The see-and-be-seen soiree of the spring would typically be swarming with fans. After last year’s empty bleachers due to COVID-19, next week’s event will include limited attendance ― mostly club members, their credentialed guests and some lucky ticket holders. It’s usually quite a scene.

Though fashion trends have ranged from bobby socks and saddle oxfords to halter-tops and mini-skirts through the years ― nothing beats watching a few foolish first-timers trying to negotiate their way around the course in spike heels (not suggested).

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Marty Leonard’s memories of the 1946 Colonial – laying on the grass.

PaperCity Fort Worth spoke with Marty Leonard and her sister Madelon Bradshaw about their recollections and their insights into their father Marvin Leonard, the founder of Colonial Country Club. Marvin Leonard’s tenacity took retail merchandising to new heights with his Leonard’s Department Store. And he forever changed Fort Worth’s place in the sporting world, too.

Marty Leonard was 9-years-old when the PGA’s longest-running event first teed off in 1946. While her sister Madelon was too young to remember much about that first tournament, she has enjoyed watching its growth throughout the years.

“I think Colonial is very fortunate to have Charles Schwab as its sponsor, they’ve done a great job with it,” Marty Leonard says. “It brings in millions of dollars as well as tourism to the city each year. Colonial has always been a big economic driver in Fort Worth, and then of course, there’s the prestige of it.

“When the PGA chose Colonial to be its first tournament back during COVID. . . that was a real compliment and it drew a great field in 2020, since everyone was so ready to play.”

“Dad would be very pleased with what’s happened with the tournament, and he’d be very humbled to see how it has grown throughout the past 75 years,” Madelon Bradshaw adds. Marvin Leonard died in 1970 at age 75.

 

Marvin Leonard’s love of golf cannot be overstated. The visionary Fort Worth merchant built three courses of his own from scratch ― each beginning life as his own personal course. First Colonial, then Shady Oaks, and finally his magnificent private 9-hole wonder, Starr Hollow, located on the family ranch in Tolar, which has been ranked the No. 1 nine hole course in the country over the years.

“The doctor told daddy he needed to get some exercise, so he took up golf and began playing at the former Glen Garden,” Marty Leonard says. “That’s where he met the young Ben Hogan, who was his caddy.”

The two men struck up a lifelong friendship. When Hogan gifted a copy of his book, Power Golf to Leonard, he inscribed it: “To Marvin Leonard, the best friend I ever had. If my father had lived, I would want him to be just like you.” That pretty well sums up their relationship.

“Ben Hogan is such a part of Colonial history ― having won it five times,” Marty Leonard says. “I think he would have been successful no matter what, but daddy supported him on the tour, as well as when he launched his Ben Hogan Golf Equipment manufacturing company.”

Colonial Golf Club came to life 85 years ago in 1936 under Marvin Leonard’s direction. He was determined to bring bent grass greens to his hometown of Fort Worth. Despite the fact the city’s harsher, hot climate was then thought to be less than ideal for this strain of grass. Marvin Leonard was largely discouraged from  going with bent grass. But he persisted, engaging both John Bredemus and Perry Maxwell to help design the now legendary course.

That duo helped Marvin Leonard realize his vision. In the process, they forever changed how golf is played in Texas. On smooth greens.

You’ll find bent grass everywhere now, it’s much more tolerant of the Texas heat. But Marvin Leonard was the first to try it anywhere in the Southwest.

Then Marvin Leonard pulled off the ultimate coup, bring the 45th U.S. Open to Colonial in 1941, proving all the naysayers wrong. Marvin Leonard effectively sold the club to its members in 1942 and Colonial Country Club was born.

Colonial – celebrates 75 years
Colonial celebrates 75 years when it tees off May 24.

As fate would have it, the 1941 Open was the last U.S. Open to be played for five long years as World War II intervened.

“Before that, the Open had never been held below the Mason Dixon, and rarely has since,” Marty Leonard notes. Though the U.S. Open has never returned, the annual tournament known as Colonial did in 1946. And here it is still going — 75 years later.

“It began as an invitational, that was the genesis of it,” Marty Leonard says. “Daddy was such a visionary. I think he’d be very pleased to see how Colonial has evolved.”

Marty Leonard has kept her father’s love of golf going in the family. She now owns and operates Leonard Golf Links, and notes that the outdoor game has experienced a huge increase due to the pandemic.

“Everything has a silver lining,” she says. “I think it’s been a good thing to get people outdoors and off their screens.”

“Colonial has been such an integral part of Fort Worth, and of course it was such a great part of my dad’s life and legacy,” Bradshaw says.

Marvin Leonard’s daughters are ready to celebrate this momentous 75th anniversary along with the city of Fort Worth, the PGA Tour and Colonial Country Club. Some things just get better with age.

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