According to the New World Atlas of Golf: “It is often said that Ben Hogan’s success was partly due to the fact that, having played his early golf at Colonial, every other course in the world was easy in comparison. There are not many pros who would disagree with that.”
John Bredemus first designed Colonial Country Club, but Perry Maxwell refashioned the layout ahead of the 1941 U.S. Open. Nicknamed "Hogan's Alley" for the five titles Ben Hogan won here, Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, puts a premium on accuracy rather than pure length from the tee. Colonial is a hard-as-nails par 70 layout measuring 7,054 yards with tree-lined fairways, numerous doglegs, the Trinity River and small tricky-to-read greens.
The 5th is perhaps the most celebrated and the toughest hole at Colonial. This brutal doglegged par four measures 472 yards from the tips. Anything drifting too far to the right may find the Trinity River underneath the trees and even a long straight drive may run out of fairway and into the trees at the elbow of the dogleg.
Ben Hogan claimed that "a straight ball will get you in more trouble at Colonial than any course I know." You need a well struck, but more importantly, well placed drive to have any chance of reaching the green which is well protected by bunkers and yet more trees.
Writing in the Confidential Guide to Golf
, Tom Doak was rather more disparaging: “The stock of Colonial has
fallen over the past 20-30 years, as Ben Hogan’s glory days fade in our memory.
In truth, it has only ever been a standout on a regional basis. Still, it was a
shock to my system when a course once feted as a long and narrow championship
test was identified as the best possible venue for Annika Sörenstam to compete
in a PGA Tour event, in 2003. What keeps the course relevant are a bunch of
curving dogleg holes through the trees, most famously the banana-shaped 5th,
rewarding the golfer who knows how to shape the ball instead of just bombing
In the early 2000s, we had a sales convention in Dallas in the winter. Several of the guys wanted to play golf and looked to me to make it happen. There are many good golf courses in the DFW Metroplex, but I was focused on getting us on Colonial in Fort Worth. Colonial has a storied history and was the brainchild of local business man Marvin Leonard, who was fanatical about bent grass greens. At the time, the general consensus was the Texas heat would prevent bent grass from surviving and the standard grass was Bermuda. Ultimately, Leonard was vindicated and the course prospered. In 1942, Leonard offered to sell the club to the members. His first offer was rebuked. Eventually, sanity prevailed. Leonard sold the club for what he invested in it: $300,000. The vote amongst the 300 members was close and passed by less than a dozen votes. The members bought the club for $1K each! As amazing as that may sound, even adjusted for inflation that would be only be about $15K each in today’s dollars.
After calling in several markers we were able to secure three tee times. Unfortunately, the evening before we were scheduled to play an Alberta Clipper hit town and the temperature plummeted. We woke in the morning to temperatures hovering around freezing. The forecast called for light precipitation. Sure enough, my phone started ringing with all the panty waists bailing out.
We ended up with two foursomes and when we arrived at the course we were experiencing snow flurries. Fortunately, they still allowed us on the course, but there were no caddies present. The assistant pro called a couple and finally one agreed to come on out. As we were freezing our keisters off, we decided to tee off and let him catch up to us. I am not sure how many people have teed off at Colonial while it was snowing, but I would guess that this would put us in a select group. The quality of our play was even more subpar than normal. On the bright side we did not have to worry about keeping the beer cold. The caddy showed up on the third hole. On the fourth hole Jack Wallin grabbed a beer out of the bag and I did the same on the fifth. The caddy looked at us and asked, “How much beer do you have in here?”
Almost in stereo, we respond, “Not enough.” Overall, I liked Colonial. By the standards of today it is not that long, 7200 yards, but it is a par 70. The fifth hole that parallels the Trinity River is a long, demanding par four. I also enjoyed both par threes on the backside, but overall I would rate it nice, but not “I gotta play it” nice.
The best way to describe Colonial is its similarity to that of another historic club -- Baltusrol. Both have long standing and clearly rich histories in their respective developments. Colonial clearly was a major part of the foundation for The Lone Star State golf -- ditto the impact from Baltusrol. The intersection with Ben Hogan only added to the mystique of Colonial. The intersection with Jack Nicklaus -- winning two of his four US Opens at the New Jersey club has clearly added a rich and forever lasting connection.
Colonial is aided in the public consciousness in many ways by serving as host to the annual Invitational which comes when the PGA Tour arrives in town. So just how good is the golf? Frankly, if the course were in the New York or Philadelphia metro areas it would be nothing more than second tier, at best, in terms of the depth and impact of the architectural elements it provides.
Make no mistake the contributions from John Bredemus and Perry Maxwell are certainly laudatory. But advances in club and ball technology over the years has simply meant a layout that fails to require the kind of shotmaking the design was meant to both create and inspire. The upper echelon of players today need not demonstrate the level of driver dexterity anywhere near to the extent Hogan and players of that time needed to execute.
The turning points with many of the holes is wonderfully done. No doubt it does take a special skill to work the ball when called upon. But all the ballyhoo about the par-4 5th is a bit overdone. It's a good hole and the close proximity of the Trinity River does cause players to think carefully before pulling the trigger. But the other element of note that impacts Colonial is how the overall rise in quality golf architecture in Texas has clearly changed over the last 25 years. That field is now much deeper and will continue to become more so in the years ahead.
The issue regarding Colonial is how much of the past should impact its present and future? The layout is a good one - but its time and place among the top 15 courses in Texas is now in the rear view mirror.
M. James Ward
Colonial starts out simply enough on flat ground. The first hole is a straight forward dogleg right par five of 555 yards, one of only two on the course.
It becomes clear pretty quickly at Colonial that the greens are small. Along with Pebble Beach, Harbour Town and Inverness, they are among the smallest of all the courses I have played.
The three-hole stretch three through five is known as the "Horrible Horseshoe." Horseshoe, because the third tee is right next to and left of the fifth green, and the three holes swing around in a U shape. Horrible, because they are not easy. The third is a 468-yard par four dogleg left with a slightly elevated green. The fourth is a tricky 220-yard par three, also with an elevated green.
The fifth hole is one of the most renowned in the world. It gets endless accolades. Golf's 100 Toughest Holes includes it on its list. The 500 World's Greatest Golf Holes ranks the fifth among its top 100. Dan Jenkins, in his 1966 book The Best 18 Golf Holes in America, selected the fifth hole as well. It is a 459-yard par four (481 for the pros), dogleg right. As Jenkins describes it: "The drive must be almost perfect, a slight fade and 250 yards out, if you are going to reach it in two. But fade too much, and there is the Trinity waiting. You can bail out to the left but there is a line of trees and a ditch there." The Trinity he is referring to is the Trinity River, which snakes along the outside of the course.
It's a hard hole for sure, but not that hard. I'm not exactly a scratch golfer and I parred the fifth. In fairness, the prevailing left to right wind wasn't blowing when we played; I imagine it's a different hole if the wind is up.
The tenth was also one of my favorite holes. It is a nice 381-yard dogleg right par four. Your second shot is over a big swale to a well-protected green.
Colonial is a narrow, shot makers course. You don't need to bomb the ball to score well here. What you need to do is hit around trees and be smart with club selection.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
Colonial is a great test of golf. It is dominated by rows of dense trees on almost every fairway, and the player who is able to control the shape and trajectory of his shots will do well here. I had barely gotten warmed up on the front nine when I came to “The Devil’s Horseshoe” (Colonial’s version of Amen Corner): Numbers 3, 4, and 5. In 1983, Tour Magazine called Number 5 the toughest par 4 on the PGA Tour. Cary Middlecoff had this to say about it: “First I pull out two brand-new Wilson balls and throw them in the Trinity River. Then I throw up. Then I go ahead and hit my tee shot into the river.” Number 5 is a 470-yard par 4, with the Trinity River running up the entire right side of the fairway. It was Brock’s only bogey on the front nine. I made seven.
The course was designed by John Bredemus in 1933; Colonial is the only course he designed, as far as I know. Its putting greens are seeded with a new strain of bent grass called A-4, bred to withstand Texas summer heat. I was doing very well in Colonial’s greenside bunkers – up and down three of five times. Larry Berle.