A Tradition Like No Other
The 2019 Cowboy Cup Invitational was contested on a hot, humid Saturday, June 8th at its customary venue, the lovely and challenging Grey Rock Golf Club. Temperatures were in the high 90’s and, with not even a whisper of a breeze, the contestants got this year’s first true taste of Summer golf in Austin, Texas. The field topped out at 24 players, including 7 past champions - among them defending Champ, Patrick Giles.
Over the past couple of years, with the June heat and the pressure of a major championship bearing down on the competitors, Old Man (Net) Par had proven tough to beat, with only one or two of the leaders succeeding each year in out-performing their handicap over 18 holes. But this year, with slow greens and lush scoring conditions, several players were on fire. Most prominently among them was Muny Rat Chairman, T. Ross Henry (5 hdcp), who carded 4 birdies and an eagle on his way to a gross 3 under par 69. Henry’s round was especially note-worthy in that he snapped his putter over his knee on his 9th hole and was forced to putt with his 3-hybrid from there on out! But the man needed only 9 putts over those final 9 holes and chipped in twice with said hybrid to boot, leaving everyone else wondering if hybrid wasn’t, perhaps, the superior weapon on the furry, sandy greens. Regardless, with his 5 handicap, Henry found himself in the clubhouse with a 2 stroke lead at net -8 after 18 holes. He would be joined in the final foursome by Keith Phelps (8 hdcp), who carded 4 birdies of his own on his way to a gross 74 (net 66) and found himself in second place at net -6. Marty Piorkowski, carrying a 15 handicap, played steady golf all day long and carded a gross 82 (net 67) to occupy 3rd place at net – 5. And rounding out the final four would be sweet-swingin’ Danny McBurney, of Rockport, TX – an eight handicapper who fired a gross 78 (net 70) to come in at net -2.
So, with the final foursome set, the players chose caddies (Ross / Matt Brower, Phelps / Patrick Dickson, Piorkowski / Doc Mann, McBurney / Bill Sill), stocked up on beer, and headed to the 10th tee box to play 9 more holes for all the marbles. They were followed in carts by a strong gallery and official scorer and Cowboy Cup Chairman, Andy Boutot.
Henry, Piorkowski, and McBurney all hit solid drives, while Phelps hooked his just enough to enter the penalty area. But, after a drop and a one-stroke penalty, Phelps hit a stellar six-iron onto the green to recover. He two putted for a bogey / net par. McBurney was the only one to hit the green and two-putted for his par. Ross, after leaving his approach shot just short, pitched up and made his par putt. Piorkowski missed short and left with a short iron and pitched up, but three-putted for a net bogey. So, after one hole, only had McBurney gained any ground on the leader. Phelps parred the difficult par-four 11th, while Henry and McBurney bogeyed and Piorkowski carded a net double.
It was on the par-four 12th hole that Henry began to distance himself from the pack, hitting a penetrating draw off the tee to split the fairway, and then a perfect pitching wedge to set up a well executed 2-putt with his hybrid for par. McBurney and Phelps both faltered off the tee and ended up making net bogeys. Piorkowski’s net par kept him steady, but after 3 holes, it was Henry at net -8, Phelps -5, Piorkowski -2, and McBurney -1.
On the par-three 13th, Henry, with the honors, continued his stellar ball-striking with a perfectly drawn pitching wedge to 8 feet, followed by a smoothly stroked hybrid-putt right into the back of the cup for birdie! Not only was he outclassing his opponents tee-to green, he was out-putting them with his hybrid! Phelps and McBurney both hit the green in regulation and two-putted for par, while Piorkowski missed the green, failed to get up and down, and carded a net bogey. With five holes to go, Henry’s lead had now increased to 4 strokes.
Henry strode up to the par-five 14th tee-box a supremely confident golfer. His efficient swing was firing like a piston and he was clearly devoid of any fear and simply enjoying the moment. Again with the honors, he stepped up and powdered his driver with a high draw, cutting the corner beautifully and putting himself in perfect position for a go at the green. A well-struck hybrid left him 5 yards short-left of the green and his pitch left him with 1 foot for birdie, which he calmly tapped in for his second gross birdie in a row and a net eagle. Even with Phelps and McBurney making net birdies, Henry’s lead was now 5 strokes. With four holes to go, it was Henry at net -11, Phelps at net -6, McBurney -2, and Piorkowski -1.
Henry stumbled slightly on the short par-four 15th, three-putting and make bogey. Phelps pulled his tee-shot badly and had to take a drop with a penalty, but then hit a beautiful short iron to 15 feet and two-putted to also make bogey. McBurney carded a double bogey to drop firmly out of contention. Piorkowski made the lone par of the group and got to net -2, but was still looking at a big mountain to climb.
Henry and Phelps both bogeyed the tough par-three 16th, while Piorkowski and McBurney doubled. So, with two holes to go, it was Henry at net – 9, Phelps at -4, Piorkowski at net even par, and McBurney at +2.
And when Henry and Phelps both made par on the par-five 17th, Henry strode to the 18thtee box carrying a five shot lead and the crowd’s consensus that the championship was his. But it turned out there was drama still to be had…..
The par-four 18th hole at Grey Rock is an excellent finishing hole. With bunkers and OB left, and a big pond guarding the entire right hand side, it requires a drive of precision. And when Henry pulled driver out of the bag, there were more than a few murmurs among the patrons. Had he not seen the 1999 British Open and screamed at the TV when Van de Velde pulled out driver on the 18th at Carnoustie? And yet, Henry was swinging so confidently and absolutely blistering his driver. What could go wrong, right?
Well, perhaps for the only time all day, the enormity of this sacred championship seemed to affect the great Chairman, as he rope-hooked his drive left toward the out-of-bounds markers. And when the spotter, Patrick Giles, motioned that Henry’s ball was indeed OB, it seemed we had, potentially, a new ball game. Could Henry possibly card a max-quadruple bogey here and leave the door open for Phelps to make birdie and send us to extra holes? Phelps, ever the bulldog competitor, stepped up and hit a solid hybrid to a perfect position in the fairway. Henry, at the behest of Brower, his caddy, prudently took advantage of the local rule option in effect for OB and chose to take a drop at the point of entry with a 2-stroke penalty. He would now be hitting his fourth shot. With 147 yards to the pin and adrenaline coursing through his veins, he chose 9 iron and, wasting no time, stepped up, made a full turn, and launched the ball high into the June sky. It was a purely struck shot under pressure and, with its customary draw, Henry’s ball arced steeply down and stopped dead, twenty feet from the hole. It was gutsy and clutch, and it put Henry’s hands firmly on the trophy for good. Phelps gamely hit pitching wedge to 12 feet, but it was all over but the shouting. With 2 putts from his now trusty hybrid, Ross Henry became a Cowboy Cup Champion in the tournament’s 20th anniversary. His final score would be net -7, two better than Phelps and 6 better than Piorkowski and McBurney, who finished tied at +1.
At the awards ceremony, defending champion Giles placed the jacket on Henry’s shoulders and lit his victory cigar. Chairman Boutot placed the Low Gross medal around his shoulders and, with great pride and joy, handed over the Champions bourbon and the magnificent Cowboy Cup trophy. Henry beamed and posed for the cameras. He had faced the pressure of the moment head on and played truly outstanding golf all day. There couldn’t have been a more deserving champion.ere.