Fifty years ago, the University of Houston golf team began what would become one of the greatest – and arguably most unlikely – dynasties in the history of college sports.
When Rex Baxter, Houston’s No. 1 player in 1956, drained a 45-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Ohio State’s famed Scarlet Course, the Cougars secured the first of their 16 NCAA Division I Championships.
Only two years earlier, the Cougars didn’t even have a full-time golf coach. And Houston did not win its first tournament – ever – until just a year earlier, at the 1955 Border Olympics.
It was in 1952 that Harry Fouke, then Houston’s athletic director, convinced his friend Dave Williams, who worked in the school’s engineering department, to coach the team on a part-time basis.
Williams was a soft-spoken sort who always seemed to have a positive word for his players. He proved to be a masterful recruiter. By the time he retired in 1987, Williams was a legend in his profession, a man dubbed “The Father of College Golf.”
Williams’ teams won an unprecedented 16 NCAA titles and 14 conference championships in 19 years. Williams died Dec. 17, 1998, at age 80, but it’s doubtful his legacy ever will be approached, much less surpassed.
And it all began during an improbable June week 50 years ago.
Houston tied for fourth at the 1955 NCAA Championship, but entering the 1956 tournament, the Cougars still were overshadowed by teams from LSU, Stanford, Purdue, SMU, Wake Forest, Ohio State and North Texas State.
“We knew the odds were stacked against us even though I don’t think any of us would admit it,” says team member Jim Hiskey, 69, who now lives in Annapolis, Md. “The Las Vegas oddsmakers would probably give us about a 100-to-1 chance.”
Baxter, 70, who lives in Delray Beach, Fla., agrees.
“I don’t think most people gave us much of a chance,” Baxter said. “But I felt we had a good chance. I know Coach Williams liked our chances.”
The Cougars won five times during the 1956 season and were beginning to make their presence known as they prepared to compete for the national championship.
Back then, the NCAA consisted of 36 holes and each team could have up to six players, with the best four scores counting for each round. Most teams brought six players. The Houston program still was short on money, so only four Cougars were sent to the NCAA tournament, meaning each player’s score would count each day. There was no room for error.
With a squad consisting of Hiskey, Baxter, Richard Parvino and Frank Wharton, Houston gave birth to its golfing dynasty in one of the most suspenseful finishes in NCAA history.
On June 30, 1956, Baxter not only shot a Scarlet Course record 5-under-par 67, he also sank that 45-footer from 4 feet off the green on the final hole to give Houston a one-shot victory (601 to 602) over Purdue and North Texas State.
“I never thought he’d make that putt,” Hiskey says. “I just didn’t want him to three-putt, which from where he was, could have happened. I was just hoping for a two-putt. I think we would have been ecstatic with a tie. As the ball was rolling toward the hole, it looked off line. Then it made a turn and disappeared into the hole. All of us jumped skyward. It was a chilling moment. I can still see it happening, even after 50 years. It was unreal.”
Wharton says he remembers having total confidence in Baxter, who on that 18th hole hit his tee shot into a fairway bunker and nailed a 3-iron to just off the green.
“I had so much confidence in Rex and he had so much confidence in himself,” says Wharton, 70, who is in his 40th year as head pro at Fairlawn Country Club in Akron, Ohio. “He was our main guy all year and it seemed only fitting that he would be the one in this situation with a national championship on the line.
“He knew where we stood. We all did. He knew he had to sink it. He told the caddie to take out the pin. He was ready. I just knew he was going to make it. When he did, it was an amazing feeling. And, I think as the years go on, what we did then means a lot more. We realize the accomplishment more. Looking back now, it was quite a feat.”
Baxter, now an instructor in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., knew what was on the line.
“I was just so happy for Frank and Jimmy and Richard and especially for Coach Williams,” he recalls. “It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Baxter led the Cougars’ title-winning performance with his 4-under 140 total, followed by Hiskey and Wharton at 153, and Parvino, who died of cancer 20 years ago, at 155.
The 1985 Houston team – made up of Steve Elkington, Billy Ray Brown, Marc Pendaries, Mike Standly and Carlos Espinosa – won the school’s 16th and final NCAA title under Williams at Grenelefe Resort in Haines City, Fla. More than 20 years later, that remains the last Division I men’s golf team to successfully defend its national title.
But it was the ’56 foursome that put Houston on the college golf map, paving the way for what would become the sport’s greatest dynasty.