Firecracker Open sizzles with tales of local golf lore

There are a lot of ways to enjoy the Fourth of July weekend. Parades. Fireworks. Backyard cookouts. But for my money — and actually it does not cost a penny — nothing beats the Firecracker Open at Lions Municipal.

More than 140 of the area’s best amateur golfers will compete Friday through Sunday at historic Muny in the 70th edition of the Firecracker. With apologies to Jim Nantz’s famous comment about the Masters, in Austin it’s a tradition unlike any other.

Before the field tees off Friday morning, here are a few notes about the venerable tournament:

  • It has not always known as the Firecracker. The tournament began in 1946 as the Austin Golf Association Fourth of July Tournament. The format shifted from match play to various combinations of match and stroke play until becoming a 54-hole stroke play tournament in 1970. It was first tabbed the Firecracker in 1968, when the tournament went to a 72-hole stroke-play format for one year and was won by Tom Kite with an 8-under 276 total.
  • You can’t think of the Firecracker without thinking of Muny, but the tournament has been held elsewhere. Tim Wilson won in 1975 when the tournament was held at Jimmy Clay because of renovations at Muny. Wilson won again in 1976 when the event was held at both Muny and Jimmy Clay. Doug Nelle won in 1978, when the tournament took place at Jimmy Clay.
  • Defending champion Logan Boatner is one of six former Firecracker champions in this year’s field. He will be joined by Mike Allen (1974), Michael Cooper ( 2003, 2008, 2013), Alex Ellis (2011), Stratton Nolen (2010) and Brian Noonan (2004). Allen finished as the runner-up to Ellis in 2011, 37 years after his victory.
  • If Boatner wins this weekend, he will join an elite group of players to win back-to-back Firecracker titles. Only five have managed to pull it off: Claude Wilde Jr. (1949-50), Tim Wilson ( 1975-76), Doug Nelle (1977-78), Billy Clagett (1990-91 and 1993-94), and Robby Ormand (2005-06).
  • Clagett holds the record with six Firecracker titles (1988, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994 and 2001). Four players are tied with three victories apiece: Cooper (2003, 2008, 2013), Nelle (1977, 1978, 1980), Randy Petri (1959, 1962, 1965) and Wilde Jr. (1947, 1949, 1950).
  • Cooper holds the tournament scoring record of 17-under 196 (62-68-66), his winning total in 2003.
  • Look out for teenagers at the Firecracker. The tournament’s youngest winner, Brenden Redfern, was 14 when he topped the field in 2007. Nolen was 15 when he won in 2010. Crenshaw was 17 at the time of his victory in 1969.
  • Four Firecracker champions went on to careers on the PGA Tour: Ben Crenshaw (1969, 1971), Kite (1968), Petri (1967), and Omar Uresti (1986, 1989).

I’ve surely missed some great Firecracker moments, but here are a couple of the favorites I witnessed in person:

  • In the final round of the 2003 tournament, Michael Cooper held a six- or seven-shot lead as he played the par-5 12th hole. His drive landed in the light left rough, about 200 yards from the green, which is fronted by a small creek. Cooper studied the shot for quite a while but finally laid up. Then he hit his third shot on the green and took an easy par on the way to a victory. Afterward Cooper, one of the longest hitters in the city, talked about laying up on No. 12: “That was killing me. A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have even thought about it. I’d have gone for the green right away, but I guess I’m getting smarter with age. I realized the only way I was going to lose this thing was to do something really stupid and make a big number there.”
  • In the first round of the 2005 Firecracker, former champions Billy Clagett, Michael Cooper, Brian Noonan and Tim Wilson were paired together. On the tee of the 135-yard par-3 13th, Cooper had the honor. His pitching wedge hit about three feet short of the cup and took a nose dive into the hole. Wilson was next up. His 9-iron took the exact same ball flight as Cooper’s, hit about an inch from where Cooper’s had and followed his ball in for another ace. Two swings. Two holes-in-one by two former champs. More amazing was that Clagett almost made it three in a row. His 9-iron looked just like Cooper and Wilson’s shots in the air, landed a few inches away from their marks and finished only three feet from an ace. Noonan, the defending champion that year, stuck his wedge about 15 feet pin high.

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