One-on-One with Tom Penders: Golf with Willie and the Tyler Rose

By Kyle Dalton, Contributor

AUSTIN, TX - Tom Penders has faced many crowds in his lifetime. Whether coaching in front of tens of thousands of fans in a college basketball arena or being interviewed in front of the camera before millions of viewers, Penders has, for the most part, experienced it all.

In 1988, however, Penders met his match in front of, by his standards, a small crowd of approximately 1,000.

It was at Onion Creek Country Club (pictured below) in Austin. Penders was playing in the celebrity pro-am for the Legends of Golf Tournament, the tournament that led to the creation of the Senior Tour. Penders stood on the first tee with Robert DeVicenzo, Omar Uresti and the man who invited him to play, Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer Earl Campbell.

The reason for his nerves: Penders had a golf club in his hand. According to the coach who has more than 500 college basketball wins to his credit, this was his first real golf experience. "I thought to myself ‘what in the world am I doing?'" he recalled. "All I could think about was yelling ‘Fore!' I really hoped I didn't hurt someone."

Penders grew up the son of a coach in the working class town of Stratford, CT. Not surprisingly, sports consumed much of his youth. Golf wasn't one of them. "My father never played golf. He was a high school coach in baseball but when I was little he just about coached everything. I never saw a golf club and I never saw golf on TV. I really never knew there was such a sport," Penders said. "In my entire childhood I may have gone to the golf course about five times. That wasn't until I was 16."

In the early 1970s, Penders began a coaching career of his own. Golf, however, remained low on the list of recreational activities. Penders said it wasn't because he didn't want to learn more about it, but the location of his employment wasn't conducive to hitting the links.

"When I coached at Tufts University, which was a city school, nobody really played golf up there. Then I moved to Columbia, which is in Manhattan and certainly nobody played there. I then moved to Fordham in the Bronx and that's not really known for golf either," Penders said laughing.

After a few years with the Rhode Island Rams, which allowed Penders to get on the links for the occasional alumni fundraiser, Penders arrived in Austin in 1988. Penders was in town less than a month when he received a call from Earl Campbell, aka the "Tyler Rose" (so nicknamed because he was born and raised in Tyler, Texas).

"Earl called me and said they needed another guy for their foursome. He really didn't describe the affair. I didn't know anything about the celebrity pro-am. I didn't even know they had such a thing," Penders said.

Despite the lack of information he accepted the offer.

"As we were driving out there he started telling me about it a little bit. I didn't know there were going to be people there. I didn't even have any golf shoes and I had to use a set of loaner clubs from Onion Creek, " Penders said.

When they arrived at the course and clubhouse, he said the throngs of people milling about the course surprised him. The surprise slowly transformed into trepidation as his group made its way to the first hole. "Once I got there I was so overwhelmed by it all. There was close to a 1,000 people at the first tee."

Penders made it through that day and has experienced many more memorable outings on the golf course since. In fact, many of those memories have been made and shared with another Texas football legend, former coach Darrell Royal.

A year after moving to Austin, Penders became a member of the world-renown Barton Creek Club and Resort. It was there that his friendship with Royal blossomed.

"I probably played with him as much or more than I've played with anybody. He was so much fun to be around. I always enjoyed playing with him because he loved golf and he played by the rules and had tremendous respect for the game of golf, yet he liked to have fun. He took the game very passionately, " Penders said.

Penders said he and Royal often played 36 holes and on some occasions got in 54 holes at the different Barton Creek courses.

"We would rotate from course to course. We'd start out on Fazio, go over to Crenshaw and then back to Fazio. There were openings because Coach didn't like to wait. I'm a very fast player because I played with him and I learned how to play with him more than anybody else," Penders said.

He said Barton Creek was a favorite but the two never turned down a chance to play a round with one of Royal's best friends, Willie Nelson on his layout just outside of Austin at Pedernales Country Club.

"I remember playing Willie's course on Christmas Eve one year and we played at least 54 holes with Coach, Willie and Larry Trader, the head professional out there. We'd see how many holes we could play."

After more than a dozen years and playing with the likes of Royal, Nelson and many others, Penders has learned that golf is not only a great way to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the hustle and bustle of life, it is also an ideal setting for meeting people. "It's a great social way to spend a day and it has allowed me to meet some of the most interesting people including George Strait, Chuck Daly and Rick Barry."

The Scorecard: Tom Penders

Woods: Big King Cobra Driver and Adam's Tight Lies 16 degree Fairway Wood

Irons: Wilson Staff FireStix with graphite shafts

Putter: Scottsville Putter (given to him by Darrell Royal)

Favorite club: Putter

Favorite course:

Castle Pines in Castle Rock, Colorado

Current handicap: 17 (previous best: 12)

Best round: 78 at Barton Creek Lakeside formerly Hidden Hills

Best part of game: Putting

Best shot ever made: Made a wedge shot on the last hole from under a tree, 95 yards out to win a competition with former Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs.

If you had a choice of playing partner for your last round: Darrell Royal

Most well known playing partner(s): Darrell Royal, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Chuck Daly and Rick Barry

Kyle Dalton, Contributor

Since graduating from the University of Texas in 1992 with a degree in journalism, Kyle Dalton has been a writer and editor for a variety of national publications in various fields.

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