How to Rescue Your Garden

How to Rescue Your Garden

In the case of Hogan and Nelson’s boyhood course, all it took was a couple million bottles of whiskey

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It looked like Ben Hogan had it all sewn up. He’d made a clutch par on the final hole, and his opponent was left with a brutal 30-footer to tie. The win, at the time, would have been the most important of Hogan’s life. There was just one problem: The guy standing over that putt was Byron Nelson.

Nelson, of course, drilled it. And so the two future World Golf Hall of Famers, legends who would combine to win 116 PGA Tour events and 14 major championships, went into their first-ever head-to-head playoff. They were 15 years old.

It was the final of the 1927 Christmas caddie tournament, a nine-hole event at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Glen Garden, a well-respected private club, was one of the few in Texas at that point with grass greens. Both young men would learn life lessons there that they would carry through their careers—the stately Nelson eventually getting rewarded with a junior membership to hone his game, and the scrappy Hogan enduring (and winning) several fistfights as he was hazed by the older caddies.

According to an account of the match in the May 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated, Nelson, already north of 6 feet tall, towered over Hogan and was the favorite. But Hogan, flashing one of the first recorded instances of his steely resolve, was never intimidated. On the first playoff hole, he ground out another par while Nelson made double. Hogan thought he’d finally won. But the organizers decided it was to be a full nine-hole playoff. Nelson battled back to level and dropped an 18-footer for par to win it on the ninth and final hole. Nelson was given a mid-iron for his victory; Hogan, a mashie.

It was also one of the first recorded instances of Hogan not taking kindly to what he believed to be unfair treatment. That playoff loss—combined with a later incident when, after he had quit caddying at Glen Garden, he was refused permission to come by and hit a few shots in the caddie area—was too much for the Hawk. It would be years before he would return to the course he grew up playing.

If only he could see Glen Garden now.

How to Rescue A Garden

Today, the sixth and seventh fairways that Hogan and Nelson knew so well are home to one of the largest whiskey distilleries west of the Mississippi River. But the rest of the golf course has been largely preserved and is a living shrine to Glen Garden’s remarkable history. It’s a happy ending for what was very nearly a different story. In serious financial straits and up for sale in 2014, Glen Garden appeared done for.

Then, in a series of events that seem ripped from a novel by Fort Worth native Dan Jenkins, an oilman and the scion of a tire dynasty formed an unlikely partnership and came to the rescue. 

“It’s quite a marriage—in moderation, of course,” laughs Leonard Firestone, 53, co-founder of what is now known as Whiskey Ranch.

Firestone and Troy Robertson, 43, first came together as business partners for the Firestone & Robertson Distilling Company, known for its TX Whiskey and TX Bourbon. They never intended to be golf course owners as well, but they also know a rare opportunity when they see one. 

Robertson is a native Texan who had been successful in the oil and gas business, mainly in private equity and financing, but was looking for a new challenge. Firestone, whose great-grandfather Harvey founded the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, was also looking for something different after selling a communications business in 2007 near Washington, D.C.

Firestone was reading The New York Times and came across a story about a Texas man who became the first person to make large-scale vodka in the Lone Star State. His self-named sauce, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, can now be found worldwide. A longtime connoisseur of whiskey, Firestone began to wonder if anybody had ever distilled the spirit on that scale in Texas.

“So I Googled it, and nobody ever had,” he says. “That’s when the light bulb came on.”

 Separately, Robertson had been inspired by the number of micro-distilleries of all kinds popping up around the state, and made a visit to one. While there, the owner casually told him that someone else from Fort Worth was planning to tour it the following week: Firestone.

Robertson and Firestone already knew each other—their children were in the same play group—but until that point neither knew of the other’s latest business concern. As soon as Robertson heard about Firestone’s interest, he wasted no time and called him. Fire-stone was stunned to hear they were both thinking along the same lines and was ready to dive in.

“I’m entirely self-taught, as is Troy, but he had pretty much the same idea,” Firestone says. “So we decided, ‘What the hell?’ and started working on it.”

Armed with a taste for what they liked to consume, but possessing little knowledge about the production and business sides, they set off on a series of trips to the brown-liquor motherland: Kentucky. They came away more determined than ever to build their own distillery, but also recognized that they needed an expert in the field.

If this really were a Jenkins novel, here is where he would cut to a dusty fairway on the outskirts of town and a down-and-out duffer who couldn’t putt for shit, but damn sure knew his way around a bottle. In reality, Rob Arnold was working on a doctorate in biochemistry at UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. But he was originally from Kentucky, grew up in the distilling business with his family and wanted back in. Firestone and Robertson were setting up shop 30 miles west in Fort Worth; Arnold was curious, so he made a few calls. Soon after his first meeting with the pair, Arnold quit school to become their head distiller. Operations began in 2010.

In April 2013, TX Whiskey won double gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The newfound fame spurred their company into sudden growth, and they soon maxed out their space in downtown Fort Worth.

In 2014, Firestone was on a commercial-property search engine when a listing popped up, offering 112 acres just 5 miles from their current facility. He wandered over to Robertson’s office and asked, “Have you heard of Glen Garden in Fort Worth? It’s for sale.”

Robertson’s head jerked straight up. “Glen Garden? I’ve played there many times. Let’s go.”

The pair sped over to the course, which, despite its glittering history, had been beset by financial problems for decades as newer, fancier clubs sprung up around the Metroplex. Firestone and Robertson convinced the head pro to give them a cart, and they took an hour-long tour. It was Firestone’s first time seeing the layout, and while Robertson recounted the rounds he had played, they both could see the land’s potential.

Not many others in the area shared their vision. First, the course’s current owners were determined to find a full-time golf operator to continue the course as a daily fee facility, or, failing that, just take a lucrative deal with a developer who would bulldoze it entirely. Next, a skeptical community was dubious of a distillery in the middle of an area already known for plenty of liquor stores and lower-income residences. It took some work, but they were able to win over both constituencies and finally closed on Glen Garden in December 2014.

Then, like any good Jenkins story, Nelson and Hogan got worked into the narrative.

While Firestone and Robertson were both enthusiastic players and knew that the pair of legends had roots at Glen Garden, the depth of the course’s epic biography was lost on them during the swirl of their expanding business and the minutiae of acquiring the property.

“I had read Hogan’s book and knew he caddied at Glen Garden, but I didn’t put it all together,” Firestone says.

“We love the game, but didn’t know the full history of Hogan, Nelson and all the great players at Glen Garden,” Robertson adds.

Indeed, it was also home to two-time major champion Sandra Palmer, one of the top players on the LPGA in the 1970s and a member of the Texas Golf Hall of Fame. (When reports of the club’s purchase first surfaced, Palmer told Golf Digest, “I would imagine it’s already been a distillery at some point of its history.”) And Jack Grout spent some time at Glen Garden as the assistant professional before starting a career on the PGA Tour and becoming Jack Nicklaus’ longtime teacher.

Always known for its quirky design by Texas architect John Bredemus, which included an electrical tower in the middle of the 12th fairway, the course was commissioned in 1912 and started as a nine-hole layout with sand greens. The 1988 TV movie adaptation of Jenkins’ Dead Solid Perfect included scenes from the course.

How to Rescue A Garden - The Golfer's Journal

Nelson and Hogan both got their starts in the Glen Garden caddie barn in the 1920s, earning 65 cents a loop. Glen Garden was also briefly on the PGA Tour circuit, and Nelson snatched the 18th and final victory of his unmatched 1945 season there.

While they were no more experienced in the golf business than they were in the whiskey trade when they embarked on their spirits mission, Firestone and Robertson knew they could not ignore Glen Garden’s rich history. But even they knew a daily fee operation was too much to bite off. 

“If we wanted to have golf out here, we needed to figure out if we could turn it on and off,” Firestone says. “Not having to prepare the course every day is a huge economic difference.”

They already had plans for Whiskey Ranch to include public-facing facilities for events like weddings and small conferences, and they realized that limiting the course to activities like pre-wedding golf, business meeting recreation time and special events was the perfect amount of play to keep the course maintained at a high level.

So they set about adding “self-taught architect” to their titles in an effort to bring the fabled course back to life.

A maintenance staff of three, along with Firestone and Robertson, cleaned up fence lines, rough areas and two overgrown creeks that run through the property. Nos. 2, 6 and 7 were moved to other locations to build the new distillery and tasting room. The rest of the course routing was left largely unchanged, except for three new greens for the new holes and nine additional tees. Today Glen Garden is an 18-hole, par-68 course tipping out at 5,300 yards.

They invited Fort Worth–based PGA Tour pro J.J. Henry to come evaluate their work. But Henry came away from his visits with no further recommendations, impressed with what he saw from the first-timers.

“I went over to see what they were doing and give them some ideas, but they did it all themselves,” Henry says. “It’s really nice what they have done over there.”

Since opening in 2017, Glen Garden now hosts 200 to 300 rounds a year. In addition to special-event play, it serves as a home course for nearby Texas Wesleyan University, and Big 12 Conference competitor Texas Christian University—Jenkins’ alma mater—has come over to play and practice on occasion. And, of course, the biggest perk of working alongside the fairways is that the co-founders and employees can always pop out to chip and putt or play a couple holes.

Removed from the arms race of private club life and the constant pressure of daily fees, Glen Garden now revels in a relaxed atmosphere, mixing good times with the course’s history. Memorabilia from Nelson, Hogan and the course’s glory days can be found throughout the halls.

“When people come out for an event, it’s about the experience,” says Firestone. “It’s just fun to be here. You play one against the buildings or hit the utility wire, no problem; you just hit it again.”

Despite all the work to get their golf course humming, Firestone and Robertson never forgot their original goal to make it on a global scale. In 2019, they sold the F&R Distributing Company and Whiskey Ranch to Paris-based Pernod Ricard, the world’s second-largest spirits distributor. Firestone, Robertson and Arnold all stayed aboard, still guiding the liquor and golf businesses. And they were back at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2020, picking up two more golds and a silver.

Jenkins once wrote, “A man can travel far and wide—all the way to shame or glory, and back again—but he ain’t never gonna find nothin’ in this old world that’s dead solid perfect.”

Ask Firestone about the last few years, however, and he politely disagrees with the esteemed bard of Fort Worth. “It’s incredible that we’ve been able to do this here,” he says. “I never thought this would happen.”