The Firecracker Open – Celebrating 70 Years

The moment Nicholas Cristea realized he won the 2015 Firecracker Open he broke down in tears.

“I held it together until that moment and then the wave of emotion came over me when I realized what I had done,” Cristea said.

He walked up to a gallery of spectators standing behind the 18th hole of Lions Municipal Golf Course. He said the crowd and news crews watching gave the moment a “professional-type tournament feel.”

nick c
Nicholas Cristea 2015 Firecracker Open Champion

Cristea remembered his competitors coming after him toward the end of the final round. He stayed focused on hitting the shots rather than winning. Cristea hadn’t won a tournament in a few years and that long, hot summer day at Lions gave him his confidence back. He was the new Firecracker Open Champion.

Cristea’s win is just one of the great moments in Firecracker Open history.

2016 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Firecracker Open, which began in 1946. The tournament has embraced the Austin culture for the last seven decades and remains one of the oldest traditional amateur golf tournaments in the state. This year, 153 golfers from around the state and beyond will compete for the coveted Serta Trophy that’s presented to the champion every Fourth of July weekend.

serta trophy
The Firecracker Open wall of memorabilia which can be found in the Lions Municipal Golf Course pro shop

To celebrate the tournament’s continuing tradition, a 70th Anniversary Ceremony will be held Friday, July 1, the opening day of the Firecracker Open. The ceremony, which will honor past Firecracker Open champions, will begin at 9 a.m. 99-year-old Walter Benson Jr., Bill Gainer, Sunny Rhoades, and Roane Puett, all former Firecracker Open champions, will hit ceremonial t-shots from the first tee. In addition, a ceremonial photo will be taken in order to commemorate all former champions.

The tournament, originally known as the Texas Public Links Golf Association Championship, began in 1946. Throughout the years the tournament took on many names including the Austin Golf Association Invitational Championship, the Fourth of July Championship and the Firecracker Golf Festival Championship. Overtime the tournament acquired its current name, The Firecracker Open.

Although most fans and players associate the Firecracker Open with the Lions Municipal Golf Course, the tournament was not always held there. After it opened in 1964 the Firecracker was briefly held at the Morris Williams golf course for three years, until it returned to its current location in 1967.

There are a number of qualities that make the tournament so special to those in Austin, one being the rich competition between old and young that Firecracker attendees can count on each year.

Michael Cooper, three-time Firecracker Open champion, said that’s one of the unique qualities of the tournament.

michael cooper
Michael Cooper with his daughters after his 2013 Firecracker Open win

“Lions knows no age barrier,” Cooper said. “It stood the test of time and you’re liable to play with a kid who’s a sophomore or junior in high school and I’m about to be 47 years old. Name me very many events where you see that happen and has that type of tradition like Lions does. I think that’s pretty special.”

Cristea agreed with Cooper.

“There’s a lot of times where you’re going to be playing with high school and college kids who could potentially play professionally,” Cristea said. “And you have a lot of the historic seniors who won in the 70’s and 80’s.”

Cristea explained how he has played alongside both Mike Allen and Billy Clagett, former Firecracker Open champions.

“It’s that tradition of playing with the present, past and future champions of the Firecracker that’s really impressive,” he continued.

Billy Clagett holds the record at six Firecracker Open wins. Clagett, who was born and raised in Austin, has played Lions since he was a kid. He remembered caddying for golfers in the Firecracker Open when he was young and knew he wanted to play in the tournament someday. Clagett played in two or three Firecrackers before he won for the first time in 1988. He was 42 years old. The success continued in the years following. Clagett won again in 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994 and 2001.

Billy clagett
Billy Clagett playing in the 2003 Firecracker Open – Photo: Austin American Statesman

Despite his great success competing in the Firecracker Open over the years, when asked about his favorite tournament memory, Clagett didn’t reply with moments from any of his six wins, but rather the environment of the Firecracker Open.

“I just think the fun of everybody gathering up, having a good time before and after the tournament [is my favorite memory],” Clagett said. “Hot dogs, soda, water, keg beer…everyone just having a good time. Sure a lot of people want to win and do well, but no matter what you do, you have fun. I think that’s what I’ll take away [from the Firecracker] after my time’s up.”

Clagett said he remembered the time when the Firecracker Open was one of the biggest tournaments in the state. In the past, the tournament used to attract golfers from all over the state of Texas. Now, Clagett said the tournament has become more local – one of the many aspects that makes the Firecracker so special to Austinite’s.

The University of Texas currently owns the land on which Lions Municipal Golf Course is located. University officials have announced that the lease will expire in May of 2019 with the intent to develop the land. A sentimental feeling toward the historic course and tournament has evolved among Firecracker players as the 2019 date quickly approaches.

“I definitely think there’s a huge thought that (Lions) could close down,” Cristea said. “So we’re treating each year as kind of a special time to enjoy Lions.”

Clagett shared a similar thought about the future of Lions and the Firecracker Open.

“When 2019 comes around and nothing has been resolved I imagine the tournament field is going to be full because after that year it may not be there anymore,” Clagett said. “I think there’s a lot of significance in that people will want to play just so they can say they’ve played the Firecracker. You know the course and the tournament go together…I’m sure if you talk to any player there they’re going to say I hope they don’t take it (Lions), but you never know what’s going to happen.”

Being 70 years old and this being the 70th Anniversary of the tournament, Clagett has decided to make 2016 his final appearance in the Firecracker Open.

“It started in ’46 and I was born in ’46 so I thought this would be a great time to play one last time and call it up,” Clagett said. “I don’t know how I’m going to play, but I’m going to be out there trying and having fun.”

Billy Clagett and Michael Cooper will be competing in this year’s tournament along with Nicholas Cristea, who will return to the course to defend his Firecracker Open title. Those around the area are welcome to go watch the golfers in action and join in the ceremonial and Fourth of July festivities beginning this Friday morning.

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