The Invitational at Austin is a Fundraiser with a Unique Set of Characters

March 16, 2016

For a lot of you golf-lovers, the surest sign of spring is the sight of dogwoods blooming along Amen Corner. But I’ve got another harbinger for you: a caterpillar sprouting on Matt Reynolds’s upper lip.

It happens every year around this time. As the rest of us emerge from our cold-weather cocoons, Reynolds starts to cultivate a seasonal look, metamorphosing from middle-aged, clean-shaven, everyday golf junky to a mustachioed second coming of Jay Don Blake. He grows the facial hair as a way of getting ready for a tournament he cofounded called The Invitational.

Like that other invitational, this one’s a tradition unto itself, though it’s staged in Austin, Texas, not Augusta, Ga., and its code of conduct is slightly more relaxed.

The vibe, in fact, is so loosey-goosey that you might dismiss the event as an utter lark. But then you’d be ignoring its seriousness of purpose: to call attention to the plight of Lions Municipal Golf Course, the venerable track where Reynolds learned to play.

The Invitational: Everything You Need to Know About The Event

If you’ve never heard of Lions, which locals know as “Muny,” book a flight to Austin and reserve a tee time now. At very least, acquaint yourself through Google. Built in 1928, it’s a Golden Age design that welcomed the likes of Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Tom Kite honed his swing there, as did Ben Crenshaw, who grew up three blocks from the 1st tee. 

In late 1950, when Jim Crow laws excluded African– Americans from public recreational facilities, two young blacks walked onto Muny and went about a round. No one stopped them. Word got out. Muny became a magnet for golfers seeking refuge from discrimination. It is widely regarded as the first integrated course in the South.

Steeped in history, Muny is rich in character, too–a short, shotmaker’s layout whose quirky charms are catnip to architecture buffs. Its greens fees are low. Its fun quotient is high. It’s a gateway drug, in short, to a life of golf addiction.

But it also sits on land owned by the University of Texas, which has been grumbling for years about the possibility of putting the property to other uses. In 2011 the UT board took a portentous step, voting not to renew the city’s lease for Muny when it expires in 2019. Proposals have been put forth that show the course giving way to housing, hotels, retail shops, even a yoga pier, whatever that is.

Just as there are forces that threaten Muny, so there are people hell–bent on its defense. An organization called Save Muny fights a year-round battle.

And then there’s The Invitational, an offbeat annual one-off that is somewhat akin to a benefit concert–without the rock bands but with a lot of golfers sporting facial hair.

To understand its origins and evolution, it helps to know a bit about Reynolds and his childhood buddy Casey Harverstick, who cocreated the event in 2006. Both are 41. Both were born and raised in Austin. Both cut their teeth at Muny and carry single-digit handicaps. Both worship Ben Hogan; his five fundamentals are their secular scripture. But while they are dead serious about the game, they are not dead serious about themselves.

When Muny’s future started looking cloudy, the two friends dreamed up The Invitational as a mildly politicized outdoor party: a two-man scramble that would raise awareness while elevating blood-alcohol levels. About 60 people turned up. Everybody had a blast.

Reynolds and Harverstick helped them get into the spirit. Golf traditionalists with a special fondness for ’70s fashions, they showed up that first year in time-capsule attire and traffic-cop mustaches. From a distance, either could have passed for a slimmed–down, Sansabelt-era Craig Stadler or any number of adult film stars. Their get-ups became a kind of signature aesthetic, The Invitational’s unofficial look. 

“The mustaches were somewhere between Village People and Ron Burgundy,” Reynolds says. “And then, you know, flat-fronted pants, four-button plackets–the sort of things Ty Webb might wear.”

Keep Austin Weird. So goes the city slogan. The Invitational has tried to do its part. Over the years, as attendance swelled, the thematic touches have grown increasingly outlandish. An Elvis impersonator has sung the national anthem. Skydivers have parachuted in during opening ceremonies to hand Reynolds and Harverstick ice-cold beer. Known to Muny faithful as the Founders, Reynolds and Harverstick have made grand entrances as well, rolling up in dueling El Dorados and  winging in by helicopter to touch down in a whirlwind near the 1st tee.

The Invitational now sells out quickly, filling 144 scramble spots. Many of the players keep score, but posting a low number is not the point. The most coveted prizes are facial-hair-related and awarded, like the Oscars, in a range of categories, from the best pencil ’stache (like the one once favored by Jon Voight) to the most Larry Bird–like peach buzz.

Amid the laughs, Reynolds and Harverstick try not to lose sight of why they’re really there. “Muny is near and dear to us,” Reynolds says. “We’ll do everything in our power to save her.”

To punctuate that point, on this, the 10th anniversary of The Invitational, the Founders are sponsoring a Save Muny Fundraiser. It will be held on March 25, just across town from the Austin Country Club, where the WGC-Dell Match Play will be unfolding. 

Then on April 2, The Invitational will tee off, and here’s another funny thing about it, its Founders say. At the inaugural event all those years ago, a good number of attendees weren’t even golfers; they were out to drink some beer, not to bang a ball around. But then they played in the tournament and wound up getting hooked.

Now, Reynolds says, “quite a few of them are Muny regulars.”

Maybe that’s the answer a vexing question: grow a few mustaches, and you grow the game.