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Golf champ Conrad, 88, ran San Antonio links

December 21, 2018

As an amateur golfer, Joe Conrad was one of his generation’s best, capturing three national team titles for what was then called North Texas State College in the early 1950s, and then winning the prestigious British Amateur crown in 1955.

But the man then known as “Little Red” chose to stay home rather than follow the fledgling pro circuit. Over the ensuing decades, he quietly built a reputation in San Antonio as a golf mentor, dedicated family man and trustworthy friend.

“He was a sweet man, a great storyteller and well-respected in our community,” recalled golf pro Bill Rogers. “The number of lives he influenced in a positive way is in the thousands.”

Conrad, 88, died Dec. 12 in San Antono after a short hospitalization.

Deeply devoted to his wife Bettie, he had put aside golf after she had a debilitating stroke 18 years ago.

“He knew it was his time to take care of her. She could not speak and she was half paralyzed. It was him and her at the house, but it really didn’t stop them from getting out to their grandsons’ soccer games,” recalled their daughter Cindy Butler.

Conrad grew up on the Southeast Side. He did not play golf until he was 13, but by the time he graduated high school, he had a golf scholarship from Louisiana State Universtiy. After a year there, he transfered to North Texas, a rising collegiate golf power.

Small of stature and mild of disposition, Conrad was often underestimated.

“He was a fierce competitor and you found out pretty quickly you might be overmatched.” recalled Jim Barker, 77, a longtime friend.

“He was sure of himself and his game, and he was willing to match it against anyone. He just knew how to get his ball in the hole in the fewest strokes,” Barker said.

Conrad’s children grew up with tales of the era’s golf greats — Lee Treviño, Byron Nelson, Julius Boros and the greatest of them all, Arnold Palmer.

“He played in three Masters. And the only time he played Arnold Palmer, he beat him,” Butler recalled.

Conrad’s finest moment came in 1955 in the British Amateur Championship, held at the Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s Golf Course.

“Joe was playing in front of an enemy crowd. He told me once it was pretty raucous,” recalled Richard Oliver, a former Express-News columinst who wrote frequently about golf.

On the tournament’s last day, Alan Slater, a talented English golfer, was trailing Conrad but made a strong run, closing to within a couple of strokes.

“Joe hit a long snaking putt that shut the door on the match. It was one of those steely nerves moments that folks still talk about. He did it in front of that crowd in those conditions, and won,” Oliver said.

For two decades, Conrad ran the 19th Hole Golf Center on San Pedro Avenue, and later operated the Northeast Golf Center on Ira Lee, often working long hours and staying open on Christmas for all the golfers eager to try out their new clubs.

“He’d always say, ‘Prestige didn’t put food on our table. Golf did,’” his daughter said.

Over the years, Conrad was dedicated to helping young golfers. In 2009, Golf SA created the Joe Conrad Lifetime Achievement Award and made him the first recipient.

Four years later, Oliver won the award, for his journalistic coverage and support of golf in San Antonio.

“It never got me a cup of coffee, but it got my name in the same sentence as Joe Conrad’s,” Oliver said. “He loved and nurtured the sport, not so much as golf, but how the principles involved — fair play, sportsmanship and fortitude under pressure — apply to life.”

Butler said her father loved reading obituaries, and she almost expected him to have composed his own.

“My dad was one of a kind, super friendly, super generous,” she said. “I’m not sure what he would have written about himself, but everything would have had a positive spin.”

John MacCormack is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | JMacCormack@express-news.net | Twitter: @JohnMacCormack

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