History of Norman Brinker’s Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club (1973-1996) in Plano, TX
Norman Brinker founded his Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club beginning in 1972, and once the construction was complete, he enrolled his club as a member of the United States Polo Club. Mr. Brinker was well know by his members, including my grandparents, T. Martin and Marjorie Skaggs, my mother Sandra Skaggs Menke, and myself for always being very generous, kind to others, and a tirelessly dedicated gentleman to the prestigious, ancient Sport of Princes and Kings…POLO!
Texans for Polo was founded in 2010 out of respect for Mr. Norman Brinker’s passion for and interest in the sport and camaraderie of polo. Especially after the last time we saw him (photos further down below), after telling him more about my steadfast desire to keep his Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club, (1973-1996) in Plano, Texas alive since there was zero out there about his story and history on the worldwide web to share with anyone, Norman Brinker turned to my mother Sandra Skaggs Menke and said, “I hope Charlotte will keep my Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club memory alive for history sake.” I keep my promises asked of me, especially to some one of the calibre of Mr. Brinker!
A little further down below you will find two different YouTube videos of my interview with long time polo patron Mr. Fred Johnson who was a dedicated polo patron from 1984-2008. In 1983 Fred and his wife were introduced to the Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club (1973-1996) in Plano, Texas. Fred was so inspired by the sport of polo, he became a polo player at WBPHC starting in 1984.
Mr. Brinker was loved by countless others and touched the hearts of many including my family’s and mine.
Highly respect as a historical authority of all things polo and longtime polo patron of Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club and the Las Colinas Polo Club (1982-2008), Mr. Fred Johnson said to me and my mother Sandra Skaggs Menke, “Norman has only done ONE selfish thing in his life. Can you guess what that is???” My naive answer based on my many personal experiences of Norman Brinker was, “Being too nice to people and wanting to make others feel good???” Fred’s response, “No. He built his Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club (in 1972-1973) because while he KNEW he would play winter polo in Florida. Not wanting to travel (for polo) especially during the summer (and in the fall) locally (near his home in Dallas, Texas.)”
“Little Mo” – Mrs. Maureen Connolly Brinker
The amazing true life story of Norman Brinker’s wife, tennis legend Maureen Connolly “Little Mo” and her passion to “never give up” inspired me and made a life-long lasting impression on me beginning at the early age of 9 yrs. old.
For her complete story: San Diego’s Sweetheart: Maureen Connolly by, Joey Seymour
When I first “GOOGLED” the internet for “Norman Brinker” in 2010, I found plenty accounts of his outstanding, transformative, and lasting impact on the restaurant industry. Such as “Norman Brinker, helped put casual dining and salad bars on the American menu with the Steak and Ale and Bennigan’s chains, and went on to transform Chili’s from a small regional hamburger chain into one of the world’s largest restaurant companies, Brinker International.”
However I was disappointed to find little content about and not one photo of him enjoying his infamous side-time passion he devoted a lot of attention to, and led to his life-altering injury…POLO! He loved polo so much and was involved on a national level with the US Polo Association so, to the best of my ability, I wanted to share his and his club’s polo history with you.
In 1972 Norman Brinker purchased about 1,000 acres that had been a turkey farm. After construction, he generously opened his Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club (WBPHC) in Plano, Texas and enrolled his Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club as members of the United States Polo Association in 1973. By the early 1980’s hundreds to thousands of polo fans flocked to his Willow Bend Polo & Hunt Club to enjoy polo on any given Sunday afternoon at its fabulous venue with spectacular half time entertainment. Willow Bend not only showcased world-class polo, it was quite an operation!
In 1980 and as the club developed and grew, Mr. Brinker’s second business parter, successful Oil & Gas businessman, Robert Payne Sr. and his beautiful, equestrian riding wife, Rosemary Gowen Payne, became business partners of Mr. Brinker’s Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club, (1973-1996) in Plano, TX. Mr. Payne’s devoted and outgoing wife Rosemary, a former beauty contestant that competed in a Miss Texas Pageant, only beaten by twins!!!, was an accomplished equestrian hunter jumper and was a member of the Hickory Creek Hunt Club along with my youthful grandparents Martin & Marjorie Skaggs and other horse-loving friends – “Tally Ho!”
I remember when I was a little pre-teen “WillowBender,” my mom, Sandra Skaggs Menke, pointed out Mrs. Payne to me. Mom asked my sister and me, “Do you see that pretty lady with the black elegant bouffant up-do? . . . She runs this place (the Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club).” I remember thinking, “Wow! She is so glamorous!!!” Today, Rosemary Payne is still just as beautiful and so very nice. I have to humbly admit, I am still a little star-struck whenever I see her. Funny how childhood pedestals last the test of time…
Rosemary Payne and her daughter Sue Payne played an essential role in developing the clubs popular children’s summer camp and special events for the club and its members. Meanwhile their son Robert Payne, Jr. was busy developing and honing his skills to become the fine professional polo player that he is today.
In early 2016 he made his the Willow Bend Polo Club (with no hunt club anymore or organized social activities) at his private polo ranch located in Little Elm, Texas visible to polo fans and those interested in playing polo on the website he had made: WillowBendPoloClub.com.
After Mr. Brinker’s unfortunate and dangerous polo accident in Florida during the year of 1993, he was forced to retire from active polo play
Soon afterwards Norman Brinker invited the Payne family to take over ownership and management of his Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club. As Dallas and Plano developed and grew rapidly, former country road FM 544 developed into what we know today as Park Road. A former railroad easement turned four lane black top road is where the busy, congested North Dallas Tollway now stands. As a result, the demand and need to develop residential and retail real estate in the area began to escalate quickly.
In 1996, the owners of the Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club elected to sell its large expanse of acreage and closed its doors as a private country club.
A popular and upscale neighborhood now stands where the club’s polo grounds used to be (north of Park Road between the North Dallas Tollway and Preston Road). The original Willow tree that greeted the members at the former entrance to the Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club in its glory days is still located right where it originally stood, facing Park Road on the north side.
In 1996, active and dedicated men and women of the former Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club, fondly known as “WillowBenders”, helped to form the Las Colinas Polo Club on land managed by the city for equestrian use. The Las Colinas Polo Club was lead by loyal and dedicated CMC Realty executive and polo patron Jesse Pruitt who served as president of the Las Colinas Polo Club through 2011.
Norman Brinker was elected to the Polo Hall of Fame in 1998.
In November 2008, just seven months before his untimely death, Mr. Brinker and his lovely daughter Cindy Brinker Simmons attended the Brinker International Polo Cup event at the Las Colinas Polo Club.
At that time, in 2008, I was the first ever dedicated Marketing and Events Director employee serving North Texas Polo LLC and the Las Colinas Polo Club. My mother Sandra asked me if she and my grandmother Marjorie “Momo” could please meet Norman Brinker. At first I said, “No. He is busy entertaining his business associates and I am working.” Then I looked over and saw Mr. Brinker basically alone, sitting with his devoted and loving daughter, Cindy Brinker Simmons. I used to work just 20 feet away from Cindy’s office at her Levenson & Brinker Public Relations firm (I worked for their sister firm Levenson & Hill Advertising agency.)
Once I realized that the international executives of Brinker International were all busy participating in a fun Segway course while the polo match was in full swing, I changed my mind and encouraged Mom and Momo to hurry so we can say “Hello” to Norman and Cindy before their guests returned back to our event pavilion. Therefore, we went over to see him. I introduced him to my mom and grandmother and we captured this sweet photo with he and Cindy.
Just prior to his presenting the trophy to the victorious Mokarow Farms polo team, I had the amazing opportunity to get to sit with Mr. Brinker on his golf cart as the polo match went into overtime. I had ten minutes all alone on the polo sideline with my hero, polo legend “Little Mo’s” husband she loved so much, Norman Brinker. They were in deep love and appreciation with one another.
I ceased the moment and asked Norman Brinker what it was like to be married to my hero, “Little Mo” Maureen Connolly Brinker. I enjoyed listening to Mr. Brinker tell me about the humble, kind and inspiring tennis legend “Little Mo” and his respect and love for her until cancer took her from him and their two daughters at the early age of 34 years old. We also talked about his love for polo and I promised him that I would do my part to keep the history of his Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club alive and my public awareness efforts for the sport of polo in the North Texas area active. He was very pleased and in appreciation he gave me his signature warm grin, bright smiling eyes and affectionately squeezed my hand.
Sadly, Norman Brinker went to heaven at the early age of 78. His 1993 polo accident, which resulted in his being in a coma for approximately two weeks, led to a series of side illnesses due to his weakened health he fought through for over 15 years. While on vacation in Colorado, Norman Brinker is said to have choked on a little bit of his delicious June 3rd birthday cake and went to heaven on June 9, 2009. That unfortunate incident caused the Pneumonia he had been fighting off even in these photos (below) to return again. This time, he was not able to recover.
I attended his memorial service hosted at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center that was filled with local celebrities such as Dallas Cowboy Quarterback Troy Aikman. I was invited by my longtime, dear friend Mary Dowling to join her near the front of the symphony center with his loving and loyal daughter Cindy Brinker Simmons’ friends involved in a cause dear to Cindy “Wipe Out Kids Cancer.”
Mr. Brinker left a lasting impression on me personally, the sport of polo nationally and all the members and friends of his wonderful Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club. Therefore, Texans for Polo is grateful for Mr. Brinker’s noble efforts and hopes to help play a part in helping to keep his passion for polo in North Texas alive for all to experience and enjoy.
Thanks to the dedication of polo professional Robert Payne, Jr. the Willow Bend Polo Club name lives on at his polo fields in Little Elm, Texas and the original Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club entrance sign now honorably hangs at the entrance to his main barn. Rob Payne III had earned a place on the US polo team, is an up and coming pro and is the player’s whose photo I traced to create the Texans for Polo, Polo World Network.com, and United States Polo logos.
My family’s Willow Bend Polo & Hunt Club membership & experience coupled with their rich equestrian and horse ranch adventures is why I am dedicated to public awareness about the beautiful sport of polo that I enjoyed watching as a young girl.
For more details about my family’s experiences with horses and their participation in the legendary Shawnee Trail ride (covered wagons and horse trail riders from Lake Texoma down Preston Road all the way to downtown Dallas in the 1960’s) just click on this link below and scroll half way down for my mother’s funny horse stories that date back to my great-grandfather, member of Dallas’ founding families:
Please check out all the Texas polo clubs polo schedule on the “Schedules” page with a drop down menu per club for your convenience. We hope to see you at polo very soon!
THE SPORTS HISTORY OF NORMAN BRINKER AND MAUREEN CONNOLLY “LITTLE MO”
Mr. Brinker joined the U.S. Navy in 1952; during his stint in the service, Brinker used his passion and talent for horse riding to earn a place on the United States Olympic Equestrian team in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.
Miss Connolly loved horseback riding as a child, but her mother was unable to pay the cost of riding lessons. So, she took up the game of tennis. Her tennis career began at the age of 10 on the municipal courts of San Diego. Although she was left handed her first coach, Wilbur Folsom, encouraged her to switch from a left-handed grip to right and she soon became a baseline specialist with tremendous power, accuracy, and a strong backhand.
In 1951 at the young age of Sweet 16, Miss Connolly, a teenager, became the youngest ever to win America’s most prestigious tennis tournament, the U.S. Championship. She successfully defended her U.S. title and despite some last minute physical trials won Wimbledon in 1952. In 1953, Miss Connolly became the first woman to win the “Grand Slam”. Her amazing accomplishments earned her the infamous nickname “Little Mo”.
Maureen Connelly, “Little Mo” was the first woman to ever capture the elusive “Grand Slam” crown by winning the Australian Championships, the French Championships, Wimbledon, and the United States Championships. She was only eighteen years old when she accomplished this magnificent feat. From that time on, Maureen was know as the incomparable “Little Mo”.
On July 20, 1954, two weeks after she won her third straight Wimbledon title, she was horseback riding in San Diego when a passing cement mixer truck frightened her horse and the resulting accident crushed her right leg, abruptly ending her tennis career at age 19. This was very disappointing to Miss Conolly but soon afterwards
Mr. Brinker who was very much in love with Miss Connolly proposed marriage to her. Mr. Brinker and Miss Connolly shared a love of horses. In 1955 they married and soon afterwards had two beautiful daughters together Cindy Brinker Simmons and Brenda Brinker Bottum. Sadly Maureen died at the early age of 34 on June 21, 1969, after a three-year-long battle with ovarian cancer.
The relationship between Norman and Maureen was depicted in a 1978 TV Film, Little Mo, which starred Glynnis O’Connor as Maureen, Mark Harmon as Norman, and Anne Baxter as Maureen’s mother.
To watch the movie please click here: “Little Mo” the Movie
“I have watched it probably a hundred times…it is that good of a story and it made a lasting impression on my life every day of my life. She inspired me and she is my most favorite famous hero!”
~ Charlotte Menke Skaggs, the “Polo Lady”
“This movie inspired me to be more like Little Mo ‘Never give in and never give up…stay strong and focused and you can achieve your dreams!’ Little Mo is my biggest hero! I had just 10 minutes alone with Mr. Brinker as we sat together on a golf cart as we waited for the Brinker Cup Polo trophy presentation when suddenly the close match went into overtime, November 2008. I thought to myself, this is my chance! Therefore, I ceased the moment and said to him, ‘Mr. Brinker, I grew up watching the movie Little Mo and her tenacious spirit to ‘never give up’ inspires me still to this day! Please tell me what it was like to be married to Little Mo!”’ His eyes lit up, twinkled and he smiled back at me and told me how at the time they met she was the third most written about woman in the world. He talked about how kind and loving she was and despite her amazing tennis accomplishments, was one of the most humble persons in the room at any social gathering. They had a wonderful and loving marriage. After Norman went to heaven June 2009, I like to think that Norman and Maureen are reunited happily ever after in heaven.”
– Charlotte Menke Skaggs
Inspiring Quotes from International Restaurateur and Willow Bend Polo & Hunt Club Founder and Patron Norman Brinker
”You have about 45 minutes to convince the customer to come again; that’s your objective,” Brinker told the Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper in 1991. “Your objective, once the customer is there, is to give them such a good experience, they’ll want to come again.”
Here are some very inspiring lessons from this true restaurant legend:
Encourage innovation –“Always look for ways to do things better. Apply and encourage, imagination, initiative, creativity, and ingenuity.”
Seize the opportunities when they arise – “I believe the that the harder you work, the luckier you get. And timing certainly has an effect on your luck.”
Delegate and Empower – “You can achieve so much more by empowering people to achieve on their own. Don’t’ be too hands-on.”
Self-Confidence and Optimism – “Know yourself. Believe in yourself. Trust your judgment. And always remember that happiness is a habit – as is attitude.”
Have Fun – “Have a lot of kid in you. It you have fun at what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Make work play – and play like hell.”
Perseverance – “Determination and perseverance make the difference between winners and losers. Don’t let others tell you it can’t be done. Never, ever give up – and never give in.”
Dream the Idea – “There is nothing more valuable in the world than an idea – especially when it involves creating and perpetuating something of lasting value.”
Quotes excerpted from “On the Brink: The Life and Leadership of Norman Brinker”
For more information about Norman Brinker and his very distinguished professional, military, Olympic and polo legacies please visit:
For more details about Maureen Connolly Brinker please visit: