The Houston Open has a vibrant future, even if the present lacks flash
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The Houston Open was on life support following the departure of its sponsor. It was given last rites when kicked off the golf course it called home. Yet the Texas tournament is not only still kicking, it is out of the hospital. For the first time in years, it has a tangible future.
"This is a success story that is just beginning," says Lee Patterson, Houston Open media coordinator.
Even if the present lacks a bit of panache.
The Houston Open traces its roots back to 1946, and counts Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Gary Player and Phil Mickelson among its winners. Historically held in mid-spring, the tournament carved a niche with its pre-Masters spot in 2007. Redstone Golf Club (now known as the Golf Club of Houston) underwent massive renovations to mirror Augusta National-like conditions. As such, Houston boasted a notable field, filled with those seeking a last-minute tune-up.
But the Shell Oil Company, which had underwritten the tournament for 25 years, declined to renew title sponsorship after 2017. Weeks after the tournament was held in 2018 without a sponsor, the Golf Club of Houston told the Houston Golf Association, which ran the tournament, that it no longer intended to serve as the competition's venue.
Simultaneously, as the PGA Tour worked on revamping its calendar starting in 2019, one of the worst-kept secrets was that the Valero Texas Open—typically held in late April—was moving into Houston's slot the week proceeding the Masters. The tour kept Houston on its itinerary, incumbent on the HGA securing sponsorship by May 31. When that deadline passed, a report in the Pioneer Press stated officials behind the PGA Tour Champions tournament in Minneapolis/St. Paul would see their event upgraded to the PGA Tour. Along with the addition of a Detroit event and the tour's wish to condense the schedule, the Houston Open's fate looked grim.
However, local magnate and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane was working behind the scenes to make sure the tournament didn't fold. He, along with several Houston officials, approached the PGA Tour with a plan to take over the event from the HGA. On June 12, Crane and the tour reached an agreement to keep the tournament in Houston through 2023.
"Our team is committed to the continued growth of the Houston Open and making a positive impact in the city of Houston,” Crane said that June. “The funds raised through this tournament will allow us to continue our commitment to serving the people within our county and city and help improve our parks.”
A newly created entity, the Astros Golf Foundation, was charged with running the event—which would be moved to the fall portion of the tour schedule—and the tournament would return to the Golf Club of Houston for one year in 2019. After that, the tournament would move to Memorial Park, a public course in the city limits that first hosted the Houston Open in 1947 and returned as host from 1951 to 1965. Crane's foundation hired architect Tom Doak to spearhead a renovation of the facility. For good measure, Brooks Koepka was tabbed to serve as the PGA Tour player consultant.
With the deal, Crane's team pledged $1 million, minimum, to the city's Parks and Recreation, with another $500,000 earmarked for The First Tee Program. Crane has asserted all of the profits will be poured back into the city.
"We’re making no money off of this," Crane said in a January 2019 press conference. "I got involved because I didn’t want to see our city lose the PGA Tour.”
Crane would later call the deal a "win, win, win, win" for the city. Yet, inspiring as the 11-hour save may be, its new iteration leaves a tad desired.
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Crane's ties with the sport run deep. He belongs to some of the most prestigious clubs in the country (Muirfield Village, Monterey Peninsula, Nantucket and Castle Pines) and owns Floridian National Golf Club, a popular hang-out for PGA Tour players. He once topped the list of best CEO golfers in America.
Because of Crane's connections, the Houston media believed players like Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler (the latter two Floridian members) would play in this year's event. A look at the tournament field does not reveal their names ... or the names of any top-flight talent. Golf's upper echelon can be flighty when it comes to autumn events. Even so, that none of the world's top 35 players—and just two of the top 50—are playing is somewhat jarring. Ian Poulter, winner of the last Houston Open in April 2018, is not in the field to defend his title, instead playing the Italian Open on the European Tour.
It's a circumstance that has not sat well with Houston Open officials. New tournament director Colby Callaway, who previously worked on the PGA Tour Champions' San Antonio event for 15 years, was frank about the situation in a recent interview with Golf Magazine, putting the blame on both the players and the schedule.
“I’ve been doing this for 13 months and I know I’ve looked a lot of players in the eye who said they were coming and they are not here,” Callaway told GOLF.com. “So, I’m a little surprised, but it is what it is.
“It’s a different time in the fall. I’m learning that in the fall, players are interested in chasing the big money internationally and playing overseas. That’s not up to me to figure that out, but up to the tour to help out because there are tournaments here who are saying, ‘What about us?’ Hopefully we can force the tour’s hand to move us.”
PGA Tour executive vice president Andy Pazder, who was in attendance at the tournament's media conference in January, stressed “players need to play the fall tournaments," although there's only so much control the tour has on player agency. With nearly 50 events on the schedule, the unfortunate truth is some tournaments won't draw the tour's main attractions. For Houston, that means a host of Korn Ferry Tour graduates and rank-and-file players.
As for the scheduling facet, that's a battle to be fought another day. The tour originally had the Houston Open slotted the week before the U.S. Open but Crane objected, stating it would be too hot in the summer for the event. Crane eventually wants the tournament back in the spring, but conceded in January "that won’t happen for at least a couple of years.” Officials hope strong showings in the fall will facilitate that move; there's no official word from the tour if that request is being considered.
Then there's the matter that the Astros Golf Foundation has never run an event. It has a stable of industry veterans, but with the Astros competing in the MLB Playoffs, there is worry about attention divided from the organization and how that may affect this week's proceedings.
Nevertheless, optimism remains high. Patterson said the tournament sold a record number of hospitality tents, and despite Callaway's comments, officials are confident the stars will come with its new host.
"The move to Memorial Park next year is going to be another chapter in the success story of saving this tournament," Patterson said.
For an event that didn't have a future not long ago, a prospect that's worth the wait.