HUMBLE, Tex. — Heavy rain, which delayed the start of the first round of the Houston Open Thursday, gave way to brilliant sunshine in the afternoon at the Golf Club of Houston, but the mood here among fans, tournament staff and regulars in the field was less than cheery.
More than 18 months after the tournament’s longtime title sponsor, Shell Oil Company, announced it was severing ties with the event after 2017, tournament officials acknowledged they are no closer to finding a new lead sponsor.
This year the event relied on several million dollars of funding from the Houston Golf Association’s reserve fund. Next year the tournament has no certain date on the Tour schedule. Complicating matters the contract for the Golf Club of Houston expires after this year, meaning a new title sponsor would be responsible for finding a new site or negotiating a return to the existing venue.
Should it survive, the 72-year-old event is also likely to inherit a less favorable date on the schedule. The Tour announced earlier this year that the Valero Texas Open, in exchange for Valero signing a long-term sponsorship deal, would assume the Houston Open’s prime pre-Masters slot.
To borrow a term first uttered 20 miles away at the NASA Space Center, “Houston, we have a problem.”
“I guess I’m surprised, I really am,” longtime tournament director Steve Timms said Thursday about the lack of a new sponsor after more than a year of searching. “I think we’ll find somebody. But I’m biased on that account.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has publicly stated he would like the see the tournament brought back within the city limits and played at city-owned Memorial Park Golf Course, a tournament site decades ago. But that maneuver would bring its own set of logistical challenges.
Texas pros have provided plenty of verbal support and encouragement to Timms but can’t do much more than that.
“I haven’t heard any more about [the sponsor situation],” said Jordan Spieth, a Dallas native and new president of the Player Advisory Council. “I just know I like it here and always enjoy coming and hope it doesn’t go away.”
Rickie Fowler, who grew up in Southern California watching the San Diego Tour stop rifle through sponsors, understands the reality of corporate decision-making in 2018.
“It’s all sponsor driven,” he said. “Nobody wants to see it go away, but the sponsor drives it. You’re not going to have a tournament here just for loyalty sake. That would cost the Tour money and that’s not going to happen.”