Inside the renovation of Memorial Park, the muni to host the Houston Open

January 10, 2019

THE PLAN

Houston’s Memorial Park Golf Course, the city’s prize municipal course, is undergoing a major renovation with the goal of hosting the Houston Open for years to come. Houston’s City Council approved the funding in a Jan. 9 vote, which means that work on the project can begin almost immediately.

FUNDING

The Astros Foundation — the team charity of the Houston Astros — is funding the renovation. That means an initial $13.5 million dollar investment, which will go towards work on the actual course. The foundation will also pay an annual $1 million tournament fee to the city for PGA Tour usage, divided up with $750,000 to the city itself and $250,000 to the Memorial Park Conservancy, according to Houston Public Media. Houston’s mayor Sylvester Turner is recommending that the city’s share of the annual fee be used for city parks.

Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros and an avid golfer, is the driving force behind the renovation. “As one of the council members said, it’s a win-win-win-win,” he said at the meeting. “Everybody wins – the (Memorial Park) conservancy, the park, the city. We’ll be able to raise a lot of funds through the golf tournament that will go to charity, and there will be revenue that comes into the city being here.”

Houston Parks and Recreation Department director Steve Wright confirmed that there will be no cost to taxpayers. “I run the department and I don’t have a dime invested in the capital improvement of the golf course,” he said.

THE SCHEDULE

The City Council’s ruling means that the course is closed for renovations beginning…now. Wednesday afternoon’s final group marked the last golf that will be played until this fall, with a target date of Nov. 1 for reopening. Renovations need to be completed and the course open for play by then in order for the course to host the 2020 Houston Open. PGA Tour events generally require a year of growth and maturing to be approved for hosting.

Memorial Park Houston Open
Memorial Park Golf Course is a parkland layout with skyline views and mature trees, feature that appealed to Tom Doak.
ABC 13

COURSE HISTORY

Memorial Park Golf Course was originally constructed in 1912 as a nine-holer. It is currently Houston’s most popular municipal course (the “crown jewel” of Houston public golf, according to one meeting-goer) and hosts some 60,000 rounds per year.

The Houston Open has been a regular Tour stop since 1946. Beginning in 1992, Shell was the tournament’s title sponsor for 25 years and the tournament had settled into its slot as the final event before the Masters. But when Shell pulled out after the 2017 event, the Tour had a hard time attracting a new sponsor. The Tour and the Houston Golf Association footed the bill for last year’s event, which Ian Poulter won in a playoff.

PGA TOUR EVENT

The 2019 Houston Open will move to the fall and will actually be a part of the 2019-2020 PGA Tour season. The purse will be $7.5 million and 500 FedEx Cup points will go to the winner. The Golf Club of Houston in Humble, Texas, has hosted the event since 2003 and will host again in 2019 despite declaring last year that it was done hosting the event.

THE FUTURE

In June, the PGA Tour and the Astros Foundation came to an agreement that the Houston Open will continue for at least five years, with the foundation serving as host and operator through 2023.

Giles Kibbe, President of the Astros Golf Foundation, said the project’s $13.5 million first phase will includes the golf course, a new maintenance facility, a practice facility with a two-level hitting bay for public use and a First Tee complex with a four-hole course.

Phase Two, with a projected cost of $15-$17 million, will focus on clubhouse facilities. Kibbe cited a desire to provide the best possible experience to entice the world’s best players to come back year after year. And he expects Houston to benefit, estimating a $90 million economic impact per year if the city is able to host the tournament.

THE PARK

Memorial Park at large is getting a facelift. The Memorial Park Conservancy, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the Uptown Development Authority are spearheading a redevelopment plan to take place over the next decade. The Kinder Foundation, founded by Richard and Nancy Kinder, kickstarted fundraising for the project with a $70 million gift, according to the Houston Business Journal. Richard Kinder is co-founder and executive chairman of Houston-based Kinder Morgan, one of the largest energy infrastructure companies in North America.

PUBLIC CONCERNS

A small contingent of local golfers has raised objections over the course being co-opted for PGA Tour use. “It takes golf away from the people the course was made to accommodate,” one golfer told Houston’s ABC affiliate.

Other golfers cited worries that the course would lose its “anti-country club” identity or would become too difficult with the renovations.

“When it comes back, it would be even nicer than it is today and the fees will remain the same,” Mayor Turner said. Greens fees currently range from $10-15 for juniors and seniors, while regular fees are between $21 (weekday twilight) and $38 (weekend daytime play)

Baxter Spann, whose golf course architecture firm oversaw a 1996 renovation of Memorial Park, objected at the City Council’s meeting to the manner in which the project was being conducted. He cited speed and secrecy as his concerns.

“I’m not against renovating (the course),” Spann said. “What I am against is the process that I see unfolding to facilitate this project.”

THE ARCHITECT’S VISION

Kibbe and the Astros Foundation interviewed what they saw as the top five course architects in the country before settling on Tom Doak.

After meeting with all of them, one of the things that really excited us about Tom is that he hasn’t done a PGA Tour course and it’s something that he wants to do; something he wants to put on his resume,” Kibbe told the Chronicle. “It’s something he wants to make a big impression and his excitement was a big motivator.”

Doak has six courses on GOLF’s Top 100 Courses in the U.S. and is known for his work at Pacific Dunes and Old MacDonald (Bandon, Ore.), Ballyneal (Holyoke, Colo.) and Sebonack (Southampton, N.Y.) and is under contract to take on the third course at Wisconsin’s Sand Valley.

“I’ve always been interested in doing a course for the Tour players, especially the more people say, ‘Oh he’s not the guy to do that, that’s not his thing,'” Doak told The Fried Egg in November. He has begun to lay out a vision for the course that includes enhancing some existing features to make the course interesting and playable for the average golfer while reimagining the course’s play for the game’s elite.

According to Doak, the biggest challenge in the Memorial Park design is drainage, because the parkland property is so flat. Hosting a Tour event means needing to handle large galleries during potential rainy weeks, and part of handling the drainage will involve redirecting water to the adjacent Buffalo Bayou.

“Many holes on the front nine touch deep ravines and we just have to get the water off the fairways more quickly to them. But the vision is to extend those ravines up into the back nine to make it more dramatic than it is now.”

At 7,300 yards, the course is already plenty long, and Doak said the Houston Open would likely play to a par 70 or 71 while it will remain a par 72 for everyday play.

Tom Doak Houston Open
Tom Doak is overseeing the renovation at Memorial Park.

THE PLAYER ADVISOR

Brooks Koepka, who lived in Houston for a short while, plays much of his golf out of the Floridian in Palm City, Fla., which Crane owns (and where many of the employees wear Astros hats). Koepka is also friends with Kibbe; the two are Pro-Member partners at the Floridian.

“Tom wanted to have a PGA Tour player as a consultant on the project to pick his brain on what they like, what they don’t like, what makes them comfortable, and Brooks has been great at being very involved with our conversations with Tom on how we’re going to design the golf course,” Kibbe told the Chronicle.

Koepka toured the site for the first time in the fall and was impressed with views of the Houston skyline on the very first hole. He said he expects to be very involved, citing off-weeks and the ability to easily get from his home in Jupiter to Houston. He also teased a budding interest in course design. “When I’m done playing (competitively), I’m not going to play golf anymore. I’ll need to find something. It could be course design,” he told the Chronicle.

Doak also is eager to provide a different challenge than players will face elsewhere on Tour. That’s where he hopes Koepka’s input will prove invaluable. “Those guys are so talented, but we only see them have to use their talents when they get in trouble, because nearly every hole is a driver-wedge for them now,” Doak said. “I’m interested to put our brains together to see how we can get away from that.”