When it comes to golf, the city of Houston might have hit the jackpot.
Not only did Houston Astros owner Jim Crane and some other donors save the Houston Open from extinction (it hasn't had a title sponsor since 2017), but if all goes as planned, the Houston Open will actually be back in Houston by 2020, to be played at historic Memorial Park Golf Course. The PGA Tour event has been conducted at the Golf Club of Houston in the suburb of Humble since 2003 and hasn't been staged inside the city limits of Houston since 1972.
In a plan approved by Houston City Council on Jan. 9, Memorial Park Golf Course will get a complete makeover like never before. And in a departure from the norm, taxpayers are not expected to fund any of it. The first phase, which includes the clubhouse, practice facilities and new First Tee and maintenance facilities, will cost $13.5 million, and it will be paid for by private donations through the Astros Golf Foundation, which has taken over operation of the Houston Open.
This comes on the heels of the splendid renovation of another Houston municipal, Gus Wortham Park Golf Course, which reopened in October. There is talk of possibly renovating some of the city's other municipal courses as well by the Houston Golf Association, which used to run the Houston Open. The Houston municipal golf scene has never looked better.
And if all that wasn't enough, Memorial Park in its entirety -- with its hike, bike and nature trails, tennis courts and ball fields -- is in the midst of sweeping improvements thanks to a $70 million donation from billionaire Richard Kinder (co-founder and executive chairman of Kinder Morgan Inc., an energy and pipeline corporation) and his wife, Nancy.
But here’s the cherry on top for golfers who aren't too upset about losing their course for nearly a year and for a couple of weeks every fall: After considering several of the top architects in the world, Crane and the Astros Golf Foundation chose internationally renowned golf course architect Tom Doak and Renaissance Golf Design to head up the redesign of Memorial Park. Nothing against any others under consideration – Tom Fazio or the team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw would have done a bang-up job, for example – but Crane deserves credit for thinking outside of the box a bit. The 57-year-old Doak -- creator some of the top golf courses in the world, including Pacific Dunes in Oregon, Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, Ballyneal in Colorado, The Loop at Forest Dunes in Michigan, The Blue Course at Streamsong in Florida and The Renaissance Club in Scotland (site of the 2019 and 2020 Scottish Opens), just to name a few – is one of the most innovative designers in the business.
Doak, who recently signed on to design the third course at Sand Valley in Wisconsin, is also known as a minimalist architect, which means he's not going to move a million cubic yards of earth at Memorial Park. The integrity of the routing will remain, and though it's basically a new course, locals will still recognize it.
"It's not going to be a reversible design," Doak said with a laugh, referring to The Loop, which opened in 2016 and can be played in two directions. "I think it's still going to feel like Memorial Park."
Doak's first PGA Tour course
Though this is not Doak's first work in Texas – he created the wonderful links-like Rawls Course at Texas Tech University in Lubbock -- this is his first attempt at a golf course that will play host to a PGA Tour event. So not only is he designing a course for 60,000 rounds a year of public play, but he's also tasked challenging the best players in the world.
A parkland layout that opened as 18 holes by John Bredemus in 1936, Memorial Park, which played host to the Houston Open for 14 years (last in 1963), is due to shut down in January and reopen in October, 2019. That's a new golf course just 10 months from now (the PGA Tour wants the course to be open for a year before it stages the Houston Open, which will be a fall event going forward).
Doak has already sought input from top players. In fact, two-time U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka and recent #1 player in the world, is the tour player consultant on this project.
There are some people who think I can't do one (a tour course). I don't like anybody saying I can't do anything.
Koepka, like several other top tour players, is also a member at The Floridian, a super-private club that Crane owns in Palm City, Florida. In addition, Koepka is friends with Giles Kibbe, senior vice president and general counsel of the Houston Astros and president of the Astros Golf Foundation, which is spearheading the project and taking over operations of the Houston Open from the Houston Golf Association.
"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," Kibbe was quoted as saying in a recent Houston Chronicle story. "And it's something that he wants to do; something he wants to put on his resume. It's something he wants to make a big impression with. His excitement was a big motivator.''
Doak, of course, is welcoming the challenge.
"There are some people who think I can't do [a tour course]. I don't like anybody saying I can't do anything," Doak said. "The last four or five years I've been thinking I'd like to do it at least once somewhere. And this seems like a great opportunity because at the end of the day, I answer to Mr. Crane to do it right and not to a committee. And I feel like we're going to get a lot of good input."
What do tour players want?
Though all the details haven't been worked out, Doak already has a pretty good idea of what he's going to do at Memorial Park. The routing will remain essentially the same, but some holes will be moved to take advantage of the natural terrain. Drainage will be greatly improved, and the course will have a much cleaner overall look. And you can expect to see greens with a lot more character than the current, relatively flat surfaces, which weren't dramatically changed during the last renovation in 1995.
A big part of this project, however, is the input from Koepka and other players, which include current and former members of the PGA Tour. He has also enlisted local architect Mike Nuzzo as a consultant on the project as well as Don Mahaffey, whose Texas-based Greenscape Methods is slated to be the general contractor. Nuzzo and Mahaffey collaborated on the highly acclaimed and extremely private Wolf Point near the central Texas coast a few years ago. Doak, according to a story in Links Magazine, said Wolf Point, which was Nuzzo's first and only solo design so far, "had the best set of greens in the state."
Nuzzo and Mahaffey, by the way, are currently finishing up a rather innovative project just northeast of Houston in Cleveland, Texas. The new Grand Oaks Reserve, incorporates three nine-hole courses – one of regulation length, another a par 3, and the other a putting course. It's set to open July 2019.
So between Doak, Koepka and the tour players, Nuzzo, Mahaffey and Renaissance Golf Design's senior associate Eric Iverson, there are a lot of good ideas for Memorial Park. None of them involve lengthening the course significantly. Par might be changed, but the course should remain about 7,300 yards.
Doak said Koepka, who at 28 has a growing interest in golf course architecture, told him that part of the reason he was able to win the U.S. Open twice is that he is good at plotting his way around the golf course. And while Memorial Park isn't destined to become a U.S. Open course, Doak wants it to be a course where you'll have to think your way around to score.
"None of the players I talked to thought it needed to be any longer," Doak said. "The bottom line is you can't defeat tour pros with length. The holes that are more interesting to them are the holes that are kind of in between, and they don't know what to do. A 500-yard par-4 is just a driver, 8-iron anyway. You kind of play into their hands. You think you're trying to challenge the long hitter, but what you're really doing is giving everybody but the long hitters no chance of competing."
What that means is that one or two of the shorter par 5s may become longer par 4s for the tournament, but the course for the most part won't be a bunch of long holes. In fact, it already has two par 3s that are over 220 yards (the 11th is around 250 yards from the back tees), but those will most likely be shortened.
"If we built a golf course where only one of the par 3s was much over 200 yards, we'd be heroes because every tour player is sick to death of playing 220-yard par 3s," said Doak, adding that Koepka cited the short 11th at Shinnecock Hills and ninth at Erin Hills (two U.S. Open courses) as two of his favorites.
Fewer bunkers, more interesting greens
We can expect few bunkers in this new design as well, perhaps anywhere from 20 to 40 of them (there are currently more than 50). And the greens, though they won't be smaller, will be much more interesting, as Doak's greens usually are.
"We can't make them really small but we can make the targets feel small, either long and skinny on a par 5 or the par 4s angling left to right so if you drive it one side you might be able to come down the length of the green, but if you come in from the other side, you've got to stop it pretty fast.
"We want them to feel fairly traditional," Doak added. "We don't want it to be a space-agey thing."
Again, one of the biggest improvements will be drainage, which will be accomplished by design, sand-capping and a new drainage system underground. Doak noted that there's very little slope from the north to the south ends of the golf course, but new contours will help direct water to both the irrigation pond (which will be significantly enlarged) between the par-5 16th and par-4 11th holes and natural ravines that run through much of the front nine. Much of the course is also expected to be sand-capped, which will further facilitate drainage.
The ravines that run along much of the front nine aren't that visible currently. Doak talked about clearing out the areas around them and bringing them more into play. For example, the par-3 second hole is candidate to be moved back into an area currently covered with brush and trees, close to a ravine.
And much of the golf course will be opened up, especially the back nine, which Doak compared to Augusta National in the sense that spectators should be able to see several holes at once amongst the backdrop of the tall pines that will remain after the redesign.
Other possible changes to the course
Despite not lengthening the course overall, the par-5 first will be become longer as the par-3 second hole moves farther south on the property.
The short par-4 sixth will lose the pond and fountain currently in front of the green. The same holds true for par-3 15th, which also has a pond and a fountain.
The par-5 eighth, which currently is only 460 yards, will become significantly longer to become a true par 5.
To make room for a longer eighth, the par-4 ninth will be shortened into a par 3. The green on the ninth is very close to the Bush (family) Grove, which cannot be moved or encroached upon.
The par-4 18th hole, which is currently just 350 yards or so, will get another 100 yards or so in length when the tee is moved back toward where the 17th green currently is.
In addition to the course, Doak's team is also responsible for designing the new First Tee facility as well as the practice areas at the course. The First Tee headquarters will go where the maintenance facility currently sits. The maintenance facility will be relocated to another part of the golf course.
As for the practice facilities, that work will come later, but included in the proposal is a two-tier lighted driving range that will increase from 54 to 80 stalls. Before that work is started, however, the ranges, as well as the restaurant at Memorial, Becks Prime, are expected to remain open.
It's also worth noting that Crane's group and city officials have talked about keeping green fees close to what they are now (around $50 during prime times), at least for local residents. Since it's a tour course and more expensive to maintain, revenue will most likely have to be increased, but that could be through higher green fees from visitors outside of Houston. This might be similar to the rate structures at other high-end munis like Torrey Pines near San Diego and Bethpage State Park in New York.