The Houston Open at a Crossroads Again

With Shell Oil Company pulling out as the Houston Open’s title sponsor after a successful 26-year run, the Houston Golf Association finds itself in an all too familiar position — what must be done to make the venerable tournament something other than an afterthought among the numerous non-major PGA Tour events?

Houston has a rich golf history, so there is considerable amount of civic pride involved in this question. But finding a title sponsor is no easy task — the price tag to sponsor an event such as the Houston Open is almost certainly in the $10 million range.

The first Houston Open was in 1922 and the tournament is tied with San Antonio’s Valero Texas Open as the third oldest non-major championship on the PGA Tour behind only only the Western Open (1899) and the Canadian Open (1904).

Despite that legacy, the tournament has periodically struggled. After the tournament was revived at River Oaks in 1946, the Houston Open became a regular Tour stop when it was played at Memorial Park Golf Course during the 1950’s and early 60’s, and then moved to Champions Golf Club in the late 1960’s for six years.

But the tournament wandered to several different area courses after its stint at Champions and its future seemed uncertain.

Indeed, after a particularly unfulfilling mid-1970’s tournament, the late Jack Gallagher, a crusty, old school golf columnist at the Houston Post, penned a column in which the basic thrust was “if this is the best the HGA can do, then why don’t we just forget about the whole damn thing.”

The Houston Golf Association recognized the dire circumstances and turned things around in 1975 by entering into a long term agreement with The Woodlands Corporation, which was in the early stages of developing a master-planned suburban community on the far north side of the Houston metro area.

For the next 26 years, the Houston Open and The Woodlands enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship as the golf tournament rode The Woodlands’ extraordinary growth to become one of the top tournaments on the PGA Tour in terms of money raised for charity each year.

That status was cemented when Shell stepped up in 1991 to become the stable title sponsor that the tournament had always lacked.

Unfortunately, by the late 90’s, the mutually-beneficial relationship between the HGA and The Woodlands Corporation was unraveling.

The HGA believed that the tournament needed to move from the Tournament Players Course in The Woodlands, which had parking problems and limited adjacent land to stage a Tour event.

Moreover, the tournament struggled with a date on the calendar a few weeks after The Masters, which is a time in the Tour schedule when many top players rest in preparation for the summer grind of the Tour.

After The Woodlands Corporation developed two outstanding courses at Carlton Woods Golf Club on the west side of The Woodlands, the HGA concluded that The Woodlands Corporation had reneged on a commitment to build a new TPC Course along Spring Creek on the west side of The Woodlands to host the Houston Open.

The Woodlands Corporation — which was owned by different owners than George Mitchell and his aides who had struck the original 1975 deal with the HGA — concluded that the HGA did not sufficiently appreciate how much The Woodlands had contributed to the success of the tournament and that The Woodlands really did not need the golf tournament to continue its success.

Consequently, in 2002, the HGA decided to leave The Woodlands and relocate to Redstone Golf Club (now Golf Club of Houston) in Humble on the northeast side of Houston.

The HGA struggled through three tournaments at Redstone’s Jacobson-Hardy Course (the renovated El Dorado Country Club course), which was not close to as good a tournament venue as the TPC in The Woodlands. Charitable donations to the tournament dipped and few of the top Tour pros played in those first tournaments at the new location.

Nevertheless, the scrappy HGA made the best of a bad situation.

In connection with the opening of the Rees Jones-designed Tournament Course at Redstone in 2006, the HGA persuaded the PGA Tour to give the Houston Open the weekend before the Masters as its permanent date. Then, the HGA groomed the Tournament Course to simulate conditions that the players would confront the following week at Augusta National during The Masters.

The result was that many top Tour players embraced the idea of playing tournament golf and practicing in Augusta-like conditions the weekend before the Masters. After a few years in its pre-Masters weekend date, the Houston Open was enjoying some of its strongest fields in its history.

Alas, prolonged success is elusive for the Houston Open. A year or so into the latest downturn in the energy industry, Shell announced that it was not renewing its title sponsorship for the tournament.

Meanwhile, the lack of a title sponsor tends to expose some of the other shortcomings of the tournament.

Although the HGA continues to do a great job of promoting the tournament with Tour players, the reality is that the Tournament Course is a rather boring, flat-land course built in the coastal plain of Texas that bears little resemblance to the hills of Augusta National.

Moreover, the Tournament Course is not fan-friendly. Although the course has some interesting holes, the routing of the course is an unmitigated disaster.

Sixteen of the course’s holes are separated from the 1st and 18th holes, the practice facilities, and the clubhouse by a half-mile walk along and over an unsightly drainage ditch. Because of that long trek, some fans at the tournament never venture beyond the 1st and 18th holes and the adjoining practice facilities.

Also, the Tournament Course is located far away from Houston’s quality hotels and other accommodations that attract Tour players and visitors to golf tournaments. Meanwhile, The Woodlands has developed the Houston area’s best destination resort, along with a beautiful downtown river walk area dotted with quality restaurants, entertainment venues, shops, and hotels.

One can only imagine how much the Houston Open would have benefited from close access to those amenities had the HGA and The Woodlands Corporation found a way to bridge their differences.

Perhaps those shortcomings are what prompted Houston Mayor Sylvestor Turner’s display of nostalgia at the tournament over this past weekend.

Apparently without consulting the HGA, Mayor Turner announced at the tournament that he thought that the Houston Open should return to Memorial Park Golf Course, which has not hosted a Tour event since 1963.

In making that announcement, Mayor Turner overlooked that Memorial Park GC has a tiny clubhouse, nominal practice facilities, virtually no driving range, and no place for public parking. It would require a multi-million dollar investment in improvements constructed over several years before Memorial Park GC could even be considered as a host for a Tour event.

The bottom line is that such an investment is not going to happen.

Which brings us back to the question — what is going to become of the Houston Open in its post-Shell crossroads?

Participation by top Tour players has lagged a bit in recent years, but this year’s tournament attracted four of the top 10 in the Official World Golf Rankings and 10 of the top 25. That’s comparable to what other Tour events generate that are not a major or a World Golf Association tournament.

And although the Tournament Course is not optimal, the reality is that there are few courses in the Houston area that have the combination of location, facilities, and accessible areas for public parking necessary to host a PGA Tour event.

And one of those is not Memorial Park GC.

With a workable date on the PGA Tour calendar and a serviceable golf course to host the event, my sense is that the HGA — which has been a wonderful steward of the tournament — will find another title sponsor (or multiple sponsors) to replace Shell and continue to hold the tournament at the Golf Club of Houston’s Tournament Course.

Sometimes maintaining a pretty good thing well is the best that can be done.

The Astrodome, Trade-offs and the Public’s Revolt

Who would have ever thought that the combination of hosting a Super Bowl and dealing with the question of what to do with the Astrodome is teaching us a valuable lesson in economic trade-offs and the declining importance of the mainstream media?

The lesson started just a few days after Houston completed hosting a successful Super Bowl LI weekend.

Even before Houston’s leaders were done patting themselves on the back for that effort, the local mainstream media mouthpiece for the Houston Texans — the Houston Chronicle — was already proclaiming the need for Harris County taxpayers to step up and fund millions of dollars of improvements to 16-year old NRG Stadium or else — heaven forbid! — Houston will be excluded from hosting future Super Bowls.

As an aside, not being eligible to host a Super Bowl might be a problem if it was even reasonably clear that the Houston area would suffer economically from not hosting the event.

However, there is substantial doubt that hosting a Super Bowl has any positive economic impact for the host city at all. But you won’t hear that information from Houston’s political leaders and mainstream media, all of whom revel in the media hubbub that surrounds the Super Bowl.

But back to the story. The Chronicle being the Texans’ mouthpiece for spending additional public funds on NRG Stadium is not surprising. Frankly, there aren’t many public funding initiatives that the Chronicle opposes, no matter how absurd.

Nevertheless, this particular piece of Chronicle propaganda was surprising because it suggests that the $100 million or so of public funds being allocated to another of the Chronicle’s favorite boondoggles — Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s plan to turn the Astrodome into a combination parking garage and nebulous public use facility — would be better used in upgrading NRG Stadium.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Houston area State Senator John Whitmire announced that he is proposing a bill in the Texas Legislature that would require local governments such as Harris County to hold a voter referendum before spending the $100 million in public funds that Judge Emmett wants to spend on his Dome Parking Ramp project.

That announcement hilariously generated several ensuing Chronicle articles fretting that Senator Whitmire’s proposal would likely derail Judge Emmett’s Dome Parking Ramp project because, well, uh, Harris County citizens already decisively voted against a similar — albeit more expensive — plan for the Dome in 2013.

Darn those pesky voters!

So, by the end of the week, Judge Emmett was publicly blasting Senator Whitmire’s proposed bill while Chronicle management was trying to figure out how it had supported public funding of both Judge Emmett’s Dome Parking Ramp project and the Texans’ plan to use those funds to upgrade NRG Stadium. Houstonians were left holding on to their pocketbooks for dear life.

One of my sage friends commented that it only took building two domed stadiums next to each other and then letting them compete for limited public funding for the Chronicle finally to learn about trade-offs in spending public funds.

What are we to make of all this?

My sense is that the public’s skepticism of its local leaders and mainstream media over the Dome is a reflection of the ongoing dynamic that Martin Gurri addresses in his 2014 e-book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Milleniumwhich is generating interest in academic circles trying to figure out the unexpected turn of events in the 2016 Presidential election.

In essence, Gurri argues that the exponential increase of information available to the public since 2000 through the internet and social media is fundamentally altering the public’s relationships with — and trust of — societal institutions such as government and the mainstream media.

Gurri maintains that political leaders can no longer rely on mainstream media to be the sole filter of the message that the leaders want the public to embrace. Now, the public has innumerable sources of information in which to evaluate a leader’s message.

Consequently, the reality is that the public is long past listening to the propaganda of mainstream media outlets in evaluating Judge Emmott’s Dome Parking Ramp plan or additional funding for NRG Stadium.

Although most Houstonians revere the Dome, Houstonians now understand that Harris County has spectacularly mismanaged the Dome and that it is a waste of limited public funding to perpetuate that mismanagement. Even if it means the destruction of an iconic structure.

The legacy of Harris County mismanagement of the Dome is long and appalling. The original Dome was always a magnificent baseball stadium first and a rather pedestrian (but dry and comfortable) football stadium second.

But when Bud Adams threatened to move the Oilers from Houston during an economic downturn in the oil and gas industry in the mid-1980’s, Harris County Commissioners panicked.

By rolling over for Adams, the Commissioners damaged the Dome as a baseball stadium by adding 15,000 seats, which made the Dome a marginally more attractive football stadium. Moreover, the extra seats required removal of the Dome’s exploding centerfield scoreboard and Judge Hofheinz’s rightfield apartment, two characteristics of the Dome that made it truly special.

And to make matters worse, the Harris County Commissioners received only a 10-year commitment from Adams to continue playing in the Dome in return for making those “improvements.” After that term expired, Adams took Nashville’s money and moved the Oilers to Tennessee in 1997.

Not surprisingly, the Astros soon tired of playing baseball in a mediocre football stadium. So, the County assisted the Astros in building MinuteMaid Park, which opened in downtown Houston in 2000. At the time, County Commissioners made no effort to develop a new plan for the Dome.

Even when Harris County assisted Bob McNair in bringing the NFL back to Houston by financing construction of NRG Stadium next door to the Dome, County Commissioners had no plan for the Dome.

So, the Harris County Commissioners simply decided to let the Dome rot.

That decision was bad enough. But to compound that mismanagement, the Commissioners ceded effective control over NRG Park — the parking lots and facilities that surround the Dome — to the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for substantial portions of each year.

That transfer of control of NRG Park effectively precludes any private business from investing in the Dome. No private business is going to invest in the Dome for an alternative public use when it knows that its prospective customers won’t be able to use the adjacent parking lots for numerous dates each year.

Even the County’s tenants who control NRG Park aren’t enthused with Judge Emmott’s Dome Parking Ramp plan. The Texans have no use for the Dome and prefer that the area it sits on be turned into badly needed parking for NRG Stadium. The Rodeo has been more diplomatic about Judge Emmott’s plan, but has made clear that it doesn’t really need the additional public use space and is not interested in investing a dime in the plan.

In defense of Judge Emmott, most of Harris County’s legacy of mismanagement in regard to the Dome occurred before he became County Judge in 2007. Since that time, he has worked to come up with a plan for the Dome, which is more than can be said for his predecessors. For better or for worse, he has attached his legacy wagon to his Dome Parking Ramp plan.

But here is what Judge Emmott is missing. Through no help of the mainstream media, Houstonians have come to understand that investing over $100 million in the Dome has trade-offs.

As even the Chronicle has noted, investing $100 million in the Dome may mean that NRG Stadium is not updated sufficiently to host a future Super Bowl.

Similarly, spending $100 million in the Dome means that the Harris County Jail — a third world-like hell-hole for decades — will not receive those funds and will continue to be an embarrassment to Houston and a constant source of lawsuits against the County in federal courts.

Likewise, investing $100 million in the Dome means that those funds will not be available for use on badly-needed flood control improvements to protect citizens during Houston’s frequent periods of heavy rain.

Finally, spending $100 million on the Dome means that Harris County’s legacy of mismanaging the Dome will continue and that Harris County taxpayers will be on the hook for subsidizing that mismanagement in the future.

Given those trade-offs, most Houstonians understand that it’s time to move on.

My Jeff Bagwell Story

Astros legend Jeff Bagwell was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, something that I pointed out should have been a no-brainer over a decade ago.

But Hall of Fame voting is not always rational or even well-informed, so Bags’ election is one of those things that is definitely better late than never.

Bagwell endeared himself to Houstonians partly because he was similar to many of us who moved to Houston to start our careers and then ended up making it our home.

As with his long-time teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, Bags was from the northeast and came to Houston for the first time as a wide-eyed 23-year old in 1991.

Over the years, Bagwell and Biggio embraced Houston and made it their home. Houstonians responded by making Bagwell and Biggio the icons of the Astros franchise.

My first connection with Bagwell was during his remarkable Rookie of the Year season in 1991 when I got to know his father Bob, who sat in the row in front of my Astrodome seats about 20 rows behind the Astros dugout.

However, after that season, I got an opportunity to know Bagwell better. A friend of mine asked me to host a golf game for him, Bagwell, and former Astro Norm Miller at Lochinvar Golf Club, which was my golf club at the time.

So, on a warm November day in 1991, Bagwell, Miller, my friend, and I got together and played a round of golf while walking around Lochinvar. It was Bagwell’s first of many rounds that he would eventually play at Lochinvar, where he later became a member.

Golf is a wonderful form of recreation primarily because of its social nature — you can get to know someone reasonably well talking with them while walking around a beautiful pasture for four hours.

That certainly was the case with Bagwell, who is friendly and easy-going. And Norm Miller — who is one of the funniest professional athletes that I’ve ever met — kept the group loose throughout the round as he shared many witty anecdotes from his ten-year Major League career.

After we had gotten to know each other over a couple of hours on the course, Bags asked me how I became interested in baseball. I replied that I’d been a decent catcher as a youth ballplayer in Iowa, but gravitated toward football in high school because I didn’t much like the baseball coach.

In my senior year of high school, I swallowed my dislike of the baseball coach, played that final season of high school baseball, and performed well enough to generate an offer from the University of Iowa baseball coach to walk-on and compete for a spot on Iowa’s baseball team.

But at the time, my folks and family were in the process of pulling up our deep Iowa roots and moving to Houston. So, I passed on the walk-on offer and moved with my family to Texas.

My decision was also helped by several games of summer league ball that I played that year with Jim Sundberg, the former University of Iowa catcher who went on to have a fine 16-year MLB career, primarily with the Rangers and the Royals.

Sundberg was so much better than me (as well as every other player in the summer league) that I realized quickly that a future in baseball was not in the cards for me.

After explaining all that, Bagwell asked me: “So, why didn’t you walk-on at Iowa?”

You see, ballplayers such as Bagwell and Miller love to play baseball so much that it is pretty much unimaginable to them that someone wouldn’t jump at any opportunity to continue playing the game. Miller re-emphasized that point during the round when he told us a hilarious story premised on the question: “Do you know what I would do to be able to play baseball for $100,000 a year?”

At any rate, I replied to Bagwell’s question: “I was an O.K. defensive catcher. But to be honest, I was a lousy hitter. I couldn’t hit a decent breaking pitch, much less a good one.”

Bagwell smiled with a twinkle in his eye and observed:

“That shouldn’t have stopped you. No one can really hit a decent breaking pitch.”

Congratulations on making the Hall of Fame, Bags. You hit more than a few decent breaking pitches in doing so.

Some of My Favorite Houston-Area Golf Holes

One of my resolutions for 2017 is to blog more, so here we go.

The video below contains photos that I’ve taken over the years of some of my favorite holes from about a dozen Houston-area golf courses that I’ve had the privilege of playing.

Houston remains an underrated golf destination. The city has dozens of high-quality public and private courses, and the price of a round on most of those courses is less (and sometimes far less) than the price of a round in traditional golf destinations such as the Carolinas and Florida. Given the vast physical size of the Houston metropolitan area, its courses have delightful variety, from the flatland courses of the coastal plain, to the sloping courses built on the edge of Houston’s bayous, and the hillier courses of the north side that are carved out of the East Texas forests.

Enjoy!

My Favorite Arnold Palmer Story

hogan-and-palmer-smokingArnold Palmer, one of the iconic figures of our time, died on Sunday at the age of 87.

Palmer’s story is truly remarkable. Charismatic and dashing, Arnie burst on to the national scene in the mid-1950’s just as the age of television was taking hold of American society. Through his lifelong business partnership with the late Mark McCormick of IMG fame, Palmer was instrumental in transforming how professional sports were presented, financed, and viewed throughout the world.

Incredibly, by the time of his death, this humble son of a western Pennsylvania greenskeeper had amassed a net worth of well over a billion dollars.

But what set Arnold Palmer apart from many icons was that he was a genuinely nice man to whom people naturally gravitated.

Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead may have established professional golf in the United States from the late 1930’s through the mid-1950’s. But it was Palmer’s magnetism that made it popular with the masses during the 1960’s.

As a result, it seems as if everyone has a favorite Arnold Palmer story. Here is mine, but some background first.

One of Palmer’s numerous accomplishments was his leadership during the 1980’s in forming the PGA Tour for senior PGA Tour professionals, which is now called the Champions Tour.

Several years ago, Houston’s Champions Tour event — The Insperity Invitational — moved to The Woodlands Tournament Course, which is where the Houston Open PGA Tour stop was played for about 20 years before the Houston Golf Association moved the tournament to a bigger venue at the Golf Club of Houston.

In order to promote interest in The Woodlands event, Insperity and the Champions Tour asked Palmer to play in an exhibition with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player at the initial Insperity Invitational. Of course, Palmer agreed to do so and continued to participate in the exhibition each year until he was physically unable to do so. The exhibition was a tremendous success and drew thousands of fans to the course for the tournament.

Which gets to my story.

A friend of mine named Dan who lives in The Woodlands used to pilot Palmer’s private jet for several years back in the 1980’s. Dan eventually moved on to pilot for Continental Airlines for many years, but he and Palmer remained good friends over the years from their many flying experiences together.

However, there is another interesting golf-related tidbit about Dan — he is a dead-ringer for Ben Crenshaw, the popular former University of Texas golfer and PGA Tour professional who still lives in Austin. Dan and I attend the same church and his resemblance with Crenshaw is so strong that I’ve actually had friends who do not know Dan ask me after church: “Hey, Tom. Was that Ben Crenshaw in church today?”

So, the first year that Arnie came to The Woodlands to play in the Insperity exhibition, Dan went over to The Woodlands Marriott Hotel on The Waterway to greet his old friend and reminisce about old times.

Arnie was happy to see his old friend, so Dan and Arnie plopped down in the lobby of the big hotel to talk. As was typical with Palmer whenever he was in a public place, a steady stream of fans interrupted to ask for his autograph, a photo, or both. Arnie accepted each request graciously and with a big smile.

But after Arnie had accommodated dozens of such requests, a nice-looking middle aged woman approached Dan, not Arnie.

Excuse me,” she said to Dan. “Could I ask you a question?”

Being gentlemen, both Dan and Arnie stood up while Dan addressed the nice lady.

“Why, of course,” replied Dan.

“I’ve just got to ask you,” said the lady nervously. “Are you Ben Crenshaw? He is my favorite golfer.”

Dan smiled at the nice lady. “No, I’m sorry. I’m not Ben Crenshaw. I just look like him.”

But then, with the prescience that comes only from being in the presence of someone such as the King, Dan put his arm around Arnie’s shoulder and exclaimed to the lady:

“But this is Arnold Palmer!”

Godspeed Arnold Palmer.

The Astrodome as a . . . garage?

Astrodome_thumb.jpgReally? This is what over a decade of Astrodome redevelopment plans have come to?

The Astrogarage?

That’s not exactly the stuff of grand legacies.

So, here is my unsolicited advice for County leaders.

Rather than continuing to waste time on what to do with the Dome, come up with a solution for the problems that have plagued the Harris County Jail for decades

I would bet that the County leader who leads the community in finally making the County Jail a reasonably humane place will have a grander and more lasting legacy than the leader who turns the Dome into a garage.

Spaceport Houston

Larry McMurtry receives the National Humanities Medal