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October 26, 2004

The Houston Open - consequences of bad decisions

This Chronicle article about the downturn in the Houston Golf Association's charitable donations after a less than stellar Shell Houston Open this past spring brings to mind how even well-intentioned people can bungle a good thing through a series of bad decisions.

The HGA has operated the Houston Open PGA Tour golf tournament for about 60 years. Although Houston has a rich golf tradition, the Houston Open has not always been a resounding success. Indeed, I vividly recall a time in the 1970's when, after a particularly unfulfilling Houston Open, the Houston Post's cranky golf columnist, the late Jack Gallagher, penned a controversial column in which the basic thrust was "if this is the best you can do, then why don't we just forget about having the Houston Open." The HGA's members were not pleased with Gallagher's column, but what he had to say had some merit.

To the HGA's credit, however, it turned things around. In 1975 or so, the HGA entered into a long term agreement with The Woodlands Corporation, which at the time was in the early stages of developing a master-planned suburban community on the far northside of Houston's metropolitan 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 success and growth to become one of the top tournaments on the PGA Tour in terms of the amount of money raised for charity each year. That status was cemented when Royal Dutch/Shell Corporation stepped up in the 1990's to become a stable title sponsor for the tournament.

However, in the late 90's, the partnership between the HGA and The Woodlands Corporation began to have problems. The HGA believed that the tournament needed to move from the Tournament Players Course in The Woodlands, which had parking problems and was not a particularly popular venue with many of the top players. After The Woodlands Corporation developed the outstanding Carlton Woods Golf Club on the westside of The Woodlands, the HGA concluded that The Woodlands Corporation had reneged on its commitment to build a new Tom Fazio-designed TPC Course on the westside of The Woodlands to host the Houston Open. The Woodlands Corporation -- now owned by different owners than the ones who had struck the original deal with the HGA -- concluded that the HGA did not sufficiently appreciate how much the growing attractiveness of The Woodlands had contributed to the success of the tournament and that The Woodlands really did not need the golf tournament to continue its phenomenal success.

Consequently, in 2002, the HGA decided to leave The Woodlands and relocate to Redstone Golf Club on the northeast side of Houston. Although the local media typically mimics the HGA's endlessly positive pronouncements regarding the move to Redstone, the decision is beginning to look like a monumental blunder.

First, despite HGA protestations to the contrary, the Redstone Golf Course is not a PGA Tour-quality golf course. Redstone is the renovated result of the old El Dorado Country Club course and, although the redesign improved that old course significantly, it is still not close to as good a tournament venue as the TPC in The Woodlands.

Second, Redstone Golf Club is out in the middle of nowhere with no nearby quality hotels and other accomodations to attract the Tour players or visitors to the golf tournament. Consequently, the Tour players must stay in either second rate Intercontinental Airport-area hotels or far away quality hotels in either the downtown or Galleria-areas of Houston.

In the meantime, The Woodlands has developed the Houston area's best destination resort, along with a beautiful downtown riverwalk area dotted with quality restaurants, entertainment venues, shops, and hotels. As one anonymous Tour player commented to me after viewing the latest commercial developments in The Woodlands: "They [meaning the HGA] left this for that [meaning Redstone]?"

The short terms results tend to support that view. Not only are charitable donations generated by the tournament down for the first time in 12 years, this year's Houston Open attracted only 3 of the top 20 money-winners on the PGA Tour. Prospects for next year's tournament do not look much better.

Meanwhile, the HGA is valiantly attempting to make the best of the situation. The HGA-Redstone partnership hired noted golf course designer Rees Jones to design a new tournament course at Redstone that will become the tournament course in 2006. Also, the HGA is lobbying the PGA Tour hard for a more attractive date for the tournament when the Tour's existing television contract expires in 2006. The HGA has long believed that the current date just two weeks after The Masters Tournament has been a deterrent to attracting the best players to participate in the Houston Open.

However, my sense is that the move to Redstone has blown the HGA's opportunity to turn the Houston Open into one of the premier non-major tournaments on the PGA Tour. Playing on a mediocre golf course in an isolated part of Houston with a less than stellar field, the Houston Open has little to attract either the best professional golfers or golf fans. The situation may improve if the new Rees Jones course turns out to be popular with the Tour players, but unless a more attractive date for the tournament is obtained and quality accommodations closer to the course are arranged for the players, any improvement in the overall situation will likely be temporary and marginal. In short, the Houston Open has probably seen its better days.

What is sad about all of this is that it did not have to occur. The HGA and The Woodlands had a great partnership going and, with reasonable compromises on both sides, the Houston Open could have continued to prosper in The Woodlands. Now, the HGA is back to square one, and it is going to be a long, tough road to make the Houston Open more than a blip on the radar screen of the PGA Tour.

Posted by Tom at October 26, 2004 10:40 AM |

Comments

Why is it everyone in the golfing community realized this was a tremendous blunder at the time the HGA made the decision to move. Somebody got greedy or got their feelings hurt and "The Open" will pay the price for years. Most of us couldn't believe; 1. that they were moving and 2. that they were moving out in the middle of nowhere with no hotels, restaurants, etc.
HUGE MISTAKE! Too bad Houston loses.

Posted by: Mike Bryson at August 5, 2005 11:07 AM

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