Culture / Sporting Life

Alex Bregman in the TV Booth, Jim Crane’s $6 Million-Plus Gift to Houston and Springing Into the Future — Houston Open Truths Make a PGA Point

Amid On-Course Astros Mania, the Forward-Thinking Power of Houston's PGA Tour Stop Becomes Unmistakable

BY // 11.14.22

Aaron Judge’s never appeared live in the booth for a national golf broadcast, but Alex Bregman now has. Of course, Judge has never won a world championship either — and Bregman has two of those. So maybe it’s only fitting that the Houston Astros all-star third baseman seems to fit so seamlessly into the Golf Channel broadcast with Trevor Immelman and Steve Sands when joining them in the tower. After all, everything at this 2022 Cadence Bank Houston Open takes on something of a rightful Houston Astros’ tint.

From all the fans who come out wearing Astros gear to watch PGA Tour golf to new Houston Open champ Tony Finau smartly calling Houston “the city of champions” post victory to the two World Series trophies that joined that big Houston Open trophy on a championship Sunday.

“We don’t want to steal any thunder,” Astros owner and Houston pro golf saver Jim Crane says when someone asks about the World Series hardware. “But we worked hard for those and we felt the fans would like to see them.

“So it’s nice to have those sitting out there along with another trophy.”

Crane does not want a trophy for stepping in four years ago and taking over this tournament, allowing the PGA Tour to keep a presence in the nation’s fourth largest city. But a better date would be nice. In fact, the long-sought move to the spring is more crucial than ever with the PGA Tour essentially shifting to an eight-month schedule in 2024.

Under the new condensed schedule that effectively eliminates the wrap around season, the six or so regular fall tournaments that happen will be for players who finished outside of the Top 70 only. Which would mean no stars for the Houston Open if it is still in the fall.

No Tony Finau. No Scottie Scheffler. No Sam Burns. No Hideki Matsuyama. Those four Top 20 players all played in H-Town this year, though Burns and Matsuyama both ended up withdrawing during the tourney.

It’s hard to imagine Crane, new title sponsor Cadence Bank or anyone else being happy with a star-less Houston Open. It also would seem to make little sense for a PGA Tour that finally seems to realize it needs to adapt to a new world in the wake of LIV Golf poaching some of its stars — including recent Houston Open regular Brooks Koepka — with its Saudi Arabian wealth, often decried as blood money.

A PGA Tour without a strong tournament in America’s most diverse city is a lesser tour.

“We want to keep growing the tournament,” Crane says. “We’ve got a great spot here. The course was in great condition today. And we just want to continue to improve and improve.

“Our goal is to be the best tournament in the PGA.”

A move to the spring would do wonders for that push, allowing the Houston Open to compete on more equal footing with established power stops like the Phoenix Open. The Phoenix Open, known as the wildest show in golf, has raised more than $10 million for Arizona charities in five of the last six years (with the lone exception being a COVID-restricted year).

Jim Crane being Jim Crane looks at that as something the Houston Open can top. Why can’t Houston’s tournament raise even more money for Bayou City charities than Phoenix’s? It’s the same approach Crane took with the Astros when he took over the team. Why can’t the Houston Astros be the most dominant organization in all of baseball, he asked then.

And everyone knows how that has turned out. Just look at those two World Series trophies off the 18th green for reference.

“I think in order to get to that level,” Astros Golf Foundation president Giles Kibbe tells PaperCity when I ask about Crane’s push to be the No. 1 Tour stop in terms of charitable giving, “we need to be in the spring. But we’ve very successful here with the Houston Open. Have been. Last year we had a great year, raised over five million dollars for local charities.

“This year we’ll be better than that. Above six million dollars. So we’re on track. We’re going to continue to grow.”

Crane is not shy about the fact that he believes this revamped Memorial Park Golf Course is a championship level course, capable of holding a major (a US Open or PGA Championship) some day. He first told PaperCity about that vision back in 2020.

And he certainly isn’t backing down on it after seeing Tony Finau, a now Top 12 player, win this 2022 Houston Open on Sunday and take home that $1.51 million first place check.

“This course can play a lot harder,” Crane says. “You can make it as hard as you want. As long as you want. . . I think we could play a US Open or a PGA (Championship) here very easily with the way we could set it up.”

On this sunny Sunday, Finau is just happy to be the Houston Open champion. His wife Alayna and his oldest kid — 10-year-old Jraice — fly in from Salt Lake City to be there for his Houston coronation, arriving about halfway through his final round.

PGA golfer Tony Finau plays in Round Four en route to victory in the 2022 Cadence Bank Houston Open at Memorial Park Golf Course, Sunday
Tony Finau was in a zone of his own at the Houston Open. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

After finishing his 16 under 264 — four shots clear of anyone else in the field, which is the same margin he begins this rather anticlimactic last round in — Finau pulls Jraice into a hug on the 18th green and asks his son if he was nervous. Jraice gives a big quick head shake no.

Finau laughs and indicates he actually felt nervous enough for the both of them himself.

“He looks like he’s 15, but he turns 11 in two weeks,” Finau says of Jraice with a smile in the media center. This father of five is clearly proud of his kids. The 33-year-old Finau, who actually had scholarship offers in basketball out of high school and competed in the golf reality show Big Break with his brother Gipper, really seemed to get a kick out of Houston too.

“I heard a lot of chants,” Finau says. “Tony chants. It’s pretty humbling really. . . I’m trying to stay as in the moment as I can. But it is pretty humbling to hear I have so many fans. Especially here in H-Town.”

Yes, you’d better believe Tony Finau is already aware of H-Town’s powers. It doesn’t take long.

Especially on a week in which every fourth or fifth person in the galleries seems to be wearing something Astros. With the Astros wrapping up their World Series win over the Philadelphia Phillies just days before the Houston Open’s first tee shot, some of the baseball excitement naturally makes its way to the golf course.

“I think we could play a US Open or a PGA (Championship) here very easily with the way we could set it up.” — Jim Crane on Memorial Park

The Houston Open and the Jim Crane Effect

Crane made sure Astros senior vice president of marketing and communications Anita Sehgal planned to have some team merchandise in the souvenir tents to satisfy the interest. There are few PGA Tour tournaments that have ever had this kind of tie to a professional sports team and the proven  in-city marketing apparatus and link to local fans that this Houston Open under Crane brings. That’s something else you’d think a tour looking for new ideas would want to tap into.

Giles introduces Jim Crane as “The greatest owner in the history of Houston sports” during the trophy ceremony. Which clearly makes Crane a little uncomfortable. “I’ve got a little work to do on that one,” he deadpans on taking the mic.

Still, it’s hard to see many Astros fans arguing that point these days. No one’s yelling out “Pay Carlos Correa!” at Crane this tournament like some fans did last November. A departing general manager — especially one who’s only been here for three years of the run — doesn’t elicit the same type of reaction or concern. No, this golf week is an Astros love fest.

“Well, I mean we had a big week last week,” Crane laughs. “So we kind of wore some of the fans out. But this is a good golf town. You’ve got a lot of good golf courses here. You’ve got a lot of people that play golf. And you can play here (at Memorial Park) for 38 bucks.

“. . . The fans come out and play this course this week and that’s what’s cool about it.”

In many ways, this Houston Open, played on a true municipal golf course in the middle of the nation’s fourth largest city, is one of the coolest golf environments of any tour stop. Imagine what it could become with a better date — one inside the PGA Tour’s new eight-month regular season schedule.

“We’re always going to continue to tweak this and continue to improve,” Kibbe says. “We won’t stop. Right now our focus in on working with (course designer) Tom Doak on a couple of tweaks. And then we’ll have a little post mortem with our Astros golf staff and our Astros staff that work so hard on this event to talk about how we improve.

“We feel very good about it. . . But we’re always working to improve.”

That’s the Astros way. The Jim Crane way. The championship way.

Astros owner Jim Crane is also the man who saved the PGA Tour's Houston tournament. The Houston Open continues to show its golf power. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros owner Jim Crane is also the man who saved the PGA Tour’s Houston tournament. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

With the sun bathing the 18th green and those trophies in a warm light, part of the volunteer army that makes this tournament go packed around the hole and the charity-driven Whitney Crane helping with the trophy ceremony, it is easy to imagine a bright future for Houston’s PGA Tour stop. It’s already been saved once by Crane. Now it just need to be moved back into the spring by the PGA Tour powers that be.

One thing’s for certain. Bregman in the booth works.

“I think the window is right open right now for a while,” Bregman shoots back when Sands jokingly asks if the Astros can just stop winning so much.

It’s a good day for professional golf. A good day for Houston. Something that should continue to go together.