Culture / Sporting Life

Houston Open’s New Mega Deal Shows a Different Side of Jim Crane, Texas Children’s CEO Mark Wallace — A $65 Million Bet On Doing It Right Together

More Than Naming Rights, This Title Sponsorship Is About Future Of Golf in Houston and Texas Children's Global Growth

BY // 05.31.23

With mini golf carts with Texas Children’s on their hoods, Orbit in golf clothes sporting a championship ring and enough balloons to make a 5-year-old squeal, Houston’s PGA Tournament — the one Astros owner Jim Crane saved — took another important step towards longterm anchor stability. That is what Texas Children’s Hospital coming on as the Houston Open’s new title sponsor in a five year, $65 million deal ($13 million per year) represents.

But in many ways, this deal that gives Crane and the Astros Golf Foundation a chance to realize Crane’s vision of having “the best tournament on the PGA Tour,” is the result of a friendship between two very direct leaders. That’d be Crane and Texas Children’s Hospital CEO Mark Wallace. Crane and Wallace are used to working together.

In fact, Wallace shared the type of story about Jim Crane that the public usually doesn’t hear about. The guy reaching out to help behind the scenes — without any of the fanfare that a day like this brings.

“In 2020, when the pandemic hit, one of the first calls I received, directly, was from Jim Crane,” Wallace details. “Saying ‘Mark, do you need help?’ ”

With Texas Children’s Hospital struggling to get supplies in those uncertain days, Crane who built a shipping empire that allowed him to buy the Astros, shifted into action, using his company’s logistical prowess to battle the rampant supply chain issues that threatened one of the very best children’s hospital systems in the world as COVID raged.

“He put his team together with my team and we started getting masks and gowns by the millions,” Wallace says. “From places where we didn’t have access to. And that was all because of Jim. So he has continued to help us with supplies and supply chain to this day. Three and a half years later.”

When you’ve built that kind of relationship on pitching in and helping out, getting Texas Children’s leadership team to see the merits of sponsoring the Houston Open — and making it part of their drive to increase the hospital system’s national profile even more and add a global component — is a little easier. The foundation of trust has already been laid.

The Astros Golf Foundation and the PGA TOUR announced that Texas Children’s, the largest pediatric and women’s health system in the nation headquartered in Houston, will serve as title sponsor of the PGA TOUR’s Houston Open in a new five-year agreem
Jim Crane is still committed to making the Houston Open the best tournament on the PGA Tour. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This golf tournament — and Houston’s place on the PGA Tour calendar, which is rightfully moving back to the spring for the next Houston Open in 2024 — means a lot to Jim Crane. He makes that beyond clear again on this sunny day at Memorial Park, addressing the PGA Tour representative in attendance directly from the podium.

“It’s going towards our goal — and I’ll say this to our PGA folks here, We want to be the best PGA Tournament that you have,” Crane says. “And we’ll be working hard to get there and I know we can do it.”

Crane has told PaperCity about his vision of ultimately bringing one of golf’s Majors to Memorial Park — a U.S. Open or PGA Championship — in the past. Making this Houston Open one of the crown jewels on the PGA Tour calendar is a vital step in that push. Just as importantly, it also the type of tournament that Jim Crane feels like Houston should have every year.

The Houston Open being just a run-of-the-mill PGA Tour stop is not something Crane could ever accept.

“Jim has always said he wants to be the best tournament on the PGA Tour,” Astros Golf Foundation president Giles Kibbe says when I ask him about the mandate. “It’s the way he runs every one of his businesses. It’s the way he runs the Astros. It’s the way he runs Crane Worldwide. The Houston Open.

“He is here to be the best at what we do. It drives us everyday. It’s not easy, but it sure is fun.”

Now, Mark Wallace and the rest of the Texas Children’s team are in on that goal as well. Wallace, the highly-respected 70-year-old culture setter who’s led Texas Children’s for 33 years now, is already well versed in Houston Open history. He calls off the names of several prominent past champions. Jackie Burke Jr., Arnold Palmer and Gary Player among them.

But this is a very modern play for Texas Children’s too. With the hospital set to celebrate its 70th anniversary and open its new much-anticipated North Austin hospital in 2024 (it already boasts more than 120 locations in the state of Texas), this is a system that is focused on increasing its worldwide profile. Four days in the national TV spotlight every year with the tournament being referred to as the Texas Children’s Houston Open — not to mention the attention in the buildup to every tournament — is no small building block for that mission.

“We look forward to building momentum and making the tournament better just year after year,” Wallace says. “And it will take five years. Year One is gonna be great. But I can’t wait to see what Year Five is going to be.”

Jim Crane, Mark Wallace and Houston Open Improvements

Crane and Kibbe have already started the work on making sure the 2024 Houston Open (set for the week of March 25 t0 March 31, 2024) is several steps above what it’s been. That includes lengthening the 17th hole while still keeping it a drivable par 4 and adding more (and larger) fan areas to handle the increased crowd sizes that the new spring date will bring.

On the PGA Tour players’ side, the Houston Open under Crane is already known for having some of the better perks on the Tour. And those will only increase too. The bump up to a $9.1 million purse in 2024 — even if it’s not one of the new designated event mega purses — helps too.

“Jim has always said he wants to be the best tournament on the PGA Tour. It’s the way he runs every one of his businesses. It’s the way he runs the Astros.” — Astros Golf Foundation president Giles Kibbe

The player enthusiasm for the Houston Open — and a tournament right in the heart of the nation’s fourth largest city, rather than stuck out in some suburb — is apparent in the stars who provided video messages for this announcement day. Gary Woodland, Rickie Fowler, Tony Finau (the 2022 Houston Open winner), Max Homa (who calls Texas Children’s and the Houston Open “a match made in Texas”) and Collin Morikawa all participated.

That’s three of the Top 20 players in the world in Homa, Finau and Morikawa — indicative of the type of field the Houston Open can expect in its new spring date two weeks before The Masters, a critical window in golf’s calendar.

“Usually, they don’t play the week before, some of them, because they like to get a little rest,” Crane says. “They’ll play this tournament. So I think Top 20. . . We could have almost 10 to 15 of the Top 20 here, no doubt.”

In a big event city like Houston, that type of star-studded field can make a world of difference. While bringing a world of attention to both the Bayou City and Texas Children’s. Crane made it clear to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and anyone else who’d listen at PGA Tour headquarters how foolish it would be to lose Houston (especially with the LIV Golf tour still looming) when he was pushing for the spring date he secured.

You don’t give up on the most diverse city in America if you’re trying to grow your sport. You don’t give up on potential partnerships with forward-thinking Houston guys like Mark Wallace either.

Now these two power players, friends who came together during the pandemic, are helping push Houston’s PGA Tour event into the future.

“Jim does a lot behind the scenes that we never hear about,” Wallace says. So does Mark Wallace, whose life’s work is built around helping as many kids as possible.

Now, the Houston Open, Jim Crane and Mark Wallace are front center together. The fanfare is cute. Those mini golf carts — and Wallace gifting Crane with his own Texas Children’s white doctor’s coat and Crane giving the hospital chieftain his own Texas Children’s Houston Open logo golf bag, probably the first of those bags ever produced. But it’s the real friendship and helping backstory that allowed this mega deal to come together.