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Culture / Sporting Life

Jim Crane Makes the Houston Open the Surest Bet in Golf — Proven Builder Will Not Let This Tournament Fail

Dramatic Transformation Already Underway With Memorial Park Wows and Butch Harmon Bandwagoning

BY // 07.24.19

A lot of rich guys run golf tournaments (the president of the United States even dabbles in it). But few know as much about the game — or what makes elite players tick — as Jim Crane. The Houston Astros owner is one of the best CEO golfers in the world (Golf Digest rated him the No. 1 overall CEO golfer back when it still did those rankings annually), a near scratch player who is capable of finishing third in the famed Pebble Beach Pro-Am that matches amateurs and pros.

Crane plays a brand of golf that loose-with-the-rules presidents from both parties (Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, here’s looking at you) would barely recognize. But PGA Tour players get it. And Crane gets them.

“I’ve gotten to play in a number of great tournaments and the Dunhill Cup at St. Andrews,” Crane says. “And you can tell the difference in some tournaments — the way they run the tournament, and how first class and how they pay attention to detail.

“So we’re going to incorporate all those things. And we’re asking the players what they like. What makes it fun for them to come. What makes their life easier. So we’ve got a laundry list of that stuff.”

It’s a list that you can be sure the hands-on Crane will be checking himself. Crane may have saved pro golf in Houston when he swooped in to rescue the Houston Open, but the PGA Tour didn’t exactly leave him with the greatest lie in the world. This retooled Houston Open will debut in the October Silly Season when very few of the top players in the world tee it up — and general sports fan interest is dominated by the NFL, baseball’s playoffs (especially in Houston) and college football.

The “first” one this October will also be something of a lame duck swan song for the Golf Club of Houston’s hosting days before the reborn Houston Open shifts to its new future in the city at a dramatically revamped Memorial Park golf course.

This set of circumstances might loom more daunting than the second cut rough at a U.S. Open course to many in golf. But Jim Crane knows how to build — whether it’s taking a $10,000 loan from his sister and turning it into a billion dollar shipping company, or pushing to turn three straight 100 loss seasons into the first baseball world championship in Houston history.

So there is Crane on a mercifully overcast Houston summer morning in the Golf Club of Houston clubhouse, promoting the Houston Open. Already pushing to make it better.

One of the ways he’s doing that is by making Butch Harmon the tournament’s 2019 honoree, making sure the renowned swing coach with serious Houston ties is immediately invested in the tournament and making it a success. Harmon’s name is even on a tagline on the Houston Open logo itself.

One thing that’s almost certain from Crane’s build mentality is that the Houston Open of five years from now will be almost unrecognizable from the Houston Open of 2019.

Yes, Jim Crane knows a little something about putting people in the right place for his missions to succeed.

“He loves golf,” Harmon says of Crane. “He wants to do well. People are probably asking him, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Butch Harmon is not someone who holds back on his opinion of almost anyone — former client Tiger Woods included. If he thought Crane was anything but authentic, this 75-year-old golf lifer would say so.

One thing that’s almost certain from Crane’s build mentality is that the Houston Open of five years from now will be almost unrecognizable from the Houston Open of 2019. This is a tournament on the come — whether the PGA Tour itself recognizes that or not yet.

“We’re going to make it very comfortable for the best players in the world to play here,” Crane says when I ask him what changes he anticipates. “And feel like guests of Houston.”

The transformation is already underway — one well-thought-out move at a time. For example, rather than trying to take on the NFL, college football and October baseball head to head, the tournament is unveiling a Tailgate Zone that will be full of big screen TVs showing the football and baseball games so that fans attending the Houston Open can keep track of the games they care about while soaking up the live golf tournament atmosphere.

Astros Golf Foundation president Giles Kibbe talks about enhancing the “social aspects” of the tournament. Kibbe brings up the Waste Management Phoenix Open — the tournament that bills itself as “the greatest show on grass” with its wild 16th hole scene— and the Honda Classic as two PGA Tour stops that excel at the social scene around the golf.

Though Kibbe readily admits that the more tame Honda Classic is probably a more fitting example for the Houston Open.

Houston’s Big Golf Comeback?

Seeing how close Houston came to losing its PGA Tour stop completely clearly gnaws at Harmon.

“Houston’s such a great golf place,” Harmon says. “And for it to have gone down the way it did is just sad.”

You can bet it bothers Jim Crane, too. This golf fanatic is already working to make sure golf’s powers that be embrace America’s fourth largest city. The bold renovation of Memorial Park — and the removal of the trees that opens up the course in dramatic ways — is going to be a game changer for golf in Houston, providing a new showcase setting.

“The golf course itself — I got a peek at it last week — I mean just the redesign of the golf course… It’s a beautiful piece of property that was in a little disrepair,” Crane says. “Now, you’re going to have a world class golf course.

“We just kind of opened it up. I think I didn’t realize how spectacular that piece of property was — with new water features.”

Harmon’s another early Memorial Park convert.

“It’s going to be so nice when we move to Memorial,” the famed instructor says. “I was over there yesterday, walking the course with Giles — and I haven’t been to Memorial in probably 30 years. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. What happened to all the trees?’

“And this design, it’s fantastic. Having it right in town is going to be great.”

The Houston Open is in for a dramatic new future. With Jim Crane leading the drive, that’s arguably the safest bet in golf. No matter how daunting the horizon may look on this first tee moment.

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