Culture / Sporting Life

Major Worthy — Jim Crane is Building Up the Houston Open With the Same Determination He Built the Astros, and the PGA’s Best Can See the Future Too

The Plan to Move Houston's PGA Tour Stop Back to the Spring and Court Majors Takes Shape as a Humble Champion Emerges

BY // 11.15.21

Standing in the shadow of the huge grandstands surrounding the 18th green, waiting for the Houston Open trophy ceremony to begin, Jason Kokrak and Jim Crane exchange the easy small talk of two men fluent in the game of golf. Then, Kokrak turns to Crane’s young son and asks how old he is.

“Six and a half,” James Crane shoots back. (Those halves are important as the parent of any kid that age can tell you).

“Six and half?” Kokrak responds in mock wonder. “I thought you were at least 10.”

That draws a sideways look from the six and half year old. Who says a 36-year-old Houston Open champion cannot be relevant to the kids? Kokrak, who is often mistaken for a Canadian (he was born in Canada, but his family moved to the United States just weeks later and he grew up in Ohio), certainly will make the effort. Kokrak is all about relating. And sharing the praise.

After winning the Houston Open — the second one played at the Tom Doak redesigned and Major geared Memorial Park — on this Sunday with a string of four straight birdies on the back nine, Kokrak credits his caddie in a way that you’d never hear an in his prime Tiger Woods or Bryson DeChambeau credit their caddie. Heck, DeChambeau is more likely to credit his 3D printer than his caddie.

But there Kokrak is, eagerly and enthusiastically giving his caddie David Robinson the love.

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“First and foremost, I’d like to hand it to my caddie D-Rob,” Kokrak says before he even lifts the hefty Houston Open trophy for the first time. “Without him, I’m winless.”

It’s a good thing the humble Kokrak is so willing to share the spotlight. Because if you think Kokrak wining his third PGA tournament is the story from this Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open, you must be running a 1980s-style newspaper. Kokrak makes for a nice enough tale, but the real headline from Houston’s once endangered and still fall banished Tour stop is how the Memorial Park golf course stands up and shows what a beast it can be. It’s about how the tournament that Jim Crane saved continues to powerfully build its case.

To move to the spring into a more favorable spot in the PGA Tour schedule. And eventually, even hold a Major.

“Ten under par for a PGA Tour tournament,” Astros Golf Foundation president Giles Kibbe says of Kokrak’s winning score. “This course is Major championship quality and it held up today.”

“Down the road, maybe we’ll get lucky and have a Major here. The course could handle it. That’s for sure. And I think the PGA realizes that.” — Jim Crane

Jim Crane first told PaperCity about his goal of bringing a U.S. Open or PGA Championship to Memorial Park at last year’s tournament. It’s the type of longterm vision that Crane showed in rebuilding the Astros (as many doubted it would ever be achieved through those 100 loss seasons). And this 2021 tournament marks another important step in that golf progression for Houston’s jewel of a muni course.

The modest 10 under winning score reinforces the idea that Memorial Park is no pushover. But it’s more than that. For this is also the weekend where the Houston Open started to build the rep of its wanna be showcase stadium party hole — that little devil of a par 3 15th. You could see the makings of a future funhouse scene.

With Houston Open tournament director Colby Callaway instituting $1 beers for five minutes every time there’s a birdie on the hole, the more boisterous fans on the grounds quickly discovered a new favorite spot. You even saw fans betting on which caddie would make it first to the green — a trip which requires crossing a little bridge over the creek guarding the hole. Just like they do at the famed TPC Scottsdale’s 16th, the most well known party hole in tournament golf.

When you’re trying to build a special golf tournament from scratch, every step counts. Just like when you’re trying to build a baseball dynasty out of the ruins of a barren farm system.

“Jim Crane wants to have the best event,” Kibbe tells PaperCity. “He’s not going to stop unless we’re No. 1. So. . . that’s Jim. And that’s what we’re going to get to.”

Jason Kokrak won the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open with four consecutive birdies on a 4-hole stretch of Nos. 13 through 16 at Memorial Park Golf Cours
Jason Kokrak won a big check and got to meet golfing Orbit at the Houston Open. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Crane, who built a mammoth shipping empire from a $10,000 loan from his sister after moving to Houston pulling all his possessions in a small U-Haul trailer behind his car, knows something about building things up from the bottom.

On this sunny postcard November Houston Sunday, there are a smattering of fans who shout out, “Pay Correa!” as Crane stands on the 18th green for the trophy ceremony. In some ways, these pleas for the Astros to spend $300 million-plus to retain their own homegrown superstar shortstop shows how far that franchise has come. Now, Crane is trying to bring that sense of ever growing expectations to the Houston Open.

“We’re getting better,” he says of the golf tournament. “We’ll keep working.”

Kibbe and Crane already have a list of things that they feel can be improved for next year’s Houston Open, which is also currently scheduled to be held in November. Making the course harder is not one of them. Though, both men will tell you that Memorial Park could be setup to play even more difficult than it has already if more Major stakes called for such a thing someday.

Memorial Park is No Tame Beast

In a world where regular PGA Tour stops are often won by 20 under par birdie fests, Memorial Park already stands out.

“The way it’s setup and the way the greens are designed, it makes it a little more difficult with less traps,” Crane says when I ask him about the winning score. “But the runoff shots are a lot harder for the pros. . . This course, 10 under is a very good score. You see tournaments where they’re 20-plus under. This is a true test of golf.

“Down the road, maybe we’ll get lucky and have a Major here. The course could handle it. That’s for sure. And I think the PGA realizes that.”

For Crane, who was once rated the No, 1 CEO golfer in the country (in terms of skill) by Golf Digest, this tournament is becoming something of a whole family passion. Besides having his young son out at the course, Crane’s wife Whitney gave some of the public remarks in the trophy ceremony, one of the first times she’s really stepped into the spotlight at an event like this. Wearing a bright orange dress, which her husband’s orange tie matched, Whitney Crane made a point of singling out the fans with full galleries back at Memorial Park for the first time.

In some ways, this 2021 Houston Open showed that local golf fans are eager to embrace having a tournament in the middle of the nation’s fourth largest city. While 10 of Top 30 players in the world competed in this Houston Open, most of the biggest names were long gone by Sunday. Including Brooks Koepka (by far the most recognizable star in the field) and Tony Finau.

But crowds still turned out to see Kokrak — a more low key Top 30 player — surge by Dallas’ Scottie Scheffler, who held a two shot lead with nine holes remaining, and Frenchman Martin Trainer, who briefly grabbed the lead on No. 11.

Of course, some other familiar names did draw some crowd attention.

“What the heck — is that Orbit!?” a kid calls out on No. 18.

Yes, yes, it is. The Astros green alien mascot shows up in an orange driving cap and orange sweater vest. The lesson? People are always happy to see Orbit. And his presence is very fitting for a tournament that is very Houston. One that even has HOU spelled out in big letters in the middle of the back nine.

Which is just one of the Instagram friendly spots you’ll find on this course. When you’re trying to build up a tournament, you need to reach all types of different demographics.

“This is the big party that we were hoping to build and create,” Kibbe says.

The Future of the Houston Open — Springing Forward?

It is a party waged with one eye on the future. Which includes pushing to move out of the more quiet fall portion of the PGA Tour schedule as soon as possible.

“That’s a difficult thing for us,” Kibbe tells PaperCity as the scene on the 18th green starts to disperse. “We got bumped out of the spring when the (former) title sponsor left in 2017 and the tournament was going off the schedule in 2019. So we lost our date. Which was painful.

“Jim stepped up right after that. And the goal is to get it back into the spring. But look, we’ve had phenomenal weather here two years a row in this tournament. It’s beautiful for the fans. It’s great. We’re going to be the best tournament in the fall by far while we’re here in the fall. And if we are able to get into a spring date, we’re going to keep making changes and be one of the best spring events.”

Jason Kokrak won the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open with four consecutive birdies on a 4-hole stretch of Nos. 13 through 16 at Memorial Park Golf Cours
Enthusiastic fans returned in force at this Houston Open. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

You did not have to win a $1.35 million first place check like Kokrak did to leave Memorial Park grinning. Even Jhonattan Vegas, who stumbles to a five over 75 in the final round to tumble all the way down to 26th place, enthusiastically seeks out Jim Crane when he sees him coming off the 18th green. Vegas, who considers Houston his adopted hometown after fleeing Venezuela to come here at age 17, goes out of his way to shake Crane’s hand and mouth, “Thank you.”

Vegas can see where this Houston Open and Memorial Park golf experience is going. It won’t be all that long before other people start seeing it too.

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