Culture / Sporting Life

Jim Crane Pushes For Some Houston Open Drama With Signature Stadium Hole — Making the Bayou City’s Saved Tour Stop Even Better

$34 Million in Memorial Park Improvements (and Counting) That Go Far Beyond Golf

BY // 09.21.21

Jim Crane used to be the top rated CEO golfer in the country — and he’s certainly the best golfer who owns a Major League Baseball team today. Few business tycoons know more about golf than Crane. What Crane may know even more about is pushing for more.

So when Tom Doak and Brooks Koepka started redesigning Houston’s Memorial Park Golf Course so that it could stand up to the PGA Tour stars of today, Crane made one very specific request.

“One of the things that Jim asked was for us to have one hole that has a really dramatic effect,” Astros Golf Foundation president Giles Kibbe details. “One of the finishing holes. And for us to showcase that hole throughout the tournament. And we’ve done that with 15.

“Fifteen is a very short par 3. It’s 145 yards stretched out to the limits. So the PGA Tour players are hitting wedges to that hole. . .  Balls go into the water. It’s a tough one.”

It is a hole that will produce plenty of drama when the Houston Open returns the week of November 8 through November 14. Particularly with massive grandstands built around the sloping green — including a double decker seating section on one side. The setup will be reminescent of the famed 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale during the Phoenix Open, the biggest and loudest party hole on the entire Tour.

Yes, the 15th at the Houston Open will be quite a scene.

“It’s the biggest pursue in the fall. It’s the best city of any event they’re playing. It’s the best golf course.” — Giles Kibbe on the Houston Open’s star drawing power.

Of course, the entire Houston Open will be super energized this year, the first year it’s back at Memorial Park without COVID crowd restrictions in place. (The tournament expects to be able to welcome full capacity crowds.) More than $34 million has been poured into this Memorial Park golf complex since Crane stepped in and saved Houston’s only PGA Tour event from extinction three years ago.

Jim Crane Houston Open jacket
Astros owner Jim Crane is all in on the Houston Open and making his city a force in the PGA world. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

The outlay is similar to the huge influx of money that went back into Minute Maid Park once Crane bought the Astros — and you can see its mark everywhere on one of the last (hopefully) truly scorching days of the Houston year. In fact, a tournament preview for the sponsors and the media is held in the permanent open-sided tent-like building that serves as a priceless resource for the First Tee of Greater Houston.

There is a full artificial putting green under the big fans of the tent  for the First Tee kids to practice on and four par 3 practice holes where they can work on chipping and other skills of the game right outside. Near Memorial Park’s 10th hole, you can also now see the 18 and 1/2 tennis courts that have been completed at the completely revamped tennis center. Closer to the pro shop, the Chevron Center for Education and Golf — the plush two-story building that serves as the pro golfers’ clubhouse during Houston Open week — is fully activated with local kids learning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects.

A lot of money’s been poured into this complex to make it much more than just a place where weekend duffers can enjoy one of the better munis in America.

Jim Crane and a Major Memorial Vision

This is a major setting waiting for its first Major. Jim Crane told PaperCity last fall how he hopes to bring a U.S. Open or PGA Championship to Memorial Park in the future. Kibbe and Crane are also working to see the Houston Open moved to a more advantageous spring spot on the PGA Tour calendar in the near future. In the meantime, they have managed to make the Houston Open a draw for some of golf’s biggest stars. In November when many of those stars prefer to be at home resting up. Or watching football.

Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka and Hideki Matsuyama all played the Houston Open last year (and all finished in the Top 5 behind unlikely first-time PGA Tour winner Carlos Ortiz). Kibbe is already hinting at a similar star-studded field with the tournament still six weeks out (players have until a week before a Tour event to officially commit).

In many ways, the Houston Open is golf’s Great Fall Miracle.

“We’re the biggest fall event on Tour,” Kibbe says when I ask him about the Houston Open’s star pull. “We think we’re in the best location for a fall event. Our goal is obviously to get back to the spring once a date opens up. But until then we’re going to be a big part of the fall and all the players are going to support it.

“. . . Players now know they need to play in the fall. And when they’re looking at the list. It’s the biggest pursue in the fall. It’s the best city of any event they’re playing. It’s the best golf course. This is the place where they’re going to want to play.”

The Houston Open also has Jim Crane, which means it’s always going to be pushing to become even better. That means the addition of a concert series at Minute Maid Park during the tournament this year. Country music star Jake Owen will play Minute Maid on Friday, November 12 (the night of the second round) while electronic music star Kygo and country voice Walker Hayes will take the stage on Saturday, November 13 after the third round at Memorial Park.

All to make the Houston Open even more of an event — and build that party vibe.

On this hot September day, an early look at No. 15 provides a sense of just what is coming. Parts of the huge grandstands around the green are already up and a number of workers are out in the sun putting up even more. This will be one of the most dramatic scenes in golf. A loud caldron of fun — and pressure if you are teeing off with a shot at the lead.

“This year we’ve created a stadium atmosphere,” Kibbe says. “So we have bleachers and hospitality tents surrounding the hole, all around it. They’re going up now. It’s going to be very loud. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s a dramatic shot into a small green. Balls will be rolling off, possibly going into the water.

“They’ll be a lot of birdies and a lot of bogeys and double bogeys.”

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