Culture / Sporting Life

Jim Crane Envisions Bringing a U.S. Open or PGA Championship to Memorial Park After Picture Perfect Houston Open — Fans Call for George Springer

Tournament's Beyond Successful Return Could Open Up Major Possibilities in the Future

BY // 11.08.20

The fan calls out from just off the 18th green as Jim Crane prepares for a trophy moment. “Jim Crane! Pay Springer! Give him what he wants! Pay Springer!” No sports owner in recent Houston times has done more than Jim Crane. But delivering the Houston Astros’ first championship ever and saving the Houston Open golf tournament does not stop fans from always wanting more.

So yes, Crane gets a few people shouting at him to resign George Springer, the iconic Astro who’s a free agent, while he’s at Memorial Park for a golf tournament. That’s to be expected. It goes with the territory — and Crane’s never been one to just say some empty platitudes to the media to appease fans.

Besides this is a day to celebrate the beyond successful return of the Houston Open to within the city limits. Carlos Ortiz of Mexico will go into the books as the official winner of this 2020 Houston Open. And Ortiz gets to take the $1.26 million first place check home.

But the true winners just may be Memorial Park, this reimagined Tom Doak designed $34 million course that more than stands up to the world’s best, the city of Houston and local golf fans. For year one of the Houston Open’s return to Memorial Park goes so well that it already raises the possibility of even grander things in the future.

“I’m always thinking big,” Crane says. “We think we could set this course up to be a U.S . Open or a PGA (Championship) or something. That would really be fun. But that will take a little time.”

This first Houston Open at Memorial Park in 57 years benefits from the fact that the coronavirus rescheduled Masters is next week. But if that helps bring the big names to Houston, the golf course more than stands up to moment. Long before Ortiz birdies 16 and 18 to beat the No. 1 ranked player in the world, Dustin Johnson, and a late charging Hideki Matsuyama (who shoots a final round 63) by two shots, Memorial Park proves it’s much, much more than some silly season golf course.

It’s championship worthy. In fact, Memorial Park’s fast greens and approach shot challenges are daunting enough that PGA Tour officials never even come close to setting up the course to play at its full length. That would be too difficult the week before The Masters.

It turns out this Memorial Park muni has more championship level bite to still show. Someday. A day that you can be certain that Crane and Astros Golf Foundation president Giles Kibbe are already methodically building towards.

“We always like to think big,” Crane says in a private interview on the side after the public trophy presentation. “It’d be great to have a Major here  in Houston at one point if we can earn it.”

The Jim Crane Way

Crane, a rare true self-made billionaire, has a way of getting audacious dreams done. Many did not think the Houston Open could be saved at all before the Astros owner stepped in. Now, just one tournament into its return to being played within the city, it’s already drawing some serious golf buzz.

“It’s turned out better than I could have imagined,” says four-time Major winner Brooks Koepka, who made a sizzling front nine run at the lead before settling for back-to-back 65s and a tie for fifth place at 8 under overall.

Koepka is talking about the Memorial Park course itself. But many of the PGA Tour players also left impressed with Houston — and the first class way the event was run. This did not feel like just another forgettable fall tournament.

“The volunteers treated us amazing this week,” Ortiz says.

Calos Ortiz wins the 2020 Vivint Houston Open, Sunday November 8, 2020. Fourth and final round action,
Could Memorial Park one day host a Major? Jim Crane thinks so. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It helps that Crane is the rare rich guy who not only enjoys golf but also understands what it takes to play the game at a very high level. A near scratch golfer, Crane was rated the No. 1 CEO golfer in the country by Golf Digest back when the publication still did those rankings. And his love for the game comes through on this day.

Crane changes into a sports jacket and dress pants for the trophy ceremony. This is not just some regular sports coat either. The Houston Open logo is strikingly showcased in the interior lining. Crane’s wife Whitney is right there with him for the trophy presentation, too. At one point, Crane even calls the couple’s young son, James Robert Crane II, over. This golf tournament isn’t just another business venture for Jim Crane. It’s something personal, too.

It clearly meant something to Crane to have a PGA Tour event back inside the city of Houston. He gets a kick out of the fact that any golfer with the patience to get a tee time can enjoy this championship level course, too. During the trophy fun, Crane jokes to Ortiz that “It’s $38, come back anytime.”

That is the modest greens fee required to play Houston’s reimagined municipal golf course jewel.

“We got a lot of compliments,” Crane says when I ask if he received any feedback from the coronavirus limited crowd while walking around the course. “A lot of it was change from what people are used to. It’s really setup to be a PGA course now. The setup. The length of the course. Some of the hazards. The finishing holes.”

By the time the sun set on Memorial Park Sunday night, many of the big names in the field — including Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka — are already in the air on private jets speeding to Augusta. But the Houston impact of this successful return will go on for years. Right into a Major golf future.

“Today was the first test of that,” Crane says. “And we’re glad we passed that.”

Houston’s golf future suddenly looks brighter — and possibly bigger — than ever. Jim Crane’s shining the light. Don’t be surprised if others start following.

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