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Houston Open could return to Memorial Park Golf Course if council approves renovations

January 1, 2019

The Houston Open golf tournament would return to Houston in 2020 if local officials approve a nearly $14 million plan to renovate the Memorial Park Golf Course to meet professional standards.

Funding for the project would come from the Astros Golf Foundation and would not result in higher fees for Memorial Park, according to city officials. The foundation would pay $1 million in annual tournament fees to the Memorial Park Conservatory and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“Public-private partnerships are crucial forces behind what makes us Houston Strong,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a recent statement.

Turner praised Astros owner Jim Crane, who helped spearhead the project, for “working so generously to make a dream come true for the public, golf fans everywhere and the economic development of Houston.”

If approved by the Houston City Council at its meeting Wednesday, the Memorial Park course would shut down for work Monday until it is reopened in Fall 2019.

The course would then host the 2020 Houston Open, marking the first time in more than a decade that the major tournament has been played in the Houston city limits.

Memorial Park hosted the Houston Open from 1951 through 1963, but the Professional Golf Association tournament moved to other locations, including The Woodlands until 2002 and then The Golf Club of Houston near Humble since 2003.

The future of the local tournament came into question after Shell Oil ended its 26-year sponsorship — the third-oldest on the PGA tour at that point — in 2017. Crane stepped forward after the Houston Golf Association struggled to find another sponsor.

The Houston Open each year has drawn thousands of golf fans across the decades since it opened in 1946. The HGA was founded that year and has distributed more than $70 million to local charities over the years.

The tournament has typically been played in late March, but beginning this year will tee off in October at the Humble-area course.

Not everyone is sold on the project, though. On Monday afternoon, hoards of golfers were still at the course, trying to sneak in a last round before the new year — and before the possible months-long shutdown.

Golfer Norman Schneider finished up his last round of the year at the course he’s played for decades. The 77-year-old retiree used to work as a marshal there, he said, and the sentimental value keeps him coming back.

“At first I was disappointed and upset,” he said of the proposed closure. “This course has got a lot of memories.”

But he said the upgrades may be worth the temporary sacrifice. The proposal includes plans for a two-story driving range at the course, a new and relocated maintenance facility, and changes to the course that would put it in accordance with PGA standards for tournament play.

“I’m just anxious to see what they do,” he said.

Others agreed the proposed upgrades might be worth the temporary closure.

Ramona Pullin, 55, said she plays Memorial Park at least once a month. Her official stance on the proposal? “Mixed.”

“I’m going to miss the course,” she said.

Houston’s four other public courses will remain open, but Pullin said Memorial is “by far” the best in the city. She worried that the potential closure might crowd other city courses.

Still, she said she’s willing to sacrifice if it means a better course in the future.

Non-golfers said the same.

“It’s going to be awesome,” said Lionel Collins, general manager of Beck’s Prime, a restaurant at the course. He said the chain has enough local franchises to ensure that no one at Memorial Park will lose jobs if the course sees a slowdown in business starting next week.

A spokesperson for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said no layoffs are anticipated, but that some staff will be temporarily relocated to other department jobs.

For Ruth Cassidy, the potential renovations mean ironing out her swing at a new facility. The 57-year-old schoolteacher just started playing, and has frequented Memorial Park’s driving range to work on her game.

“Now I’m going to have to wait,” she said as she nestled a golf shoe onto one foot. But it’s worth it, she said, if the renovations bring more business and attention to Houston without the public footing the bill.

“That’s a win all around,” she said.

robert.downen@chron.com

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