HOUSTON — The font size on the sign that adorns the Memorial Park Golf Course driving range ball dispenser is so large it’s not to be missed. The letters, in bold and all caps, scream at those dropping a token in the slot below:
STRICTLY IRONS ONLY TODAY
This inner-ring Houston municipal golf course’s fancy new driving range — one that resembles a public school version of Topgolf — has yet to allow patrons the opportunity to rear back and take unhealthy cuts with the driver of their choice.
Of course, the sign comes with a backstory. The new double-decker structure was built in advance of this week’s Vivint Houston Open, the first time Memorial Park has welcomed a PGA Tour event since John F. Kennedy was president, and weekend warriors who frequent the municipal course had been hitting range balls into a neighboring tennis court even before the rebuild. The extended distance capabilities from upper-deck stalls would have made tennis patrons sitting ducks.
The court has since been moved and new netting has been installed in time for this week’s tournament.
But the course’s renaissance, one that has ties to the city’s baseball team, has a million quirky stories similar to that of the tennis court ambushes. For example, longtime Memorial Park patron Carlos Trejo said a creek that’s now one of the defining features was largely hidden under brush and tree cover for decades. Despite playing the course for 30-plus years, Trejo said he was one of many consistent players who had no idea the creek even existed.
“Now it seems like it’s everywhere you turn,” he said. “That just shows you how different this course is now.”
This week, a strong PGA Tour field will witness the rebirth of Memorial Park Golf Course first-hand as a revamped schedule has backed the Vivint Houston Open up against the first-ever fall Masters, meaning the world’s best and brightest are honing their games before the calendar year’s final major. It’s a familiar spot in the batting order — the Houston Open preceded the Masters 10 times from 2007 through 2018 — but in an unfamiliar season.
And while Augusta National’s exclusivity has always been part of its charm, watching PGA Tour pros on a municipal course with greens fees that dip as low as $21 should provide an interesting contrast for golf fans who aren’t privy to private clubs.
Memorial Park is beautiful, thanks to architect Tom Doak’s exhaustive work— a $34 million renovation funded through a foundation headed by Houston Astros’ owner Jim Crane.
But it’s accessible, as well. The price to walk the track — and Trejo insists it was made for walking — never gets higher than $38, even on holidays. And Memorial Park becomes just the second municipal course on the current PGA Tour schedule, the other being Torrey Pines, the host of the Farmers Insurance Open.
For longtime patrons, getting the chance to see world-class golfers in person — and the PGA Tour is allowing 2,500 fans on-site per day for this event — is like a dream come true.
“I wanted to volunteer because I wanted to see how this was gonna work and how these guys would play the same holes I play,” he said. “I mean, this is like finding out your kid’s going to be on national TV. We’ve seen the birth of this from what it was two years ago to what it is now, and it’s just been awesome.”
Memorial Park has always been the crown jewel of the Houston public golf scene. Originally built as a nine-hole course in 1912, an extensive redesign by John Bredemus (who had co-founded the Texas Professional Golfers Association in 1922) led to its “official” 18-hole opening in 1936.
From 1947 to 1963, the course hosted a PGA Tour event 14 times. Arnold Palmer won it once and Jack Nicklaus had a second-place finish. Famously, 1965 PGA Championship winner Dave Marr asked that his ashes be spread at Memorial Park — even though he never won there, he credited the track for shaping his career.
And while it maintained its status as one of the state’s top municipal courses for decades after the Tour left in 1964, the big names were gone, heading like so many other amenities to the suburbs. It appeared Memorial Park’s day as a top-flight course had come and gone.
Ups and downs and the rebirth
The muni was due for a refresh in the 1990s and the city found $7 million to provide an adequate if underwhelming facelift to the property. Then, a few years ago, Astros’ owner Jim Crane starting asking about the potential for hosting a PGA Tour event at Memorial. The Astros Golf Foundation was born.
According to a release from AGF:
The Astros Golf Foundation took ownership of the tournament in 2018 with three key objectives: to ensure the PGA TOUR event remained in Houston, to bring the tournament back to its glory and into the heart of the city, and to provide much-needed resources and funds to the citizens and community of Houston through park improvements, charitable fundraising and investing in youth. These objectives were achieved through a $34 million renovation to Memorial Park Golf Course completed in two years. The renovations include an upgrade of the municipal course to PGA Tour standards, construction of a short course for First Tee participants, an expanded driving range, and a new clubhouse that will serve First Tee Houston programming throughout the year.
The city of Houston approved a plan to allow for the renovation, and in January of 2019 the work began in earnest. Doak was brought in as the architect and Brooks Koepka provided input on the course’s revamped design, focusing on a tough closing stretch that should make for climactic tournament golf.
Some 10 months later, the renovation was complete and local players were introduced to a new version of an old friend.
“It was a completely different course,” Trejo said. “They took a bunch of trees out and it changed the way the course played and looked. It used to be when you played here, you kind of forgot you were in the city. They took those trees out, and now you can see everything. They just knocked it out of the park.”
Jhonattan Vegas, who is playing this week’s event on a sponsor’s exemption, lives just north of the city in The Woodlands, and he’s long been a backer of the Memorial Park project.
“Nearly everyone I have spoken to, they have asked me about the course,” Vegas told the Houston Chronicle. “I tell them it’s a championship course, a new golf course that has some growing up to do, but it’s going to be a phenomenal venue. You combine that with right in the middle of the city where guys and their families are going to have a great time, you’re going to have guys coming back.”
And to Vegas’ point, the city’s towering skyline is noticeable throughout the walk. For example, the 64-story Williams Tower is clearly visible from the first tee box, a striking but sensible image on a course that sees about 60,000 rounds per year.
Many of the pros on hand for Tuesday’s practice round were getting their first look at Memorial Park. Scottie Scheffler was asked for his take on the course, and the former University of Texas star said he expects the ride to be a fun one.
“I have not been around this place yet. My caddie went around the front nine, he said the greens are real undulated and very firm. When you put in new Bermuda, it’s extremely firm and I’m assuming that’s what the greens on the course are going to be like because the course is pretty much
brand new,” Scheffler said. “So I think it will be challenging hitting approach shots into these greens just the way they’ll be bouncing and it should be a fun, exciting week.”