HOUSTON – Here in the nation’s fourth-largest city, museums devoted seemingly to just about every topic abound. Art, history and natural sciences are prominent themes. Shrines dedicated to artistic cars, pioneering black soldiers, printing, space flight, funerals and beer cans round out an eclectic mix. And much of it is centered in the aptly named Museum District, on the city’s near southwest side.
However, there is one glaring omission among the cultural cache: golf.
If there were such a thing as a Houston golf museum, Memorial Park Golf Course would be the place to house it. Lifelong resident Bill Pelham might even be its curator.
Both stand out as gracefully aging institutions in the Houston golf community, with their competitive lineage reaching back decades to the PGA Tour. Memorial Park once hosted the Tour; Pelham used to play the Tour.
This week, the PGA Tour returns to Houston for the 71st time, but under a cloud of uncertainty. Hometown giant Shell Oil pulled out as the title sponsor after last year, and the tournament needs a new backer.
Pelham, sitting in the Memorial Park grill on a recent weekday morning, knows better than most observers how the loss of the Tour stop would affect Houston.
“You would lose the exposure to great players,” said Pelham, 68, who played in five Houston Opens while on Tour in the 1970s-’80s. “Kids can be inspired by that. I was inspired by going to Memorial Park and watching Arnold Palmer play golf, and later [Jack] Nicklaus. If you lose that, then you lose the ability of the kids of Houston to see that on an annual basis. I think that’s a big loss.”
Of course, any loss in Houston and the region these days must be measured against the toll from Hurricane Harvey. After five days of biblical rain – upwards of 50 inches on Aug. 26-30 – the storm was attributed to at least 88 deaths and a Katrina-like $125 billion in property damage. Most golf courses have recovered, but a few remain closed and might not reopen.
Brian Buckner, the superintendent at Golf Club of Houston, where the Tournament Course plays host to the Tour, expressed gratitude that his club, in the sprawling northern suburb of Humble, got “only” about 20 inches of rain from Harvey. After helping staff members displaced by the storm, he and his crew focused on debris cleanup and assisting other area courses.
“We were very fortunate,” said Buckner, 43, who is in his third year at the 36-hole club. “A lot of courses in the area stayed underwater for a few weeks. We were back on the course one day later.”
Amazingly, other than the washed-out bunkers, the course was playable within three days. One improvement that viewers will see this week: gleaming new white-quartz sand in the 130 bunkers rebuilt on the two courses.
“A lot of people in Houston lost much more than we did,” said Reese McCall, the club’s director of golf and assistant general manager.
Pelham, who is a member at Golf Club of Houston, accompanied a visitor during a recent round. Tournament organizers tout fast-and-firm conditions and light rough as ideal preparations for next week’s Masters. Two college teams were working out onsite: Texas’ men in a qualifier and Houston’s women on the practice green.
Members mingled with guests on the expansive practice range. Dozens of youngsters from Houston’s First Tee chapter were hitting balls at the adjacent Dick Harmon Learning Center, named for the late instructor and director of golf when GCOH was known as Redstone Golf Club.
Pelham surveyed the activity and lamented the crossroads for his hometown Tour event. “I can’t believe they’re going to leave here. It’s the perfect setup. To lose the fourth-largest market in the country … ,” he said, leaving the thought unfinished. “It’s sure looking like it might happen.”
Not if Steve Timms can help it. Timms, 60, the longtime head of the Houston Golf Association, which plays a key role in the local golf scene and oversees the Houston Open, is focused as the tournament director on this week’s event. But he’s working with the future in mind.
Among the scenarios in play would be to return the Houston Open to its roots at Memorial Park, a 1936 John Bredemus design just west of downtown, near Interstate 10 and within the I-610 loop.
“Our first priority is to get the sponsorship organized and then make a decision with the new sponsor about what we would want to do,” Timms said. “Being in the middle of the city could be attractive. The bones of Memorial Park are good,” he said, noting the need for “a significant renovation” to include the practice range, green complexes and making the 393-yard, par-4 18th worthy of a Tour finishing hole.
“It’s doable,” Timms said.
Regardless of whether the Tour returns to Houston after this week, the city will stand as a golf destination. For visitors who might want to sample more than suburbia and the 21st-century brawn of the Golf Club of Houston, Memorial Park and the west/southwest side of town would be a good area to start.
Hugo's features a hearty Arroz a la Tumbada, which loosely translated means “rice tossed together,” typically with the catch of the day. The jambalaya-like concoction is described on the menu as “rich brothy rice, chicken, chorizo, shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams.” (Photo: Steve Harmon)
The Hotel ZaZa offers eclectic boutique lodging in the Museum District as a jumping-off point. In a city of freeways, the 24-mile light-rail network can help ease your travel anxiety. Take the train downtown to Main Street and stop at the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium, which houses an out-of-this-world variety of domestic and international beers and rivals the Hotel ZaZa in outlandishness. If you’re so inclined, sample 200 different craft beers and join the Ring of Honor to get your name on one of the thousands of plates that adorn the walls and ceilings. Just don’t try it all at once.
With your thirst quenched, Uber over to Westheimer Road in the Montrose district for Mexican fare at Hugo’s. Don’t expect standard Tex-Mex grub. Chef Hugo Ortega creates authentic central Mexican cuisine in an upscale setting. If you’re into ink, consider commemorating the occasion at one of the nine tattoo parlors in a six-block section. Don’t ask why. Nobody else seems to know, either.
On the trip home – naturally, a steady rain fell as my plane taxied at Hobby International Airport – I confirmed that Pelham literally wrote the book on Houston golf, at least the part about Champions Golf Club and co-founders Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke. In the whimsical “Burke and Demaret: The Wit and Wisdom of Golf’s Most Colorful Duo” (available at BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com), Pelham shares life lessons gleaned from his days as a Champions assistant pro that work on and off the course, courtesy of two Houston golf legends.
For the sake of the city’s golf future, let’s hope that a potential Tour sponsor might have read it. If not, it could be relegated to a spot under glass in a future Houston Golf Museum.
Steve Harmon is the editor of Morning Read. He lives in Longwood, Fla.