Houston, we have a problem.
Nothing on the level of Apollo 13 astronaut John Swigert uttering those famous words to inform the Nasa Mission Control Center that its aircraft was crippled.
And in golf circles, not as severe as the past few seasons when the annual PGA Tour stop to the fourth-largest city in America required an 11th-hour savior to keep it alive.
But it is troubling, nonetheless, that the return of the Houston Open in a new slot as part of the Fall schedule after an 18-month hiatus has attracted just two of the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Henrik Stenson, No. 37, and Keegan Bradley, No. 43, represent the highest ranked players in the field this week at the Rees Jones-designed Tournament Course at Golf Club of Houston, a par 72 tipping out at a beefy 7,441 yards.
Among the most notable absentees is defending champion Ian Poulter, who birdied the 72ndhole to force a sudden-death playoff with Beau Hossler in April 2018 and punched his ticket to Augusta in dramatic fashion. Poulter will instead be teeing it up at the European Tour’s Italian Open. As a two-time winner of the event, Poulter clearly has fond memories there, including hoisting the trophy at Olgiata Golf Club in 2002, the last time it hosted Italy’s national championship. Still, it is rare for a defending champion to skip his title defense. Italy’s favorite golfing son Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose, Shane Lowry and Paul Casey, the 2009 Houston champion, all said arrivederci to Houston.
These defections and an inordinate number of top players choosing to take a breather has turned the Houston Open field into a glorified Korn Ferry Tour stop, albeit one offering a purse of $7.5 million and a berth in the 2020 Masters. Things looked bleaker still when the Tour struggled to replace sponsor Shell, which bowed out in 2017 after a 26-year run, and a tournament that dates to a Byron Nelson victory in 1946 lost its popular pre-Masters warmup slot when the Tour rejiggered its schedule last season. The event was on life support until the Houston Astros Foundation, and more specifically, golf nut Jim Crane, owner of the Astros as well as The Floridian Golf Club, saved the day. This marks the first year of a five-year agreement between the PGA Tour and Houston Astros Foundation, which explains the use of the baseball club’s uniform colors in the tournament’s colorful logo.
The tournament returns to The Golf Club of Houston while a $13.5 million renovation of Memorial Park, just five miles west of Minute Maid Park, where the Astros call home,is completed by Tom Doak and player consultant Brooks Koepka. In what has the potential to be a game-changer for Houston municipal golf, the Astros Golf Foundation has committed to making an annual donation of $500,000 to The First Tee, and beginning in 2020, an annual contribution of $1 million to the city for the benefit of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and Memorial Park Conservancy.
Until then, expect golfers to endure one more year of nightmares over the eight-acre lake running adjacent to the left side of the par-4, finishing hole at Golf Club of Houston, which was dubbed the “Big Ball Washer,” by a caddie after his player deposited a tee shot in the lake in rounds one, two and three of the 2006 tournament, the first year the tournament was played there. Tour veteran Robert Garrigus, who has rinsed 11 balls at 18 since 2006, knows how it can be a round ruiner all too well. All told, the 18th hole at GC of Houston has yielded the second most balls in the water on the final hole on Tour with 656, which ensures that no lead is safe until the leader survives one final test.