It’s before 5 p.m. on a Monday in January, and the parking lot at Memorial Park Golf Course is nearly full. The same goes for the lighted practice range, where golfers of all ages and ability levels cycle through hitting bays and whack balls until long after the sun goes down.
It’s nearly dark before the last groups of players complete the 18-hole course in the heart of Houston, which sees more traffic than most courses around the country. Close to 64,000 rounds were played at Memorial Park during the 2018 fiscal year, when the facility raked in more than $3.7 million in revenue.
“It’s a good thing that we have here right now,” said Jonathan Hassler, who tees off at Memorial Park at least twice per month. “It’s a good course and fun to play.”
The 83-year-old course will soon be revamped, and no one else will play it for several months.
The Houston City Council on Wednesday approved a plan to renovate Memorial Park Golf Course, with the goal of having it host the PGA Tour’s Houston Open beginning in 2020. The course will close Thursday and is expected to reopen in October, with the practice range, putting green and Beck’s Prime restaurant slated to remain open for most of that time.
The Astros Golf Foundation, which has underwritten the Houston Open since Shell dropped its longtime sponsorship in 2017, has pledged more than $13 million to cover renovation costs. World-renowned course architect Tom Doak has been enlisted to overhaul the property.
The project, supported by Mayor Sylvester Turner, will bring the Houston Open inside the city limits for the first time in nearly 40 years and is expected to have an annual economic impact to the city of at least $50 million. The Houston Parks and Recreation Department, which operates Memorial Park and four other 18-hole municipal courses, will receive $1 million per year as part of the privately-funded plan.
“I think it’s great they’re pouring some money into it,” said Cinco Ranch resident Kevin Rodriguez, who often practices at Memorial Park. “They’re also helping some other parks in the process. I think it’s a good thing.”
Not all Memorial Park frequenters are fans of the plan, which at some point will require closure of the practice range to replace it with a two-tiered facility that also will be lighted. And while the course will be longer, lusher and more challenging when it reopens, players will be forced to spend more than the current average cost of about $40 to play it.
The city, in a move it says is unrelated to the renovation of Memorial Park Golf Course, has decided to increase green fees at all of its municipal courses for the first time since 2010. It is unclear how much the fees will increase.
“It’s just a shame,” Copperfield resident Lynn Killingsworth said before using the range Tuesday evening. “We already have plenty of unaffordable, high-priced golf courses.”
Longtime Memorial Park player Mike Tolson welcomes a fee increase, saying it’s necessary to elevate the course and accompanying facilities to PGA Tour standards. He said the venue needs to expand and upgrade its clubhouse.
Upon completion of the redesign, Tolson said Memorial Park also needs to reduce course traffic.
“It’s great for the city, it’s great for the Memorial Park Golf Course, but they’ve got to drastically increase the green fees,” Tolson said. “Otherwise, it’s ridiculous. You can’t have a PGA Tour-worthy course and charge $25 to play it or $50 to play it. And you can’t let it be just beaten to death.”
For better or worse, a popular part of Houston’s golf scene will soon be forever changed. The plan is to make the course more suited for the best players in the world while also making it more attractive to local players.
But those who already make Memorial Park their home course don’t want it to lose its allure. They’ll find out for sure in about 10 months.
“If it improves the golf course overall, and it justifies the increase in value, OK. I don’t have an issue with it,” Hassler said. “But if that’s not the case, I’ll be pretty disappointed.”