Publisher’s Note: Here’s a quick personal story. In my sophomore year of college, about a quarter century ago, I officially became a journalism major with one goal in mind. I wanted to become a golf writer. Turns out, those jobs are scarce, and the business of running media is much more appealing these days. Regardless, a recent outing to the newly renovated Memorial Park has brought my career full circle.
When the city of Houston, the Houston Golf Association and the Astros Golf Foundation announced plans in May 2018 that they would move the Houston Open to Memorial Park, I bristled at the idea. For that matter, I wrote about my displeasure with an angry keyboard.
“I’m a golf nut. I love the game, and I love it when I get the chance to play (PGA) Tour courses,” I wrote that same month. “I’m not sure Memorial Park should become one.”
Last week, for the first time since the course was renovated by famed architect Tom Doak and player consultant Brooks Koepka, I had the chance to play Memorial. By-and-large, I was completely wrong when I questioned the decision.
When the grass takes root, when the greens settle, and when the sand packs and the clubhouse is leveled and rebuilt, Memorial Park Golf Course will become one of the most prized possessions inside the walls of the 610 Loop. Good for Mayor Sylvester Turner for giving his endorsement. Good for the Houston City Council for approving the project. Good (and thanks) to Jim Crane, the Astros owner, for providing the cash. And, more than anything, good for Doak and Koepka for creating a golf course Tour players will enjoy and average golfers like me will stand in line to play.
No, the course is not perfect, and some of the changes required to host a Tour event diminished wonderful characteristics of the 83-year-old course, but for those Houston residents who love the game and accessibility of Memorial Park, we’re the winners.
Tom Doak, who has designed courses like The Renaissance Club in Gullane, Scotland, Pacific Dunes in Bandon, Oregon, and Streamsong (Blue) in Florida, had two things to keep in mind while renovating Memorial. First, he had to make the course more viewer-friendly. If Memorial is to host a PGA Tour event, it also must have places for galleries to observe.
To do that, Doak had to remove a lot of trees, which will make the huggers angry. But what Doak really did is remove the rubbish and leave the prodigious trees that shape the 600-acre tract. And what he did even better was use those powerful oaks and pines to shift shot shapes, subtly change holes and create frames to holes that didn’t exist before.
Above all else, Doak’s use of the trees to create a better course was utter genius. Where one oak got lost in a forest of saplings on No. 2, now that powerful tree stands guard over a revamped green.
And speaking of greens, the complexes Doak created have drastically changed the course for the better. Gone are many of the greenside bunkers that are minced meat to professionals and nightmares for the amateurs. Instead, Doak (with Koepka’s advice) created run-off areas of shaved grass that test the top players and allow amateurs two or three options to recover from a missed green.
Doak also must have taken a page from Pinehurst when he rebuilt the greens, where some of the edges (not all, like Pinehurst No. 2) are turtle-backs that penalize short or long shots.
But what I found most wonderful about the revamped greens was that the entries to nearly every green allow for run-up shots, while the backs of the greens are more penal. It’s a brilliant decision because most amateurs are going to leave approach shots short, and more pros will be aggressive toward pins and tend to miss shots long. For the pros, that means they’ll either back off of approach shots, leaving longer birdie putts, or they’ll face all sorts of contours, uneven lies and some thick rough behind the greens. Meanwhile, amateurs can take a putter, 7-iron, hybrid or wedge and still have a chance at saving par.
Another drastic change Doak made – for the good of the playing public – was removing water hazards that caught the shots of amateurs but would have fazed professionals not a single bit.
On No. 1, there is no water to the left of the fairway. On No. 6, it’s bombs away down the fairway, where there are more contours in the earth, but no water forcing a layup. Other than the third shot on No. 16, I don’t think there’s a forced carry anywhere on the course (excluding the par 3s), and that will make Memorial a better course for amateurs.
Last, Doak used streams and new water features to greatly enhance the aesthetics of Memorial Park.
While I don’t like what he did on No. 15 (more on that later), he changed No. 2 from a flip par 3 into a gorgeous hole where a ravine gives a rugged appearance. His use of water on No. 16, cutting in front of the green, forces players to make a tough decision, because even the layup is difficult. And the best use of water came on No. 17, where I’m assuming the pros will get forward tee boxes on a couple of days and have a chance to drive the par 4. Doak converted this hole into a winding snake around a lake, with the fairway sloping toward the water. In comparison to the old hole, this one now has a charming personality.
Nearly every negative thing about Memorial Park has nothing to do with the redesign or the new concept of the course. But let’s go there first.
The signature hole – the one they put on scorecards and websites – was the 15th, a reasonable par 3 that could require a difference of three or four clubs based on pin position and the wind. The lake in front of the green, with a brick bulkhead harassing shots just short, paralyzed amateurs in the most placid way possible. From the back tees, this hole was a monster.
Gone, now, is that lake, replaced by a stream that seems to serve no purpose. I assume the Houston Open tournament director will shave the mound in front of the green, repelling short shots into the stream, but this hole lost its allure in the redesign. It’s now a benign par 3 that no one will mention when they leave the course.
The other ho-hum design change was No. 13, once a boring par 5 that is now a boring par 4. This hole will be driveable for the pros, no matter which tees they use, and it’s always fun to have a short par 4 (the course now has at least two of them). But what makes the best short par 4s (like No. 17), is there’s a defined risk to go with the reward. I didn’t find any risk in No. 13.
In terms of pace-of-play, Memorial used to be a course that could be had in just under four hours. Those days may be long gone for two reasons. First, the change in the green complexes (removing bunkers and adding more run-offs) may have taken the headaches of sand away. However, amateurs are going to struggle with the new way of playing chip shots. Many are going to have balls rejected back to their feet. Others are going to pull out a lob wedge and skink it across to the other side. That’s going to add more time to rounds.
Second, three of the four – if not all four – par 5s on the course are reachable for the decent golfers, and there are a lot of those who play Memorial. What Doak did in this renovation is tempt a whole bunch of amateurs to sit in the middle of the fairway from 240 yards thinking they can reach the par 5s in two, when they really have no chance of doing so. That means groups are going to wait on tees, and other groups from the previous hole will be in their carts, waiting on the group that hasn’t hit, which is waiting on the group in the fairway that will probably chunk a 3-wood 150 yards and still have a 140-yard third shot. That design change has likely added 20 minutes to most rounds.
Every other negative takeaway from Memorial has absolutely nothing to do with the design.
For starters, the course should not be open to the public right now. The grass is thin, and only getting thinner with the number of amateurs hacking up the place. The reason the course is open is because the PGA Tour requires tournament courses be open for a year before playing an event. So the Astros Golf Foundation and the city had no choice but to open the course for play. I think it’s going to make for a bad experience next year when the pros arrive, with thin grass and normal wear-and tear.
The greens, naturally, need another year to settle before they’re true, but that will happen, and it shouldn’t be a negative.
Next, one of the things Doak boasted about was the layer of sand underneath the grass now, which will help the course drain from normal rains in Houston. But I don’t think they sanded under the rough, where there was standing water from the morning sprinklers still there late in the afternoon. There are likely more projects to be completed, and it’s a sure bet the fairways will be fast and dry, but the new runoffs may be muddy long after the rains have passed.
For amateurs, the tee time process is no better than before, and even a little worse. Tee times can now be obtained through an online system that opens at 6 a.m. three days in advance. We played on a Wednesday afternoon (don’t most people work?), and we logged onto the tee time website at 6 a.m. on the Sunday before. By 6:03 a.m. (a full three minutes), there wasn’t a tee time before 4 p.m. remaining. Maybe that’s not a negative, but it will still be difficult to play Memorial.
And last, golfers or Beck’s Prime customers now have to pay $1 for every three hours of parking. I guess that’s not the end of the world, but I kind of left with a “why?” look on my face with the automated toll booths. Guess they need to pay for the course somehow.
If the worst part of the course is the tee times (hello capitalism) and the parking lot, that means Doak, Crane and the city of Houston hit a home run. Memorial Park, when it grows and settles and gets its last coat of lipstick, will be the prize of the city. Well done.