As the PGA Tour leaves Austin and the spotlight on the dire Lions Muny situation there--Adam Schupak at MorningRead.com filed a nice look at the place and the fight--we at least get to hear a happier story in Houston this week.
Under the leadership of Steve Timms, President/CEO of the Houston Golf Association, the organization has turned the Shell Houston Open into a must-play tour stop for many pre-Masters. They are behind the effort to save Gus Wortham Park Golf Course, a potential model for other communities.
In year 16 as tournament director, I asked Steve to answer a few questions about how they structured the effort to save Wortham and also the upcoming end to Shell's run as sponsor. Timms also oversees the largest First Tee chapter in the U.S.
Given the importance of this topic in so many cities across the land, we all know how important it is to hear from those successfully tackling this vital issue for golf. Oh, and to see the project underway!
GS: Explain how the Houston Golf Association got into the management and renovation effort at Gus Wortham, and the role Shell Oil Company played?
ST: In 2014, Houston Golf Association (HGA) assumed operations of F.M. Law Park Golf Course, taking over maintenance and turning the public golf course into a dedicated The First Tee (TFT) Facility. That same year, we learned about a proposal to turn the historic Gus Wortham Park Golf Course into a botanic garden. As advocates and stewards of the game, we felt it was our duty to help save this golf course and restore it to its former glory.
Houston Golf Association, backed by the financial engine of the Shell Houston Open (and Shell Oil Company), was in a position to pursue a solution to manage and operate the courses, raising private funds as a nonprofit self supporting enterprise to maintain facility quality for years to come. Given our proven track record maintaining F.M. Law Park Golf Course, City Council unanimously approved a resolution that Gus Wortham would remain a public golf course operated by the HGA. As we approached our second fundraising milestone needed to initiate the construction start, Shell Oil Company stepped up to provide funds needed for the proposed community center.
GS: Is the non-profit model for this much-needed work something you see as repeatable in other cities with tired courses or is this unique to Houston?
ST: The original non-profit model was implemented in Baltimore in the late 80s. We feel that this model is applicable in other cities because it has six main benefits:
1) Lessens the financial burden on the government
2) Sets up a sustainable business model (long-term operating lease agreement in our case)
3) Allows for private fundraising to upgrade the facilities
4) Allows cash flow generated from the facilities to be reinvested back into the facilities (by design as a nonprofit)
5) Improves accessibility of affordable golf, and in our case, extends our youth programs (The First Tee of Greater Houston and HGA Junior Golf) into more underserved communities
6) Acts as economic development stimulus in the surrounding communities (in our case, Houston’s East End)
GS: Are you looking at ways to revitalize the other city courses?
ST: Yes. We have developed an overall master plan for four additional facilities that’s currently being evaluated. We are also proposing the establishment of a new The First Tee location on an old golf course property, Inwood Forest, whose land is owned by the City of Houston.
GS: What has been the most difficult aspect for your organization in getting this restoration/revitalization effort going?
ST: In January 2015, we signed the contract with the city and were required to raise $5M by the end of that year -- a time period that was challenging for fundraising. Now, with our fundraising needs met, we are experiencing the normal challenges of any organization involved in a major, multi-phase construction project. We are seeing great progress though and are excited about the project’s eventual completion later this year.
GS: From your perspective, what are some of the best ways to “grow the game” and attract new junior golfers?
ST: We think it’s important to attract young people and pique their interest in golf at an early age. Through The First Tee of Greater Houston, we reach almost 300,000 students in 455 schools throughout Houston. Access and affordability are also important in trying to foster interest. Public golf courses serve as a key expansion of our The First Tee program into underserved communities. These courses, when revitalized, can provide kids from every walk of life with a place to practice, grow their skills and move into competitive opportunities like our HGA Junior Golf program.
GS: Have you seen any impact from the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship in the Houston area?
ST: We are proud of our two The First Tee participants, Ariana Saenz and Bella Saenz. Ariana qualified for the Drive, Chip and Putt in 2015. Now her sister is following in her footsteps. Bella is headed to Augusta to participate in the 2017 competition. The fact that they are sisters has certainly generated a lot of buzz and excitement in our community.
GS: What is the hoped-for best case scenario for the Shell Houston Open going forward as it looks for a sponsor and the PGA Tour potentially juggles the schedule in a few years?
ST: As our 26-year partnership with Shell wraps up, we are continuing to work hard to secure a new title sponsor that will help us continue to do so much in our community. We have enjoyed success with our date before the Masters and hope to keep that date on the schedule, which is dictated by the PGA Tour.
**We discussed this effort on Morning Drive today.