S.Jason Kokrak and Jim Crane wait for the Houston Open trophy ceremony to begin in the shade of the huge grandstands around the 18th green and exchange casual small talk between two golfers. Then Kokrak turns to Crane’s little son and asks how old he is.

“Six and a half,” James Crane shoots back. (These halves are important as a parent to any child this age.)

“Six and a half?” Kokrak answers in mock amazement. “I thought you were at least 10.”

That attracts the six and a half year old a sideways glance. Who says a 36-year-old Houston Open champion can’t be relevant to the kids? Often mistaken for a Canadian, Kokrak (he was born in Canada but his family moved to the United States just weeks later and he was raised in Ohio) will surely make the effort. Kokrak is all about the relationship. And share the praise.

After Kokrak won the Houston Open that Sunday – the second played in the redesigned and major-focused Memorial Park by Tom Doak – with a series of four straight birdies on the second nine, Kokrak in a way credits his caddy that you would never hear in his prime attribute Tiger Woods or Bryson DeChambeau to their caddy. Hell, DeChambeau credits his 3D printer more than his caddy.

But there is Kokrak and eagerly and enthusiastically gives love to his caddy David Robinson.

“First of all, I want to give it to my Caddy D-Rob,” says Kokrak, before he lifts the juicy Houston Open trophy for the first time. “Without him, I’m without a win.”

It’s good that the humble Kokrak is so ready to share the spotlight. Because if you think Kokrak is going to win his third PGA tournament, the story of this Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open is, you have to run a 1980s-style newspaper. Kokrak is a nice story, but the real headline on Houston’s once-endangered and still-falling tour stop is how Memorial Park golf course stands up and shows what a beast it can be. It’s about how the tournament that saved Jim Crane continues to forcefully build its case.

To move spring to a more convenient place on the PGA Tour schedule. And eventually even hold a major.

“Ten below average for a PGA Tour tournament,” said Giles Kibbe, president of the Astros Golf Foundation, of Kokrak’s victory point. “This course has major championship quality and has held up to this day.”

“A little further, maybe we’ll be lucky and have a major here. The course could handle it. That’s for sure. And I think the PGA recognized that. ”- Jim Crane

Jim Crane first told PaperCity about his goal of bringing a US Open or PGA Championship to Memorial Park at last year’s tournament. It’s the kind of long-term vision Crane showed in rebuilding the Astros (as many doubted it would ever be achieved in those 100 losing seasons). And this 2021 tournament is another important step in this golf development for Houston’s jewel of a Muni course.

The modest 10 points below the winning point reinforce the idea that Memorial Park is no pushover. But it’s more than that. This is also the weekend that the Houston Open began building the reputation of their wannabe stadium party hole – that little devil of a par 3 15th. You could see what’s a future funhouse scene matters.

With Houston Open tournament director Colby Callaway dropping $ 1 beer for five minutes every time a birdie sounds at the hole, the more exuberant fans quickly discovered a new favorite spot on the grounds. You’ve even seen fans betting on which caddy would make it to the green first – a journey that involves crossing a small bridge over the creek guarding the hole. Just like at the famous TPC Scottsdale’s 16th, the most famous party hole in tournament golf.

When trying to build a special golf tournament from scratch, every step counts. Just like trying to build a baseball dynasty out of the ruins of a barren farm system.

“Jim Crane wants the best event,” Kibbe tells PaperCity. “He’s not going to stop unless we’re number 1. So. . . this is jim. And we will achieve that. “

Jason Kokrak won a major check and met the golfer Orbit at the Houston Open. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Crane, who built a huge shipping empire from a $ 10,000 loan from his sister after moving to Houston and moving all of his belongings in a small U-Haul trailer behind his car, knows something about how to do things from scratch can build on.

On this sunny November Sunday postcard in Houston there are a few fans screaming, “Pay Correa!” Crane is on the 18th green for the award ceremony. In a way, these requests to the Astros to spend more than $ 300 million to keep their own local superstar shortstop show just how far this franchise has come. Now Crane is trying to bring that sense of ever-increasing expectations to the Houston Open.

“We’re getting better,” he says of the golf tournament. “We’ll keep working.”

Kibbe and Crane already have a list of things they think can be improved for next year’s Houston Open, which is currently also slated to take place in November. Making the course more difficult is not one of them. However, both men will tell you that Memorial Park could be set up to make it even more difficult to play if one day more major stakes require something like that.

Memorial Park is not a tame animal

In a world where regular PGA tour stops are often won by 20 under par birdie fests, Memorial Park already stands out.

“The setup and design of the greens make it a little more difficult with fewer traps,” says Crane when I ask him about the winning points. “But the runoff shots are much more difficult for the professionals. . . This course, 10 under, is a very good score. They see tournaments where they are less than 20 years old. This is a real golf test.

“A little further, maybe we’ll be lucky and have a major here. The course could handle it. That’s for sure. And I think the PGA recognized that. “

Once named the country’s # 1 CEO golfer (in terms of skill level) by Golf Digest, Crane has made this tournament a family passion. In addition to showing off his young son on the court, Crane’s wife Whitney also showed off some of the public statements at the trophy ceremony, one of the first times she’s really stepped into the spotlight at an event like this. Wearing a bright orange dress that matched her husband’s orange tie, Whitney Crane made a point of making fans stand out with full galleries in Memorial Park for the first time.

In a way, this Houston Open 2021 showed that local golf fans are eager to host a tournament right in the middle of the fourth largest city in the country. By the time 10 of the top 30 players in the world competed at this Houston Open, most of the biggest names were long gone by Sunday. Including Brooks Koepka (by far the most famous star in the field) and Tony Finau.

But the crowd was still watching Kokrak – a more reluctant top 30 player – led by Dallas’ Scottie Scheffler, who was two strokes ahead with nine holes remaining, and Frenchman Martin Trainer, who briefly took the lead in 11th place took over, advanced.

Of course, several other well-known names have caught the crowd’s attention.

“What the hell – is the orbit !?” a child calls number 18.

Yes yes it is. The Astros green alien mascot wears an orange driver’s cap and an orange sweater vest. The lesson? People are always happy to see Orbit. And his presence goes very well with a tournament that is very Houston. One that even has HOU in large letters in the middle of the second nine.

This is just one of the Instagram-friendly spots you’ll find on this course. When trying to build a tournament you have to meet all sorts of different demographics.

“This is the big party that we wanted to build and create,” says Kibbe.

The Future of the Houston Open – Leap Forward?

It is a party that is led with an eye to the future. That includes getting out of the quieter fall section of the PGA tour schedule as soon as possible.

“It’s a difficult thing for us,” Kibbe tells PaperCity as the scene on the 18th green disappears. “We were kicked out of spring when the (former) title sponsor left in 2017 and the 2019 tournament got off schedule. So we lost our appointment. Which was painful.

“Jim got promoted right after that. And the goal is to bring it back in spring. But you see, we had phenomenal weather at this tournament two years in a row. It’s nice for the fans. It is great. We’ll be by far the best tournament in the fall while we’re here in the fall. And if we are able to set a spring date, we will continue to make changes and be one of the best spring events. “

Enthusiastic fans returned in full swing at this Houston Open. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Unlike Kokrak, you didn’t have to win a first place check for $ 1.35 million to leave Memorial Park grinning. Even Jhonattan Vegas, who stumbled to a five over 75 in the final round and dropped to 26th place, enthusiastically went to Jim Crane when he saw him coming off the 18th green. Vegas, who considers Houston to be his adopted home after fling Venezuela to come here at the age of 17, goes out of his way to shake hands and mouth with Crane: “Thank you.”

Vegas can see where this golfing experience is going at the Houston Open and Memorial Park. It won’t be long before other people see it too.