Oddly enough, it started with the first pitch.
What does baseball have to do with golf, you might ask? Well, the Houston Open, which returns to the PGA TOUR this week after a year’s absence, has one of the most unique partnerships in sports.
The tournament’s host organization is the Astros Golf Foundation. Yes, those Astros, the ones who won the World Series in 2017 and are hoping for another one this year after winning their third consecutive American League West title.
The Astros Golf Foundation and owner Jim Crane rescued the Houston Open after its longtime sponsor opted not to continue. And the way tournament director Colby Callaway sees it, the real momentum began when the Astros opened their season with a 5-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Ticket sales for the Houston Open began that week, and the synergy between the two organizations kicked into high gear.
The Houston Open 19th Hole is open in centerfield during Astros home games. Tournament merchandise – featuring that tequila sunrise logo that’s a nod to the Astros’ history – is on sale at Minute Maid Park. The two organizations consult and cooperate on social media, too.
All in all, Callaway said, it’s been a “home run.”
“I think it would have been virtually impossible had we not had the resources that the Astros have given us and, again to be able to message along with them,” he noted. “… It’s just been great partnership and again, it's something that's so unique.”
Prior to baseball season, though, the tournament had struggled to get the word out.
After all, Ian Poulter won the last Houston Open on April Fool’s Day of 2018 – and it would be a little more than 18 months before the next. Rumors of the tournament’s demise after 73 years on TOUR had been rampant, too, until the Astros Golf Foundation stepped in.
“We felt like we were in the dark for the better half of the year,” Callaway acknowledged. “That September to March time frame got a little scary.”
Already a change in venue had been announced – this year’s tournament will be the last at the Golf Club of Houston in Humble before it moves to Memorial Park, which is being restored by Tom Doak with four-time major champion Brooks Koepka as the player consultant. And that’s also had a positive effect.
“A lot of people are actually buying this year to make sure they're in the queue to buy and get a better spot at Memorial Park,” Callaway sids. “So, the excitement that is building towards us moving to inside the loop here in Houston, that's actually been the biggest surprise.
“There is so much excitement in 2020. I keep telling everybody we're going to have a great event this year, I promise, but hey guys, next year is going to be absolutely insane.”
Interestingly, the Astros’ success at the ballpark could have an impact at the golf course this week, too.
Houston currently has a 2-1 lead in its AL Division Series against Tampa Bay, with Game 4 set for Tuesday. If a Game 5 is required, it would be Thursday – the same day as the opening round at the Golf Club of Houston. If the Astros win the series, they would host the first two games of the AL Championship Series on Saturday and Sunday.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of big football games in the Lone Star State, especially on Saturday with No. 6 Oklahoma vs No. 11 Texas in Dallas, and top-ranked Alabama at No. 24 Texas A&M in College Station. The University of Houston will host No. 25 Cincinnati. On Sunday, the Houston Texans are on the road against Patrick Mahomes (a Texas native) and the Kansas City Chiefs.
So, Callaway and his staff essentially decided to go with the flow and created a tailgate zone at the tournament where fans can watch baseball and football, as well as the golf. There will be watch parties during the week as an added bonus to the action unfolding on the course.
“I think we all see where these tournaments are going and these things are becoming events,” Callaway said. “Golf is part of a party and we're rebirthing this event. We're going to try to create a party here.
“This is a community that really likes to have fun and so our relationship being and us being a part of this, this wonderful brand, the Houston Astros, the Houston Open now can play off that. And we are going to, we're going to have some fun with it.”
In Callaway’s mind, it’s also a way for the tournament to become more user-friendly.
“And if we can just figure it, just push the right button, we're a lot more accommodating than maybe the event used to be,” he said.
Callaway came to work for the Astros Golf Foundation in September of 2018. Previously, he worked with Pro Links Sports and the AT&T Championship in San Antonio from 2004 until its 30-year run on the Champions Tour ended in 2015.
So he understands what it’s like to lose a sponsor and relished the chance to rebirth the Houston Open with the help of Crane and the Astros and community partners.
“Mr. Crane … is absolutely an amazing man and he is he has really grabbed hold of this thing,” Callaway said. “He didn't want it to be lost. This community, this market's too big to not have a PGA TOUR presence. And so, having his energy and he's just devoted to this thing.
“It's fun when you're around him. … He wants it to be the best. You just feel that every day and so you, you kind of build off that and you build off that energy and you keep on pushing.”