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Houston's last stand? Long-standing event in danger

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HUMBLE, Texas – The fountain that once floated in the middle of the lake lining the 18th hole at the Golf Club of Houston is gone. So, too, is the floral arrangement that was annually propped behind the final tee, a mix of reds and yellows arranged in the shape of a seashell that served as the backdrop for some of the tournament’s most pressure-packed moments.

The Houston Open is back on the schedule this week, nearly 22 months after Shell Oil Company told the Houston Golf Association that they would be ending a 26-year run as title sponsor. Last year’s lame-duck edition was seen as a bittersweet send-off for a faithful corporate partner, with one eye on the new chapter that lay ahead.

But a year later, there is no flashy sponsor art to plant behind the 18th tee. Instead that spot sits empty, while the ring of grandstands and skyboxes along the final hole features plain white tents with navy blue trim and no longer reaches all the way around the green.

The revamped logo simply says “Houston Open” in bold white font, adding only an “Est. 1946” note below the name as the tournament relies on its strongest remaining asset – its legacy – in the hopes that the 71st Houston Open is not the last.

Staging a top-tier PGA Tour event without the benefit of a title sponsor is no enviable task, and it’s not a position tournament director Steve Timms ever expected to find himself.

“I’m surprised,” Timms said. “If you’d have told me when Shell let us know in the summer of 2016 that by the 2018 tournament we would not have a new title, I probably would have made a small wager that we would.”

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Timms’ optimism at the time was certainly warranted given his event’s location and history. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., and home to headquarters for 25 different Fortune 500 companies. Certainly, it seemed, getting one of them to foot the bill for a tournament that started with Byron Nelson defeating Ben Hogan 72 years ago would be more than feasible.

That optimism remained bright following last year’s event, but no one could have foreseen what would roll into town a few short months later.

Hurricane Harvey devastated the greater Houston area in late August, putting the tournament course under several feet of water. It brought business in town, both present and future, to a grinding halt as the priorities of millions of residents shifted overnight.

It’s been a slow rebuilding process. Timms shared that some local companies didn’t return to their office buildings until February. There’s never a good time for a natural disaster, but as it related to his efforts to land a new title, the timing of Harvey was especially inopportune.

“It certainly, and understandably, captured the attention of our business community,” Timms said. “Anytime you have that kind of a natural disaster, a lot of things become secondary, if you will. So it took a lot of momentum out of the market that we’ve just had to rekindle.”

Timms declined to share financing specifics for staging this year’s event, except to say that the HGA dipped into its “cash reserves” to make good on a promise that the city of Houston would have a golf tournament to look forward to this spring.

They’re also not alone in the world of un-sponsored PGA Tour events, as the Fort Worth Invitational and The National both currently seek new titles. But the former split their bill among four presenting sponsors at a reported $2 million apiece for 2018, while the latter enjoys the backing of Tiger Woods’ TGR Foundation as it seeks a permanent home.

It all adds up to a murky situation for Houston which, despite its storied history, could be at risk of extinction as the Tour looks to overhaul its schedule for the 2018-19 season.

“I would hate to see it,” said Rickie Fowler. “Texas gets a handful of tournaments, but Houston is pretty rich in golf history. And especially coming off of last year with Harvey, and the devastation here, I think there’s a lot of good that we can do and continue to do in helping out. So hopefully it doesn’t go away.”

Complicating matters further is the fact that three hours down the road, in San Antonio, the sponsorship situation is among the best on Tour. In October, the Valero Texas Open announced a 10-year renewal with its own title sponsor from the oil & gas sector, which brought with it the added twist that in 2019 it will be Valero – not the Houston event – that will be held the week before the Masters.

It’s a spot on the calendar that didn’t seem especially desirable when Timms’ team took it over in 2007, but in the subsequent decade it’s transformed into a significant recruiting tool. The HGA prides itself on making its venue as conducive to Masters prep as possible and enjoyed a spike in field strength as a result.

Now the reality is that as the search for a new sponsor drags into its third year, the tournament will have lost one of its most marketable assets for 2019.

“It’s a shame if it does go away. There’s a long history there,” said 2015 champ J.B. Holmes. “A lot of the players went to Houston because it was set up a lot like Augusta. So maybe they’ll give that spot back to them, but I think they’ll be surprised with the people who normally play (the week before the Masters) that won’t play that one (Valero).”

The fight continues for Timms, who has had “meaningful discussions” with potential sponsors in recent months and hopes to showcase his event in front of a national audience this week. He remains confident that the tournament will enjoy both a new date and a new title next year, as one of the Tour’s longest-running events continues a prolonged effort to find its footing.

Ask Houston resident Chris Stroud, who watched his community struggle through Harvey and emerge strong on the other side, and the tournament’s future seems hardly in doubt.

“One hundred percent confident we’ll find somebody. 100 percent,” Stroud said. “With the combination of Steve Timms, the HGA, Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour and the power of Houston, I’m 100 percent confident we’re going to have somebody in place next year. That’s all I’ve got to say.”