HOUSTON — From the brink of extinction, Gus Wortham Park Golf Course reopened this past week, and it's probably never looked better. This is the way municipal golf should be, but it's only the beginning.
For the past year and a half, Gus Wortham, the oldest continuously run 18-hole course in Texas, has been closed down for a major makeover. It was originally just supposed to be shut down for part of 2017, but just three months or so before it was scheduled to reopen in late fall 2017, Hurricane Harvey happened and much of the work done on the course, including sprigging, was wiped out, and officials had to wait until spring and summer of 2018 to grow the course in.
That wait was well worth it. Despite a rainy week across Texas, the course reopened the weekend of Oct. 13, and the tee sheets have been full ever since. This isn't the same old tired course that almost succumbed to efforts by groups wanting to build a soccer complex or botanic garden there. With its reopening, Gus Wortham is the shiny new toy in the Houston municipal system. Even the immensely popular Memorial Park, which hosts the Greater Houston City Amateur and once played host to the Houston Open, took a hit last weekend on tee times because Houston golfers wanted to play Gus Wortham.
The course, which was first built in 1908 and was once the site of Houston Country Club, where the likes of Francis Ouimet, Walter Hagen and Howard Hughes once played, has been restored magnificently by architect Baxter Spann and Heritage Links. This has all come to pass after the Houston Golf Association, which for decades, among other things, ran the Houston Open on the PGA Tour, took over operations in 2015 of the city course located just east of downtown.
Spann restored much of the original bunkering, brought character back to the greens, reshaped the fairways, and added a 2-½ acre irrigation lake that also adds to the beauty of the course. The greens are now Tif-Eagle bermuda and roll perfectly, and the course is as walkable as ever. Best of all, it's built on one of the best parcels of land in Houston. Unlike most of the area, which is flat, Gus Wortham sits on naturally rolling terrain. There are even a couple of elevated tee shots, and the course ends with a difficult par 4 that plays uphill into a well-guarded green.
"I can certainly see why the Houston Botanic Garden group wanted this land," said Steve Timms, president and CEO of the Houston Golf Association. "You just don't see this type of topography in Houston very often."
A different type of municipal model
Gus Wortham is running under a different model that most of the other municipal courses in Houston. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, the HGA, along with other local groups, have raised money for the renovation and operation of the course. The idea is that the course will run independently and be self-sustained. Any money that the course makes goes back into the course, not to fund other golf courses or city parks, which is often the case for municipal courses. It also means this course will remain in good shape for years to come and shouldn't deteriorate as so many munis typically do, Timms said. It also serves as a pilot for other munis in Houston, which HGA might be in line to operate in the future as well.
So far, about $7.6 million has been raised and spent on the restoration of the golf course and the driving range, which was expanded. The second phase, which will include a new clubhouse and First Tee facilities, will cost a little more than $3 million. Timms said the HGA is hopeful that the new clubhouse will open about a year from now. For right now, the golf shop and check-in area and course office is in a trailer. Portable restrooms are also being used until the clubhouse can be built. Right now, though, it's all about the golf course.
Gus Wortham's storied history
First, a little history on Gus Wortham Park Golf Course: Originally designed by Houston Country Club member A.W. Pollard, the course was once the site of a 1931 match between Howard Hughes and professional golfer Walter Hagen. Francis Ouimet, who won the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club at Brookline, and the legendary Bobby Jones have also played the course.
After Houston Country Club moved to its current location more than 60 years ago, the land was sold to HCC member and longtime Houston businessman and philanthropist Gus Wortham, who reopened it as the Houston Executive Club. In 1973, he sold it to the city for $3.6 million, and the 6,300-yard course was renamed in his honor.
But as many munis go, by the 2000s, Gus Wortham had seen better days. It faced threats by the Houston Dynamo MSL soccer team, which wanted to develop a soccer complex there, and later by a group that wanted to take over the 150-acre site for the proposed Houston Botanic Garden. Neighborhood groups successfully thwarted those moves, though the Botanic Garden group did successfully target and acquire another golf course, Glenbrook, about 15 minutes south of Gus Wortham.
"It would have been a real tragedy to lose that course to a botanic garden or anything else," Spann said.
Spann actually got involved as early as 2009.
"We originally did a master plan for the Houston Parks board, and that's when we uncovered all the aerial photography (one that dated back to 1935) and of course, the original survey of the course, which was done in 1915," Spann said.
"With any restoration, though, you have choices to make as to what you're restoring. The original course that was built in 1908 had extreme geometrical shapes for greens and tees. Most of them were square or rectangular," Spann added. "And a lot of cross bunkers which would have made for a real difficult course to play for a muni client that you still have to cater to."
In other words, the restoration was completed with the modern game in mind, as well as who plays the course.
The current routing of the course has pretty much been in place since 1908 with a couple of exceptions. Most notably, when Wayside Drive west of the course was rerouted in the 1950s, it cut off the northwest corner of the corner of the golf course, so the first hole had to be changed into a sharp dogleg left that ended where the green from the par-3 second hole used to be. As a result, another par 3, no. 8, was added, and is still there today.
Another change came when the green on the difficult par-4 sixth was moved away Brays Bayou because of a sewer project. As it turned out, that green didn't need to move, so Spann moved it back to its original location. The 460-yard dogleg right, which has the bayou and a cemetery to the right of it, is certainly one of the course's signature holes now.
As for the new irrigation lake, it solved two issues – irrigation and drainage. In the past, water was pumped into a 40,000-gallon metal tank. Now the course can get all its irrigation needs from the lake, and there should never be a shortage of water for irrigation.
Though the course is just less than 6,400 yards from the tips, it really plays much longer. That's because there are several short par 4s (drivable for longer hitters), meaning there are a few monster par 4s. Spann said the course has a lot "half-par" holes.
"You got no. 2 -- a par 5, which is like a par 4 ½, really reachable in two -- but it has a challenging green complex. You can hide a pin behind that right bunker or you can put it up front and it's a real birdie hole.
"But then you've got (460 yards) no. 4, which used to be the third consecutive par 5 that we changed into a long par 4, which is really more like a par 4 ½. Then no. 6 became another par 4 ½ hole when we put the green back in its original position."
Golfers who have also played the course prior to the renovation might notice that the greens have been raised a foot or two, and there is more movement on them than there was previously. They also putt much better with the new Tif-Eagle surface, although they are understandably quite firm right now.
The bunkers also have a fresh new look, which harken back to the original course.
"When city of Houston took over, they took a third to half of the bunkers of the Houston Country Club version out of it," Spann said. "All the aerial photographs not only show the location of those bunkers in the '40s and '50s, but also what the style was. So we tried to replicate that style, with some flash to the sand, but mostly defined by grass faces."
Spann said the goal was to build a fun, yet challenging course. And one of the most fun holes on the course is the short par-4 12th. There's a large cross-bunker about 30 yards in front of the green, with high mounding. If you make a mistake going for the green and find those bunkers, what might have looked like a birdie hole will certainly turn into a struggle for par and maybe even bogey.
But even more interesting is brick manhole near the 12th. Crews filled in what was a deep hole, and speculation is that it might have been the exit point of private tunnel that the billionaire Hughes used to get the course from his home on Wayside Drive. (Hughes was rather secluded, but loved golf.)
"We call it Howard's Hole," Spann said. "We just left it there as sort of a historical landmark. It's there for everyone to conjecture about what it might be."