The Executive Course

If Sharpstown and Brock are turned over to private operators, that will leave Memorial Park, which recently reopened after a $4.4 million overhaul, as the only city-run golf course.

Unfortunately for those who want to play Memorial, a popular course that has always had more players wanting tee times than available slots, the gleaming greens and deluxe clubhouse are less accessible than ever. In one of its final acts of 1995, City Council approved a plan that virtually doubled green fees and reduced playing hours at the course in hopes of slashing the number of yearly rounds from 90,000 to 65,000.

Ed Sehl, Memorial's director of golf, says the moves were necessary to ensure that the course remains in pristine condition, an argument supported by a number of Memorial users, as well as by Council. And the reduction in the number of projected rounds doesn't include several thousand rounds of special play for schools and tournaments that will be scheduled in off-hours. But Sehl also acknowledges that the 65,000 figure was just a "starting point," and that the number could rise if deemed feasible.

Lee Gordon, who used to play in a foursome at Memorial every Sunday before the renovations, disputes Sehl's assessment. "You don't protect a golf course," Gordon says, "you maintain it. And you let people play it."

Gordon says that since Memorial reopened, he's been unable to get a tee time, though Sehl says he's changing the reservation process to make it easier for the public to get onto the course. But that doesn't satisfy Gordon, who argues that the city has abandoned the general public in favor of a costly taxpayer-financed perk for the wealthy who live in close proximity to Memorial.

"Who are you saving the golf course for, [residents of] River Oaks?" Gordon asks, his voice rising with several notes of frustration. "You're certainly not doing it for the sucker taxpayer who's paying the bills."

Whatever the relative merits of the changes at Memorial, the stated reasons behind them don't add up in the context of the city's privatization of its other courses. "If privatization is such a good deal, why not put Memorial on the block?" asks golfer Jim Goodson, a regular at Sharpstown who opposes the move to turn that course over to a private operator.

Susan Christian, the spokeswoman for parks director Bill Smith, has an answer. Keeping Memorial public, she says, is a "very good move" for two reasons: "We just put all this money into it, and we think it's going to be a good revenue-producing entity."

But that didn't stop the department from privatizing Glenbrook almost immediately after spending more than $2.4 million for a complete facelift. And Sharpstown also produces revenue, which the city can spend however it wants. By Council edict, however, all of Memorial's revenues have to be plowed back into the course.

While the parks department treats Memorial like a precious jewel, Sharpstown and Brock "haven't had any attention in years," Christian acknowledges. Sharpstown has made strides recently under new head pro Doug Randall, and further improvements would no doubt be realized if the income it produces were put back into the course. Likewise for Brock, which, after losing money for years, could wind up in the black in 1996. But that privilege is reserved for Memorial, as well as such revenue enhancers as charging weekend rates for Friday play.

While the refurbished course made a nice backdrop for a campaign photo op when Mayor Bob Lanier and other dignitaries reopened it just a few days before last November's election, the changes at Memorial could be sounding one more death knell for municipal golf in Houston. "It's sad what's happening," says the parks department's Gene Hill. "We've got the executive course at Memorial, and everything else is privatized. We're just throwing the muni golfer to the wolves." -- Bob Burtman

 
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