Trees a creeping: Old Memorial Park Golf Course brings woods to Houston's downtown

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

HOUSTON - The gigantic billowing oak trees with moss hanging heavy from their branches look like something from the South. Heck, they could have been lifted straight from the set of "Gone With The Wind."

memorial park no. 7
Memorial Park's No. 7 requires a carry over a sizable brush drop and throws in a wood bridge for character.
memorial park no. 7memorial park creeping treememorial park no. 15memorial park pink clubhouse
If you go

The pink single tower clubhouse building belongs in the art deco district of Miami Beach. In the right setting, architectural buffs in all black would be going gaga over it.

The scene on the paths just beyond the trees could pass for the Windy City lakefront. Joggers, bikers, marathon walkers all buzz past one another.

This isn't Georgia, Miami or Chicago, however. It's about the last place you'd expect for this contrasting assembly.

It's Houston, Texas on the most unique golf course in this town that has many others. Welcome to Memorial Park Golf Course.

Go ahead and take a good look around. Just don't expect to play. Unless you win the lottery.

The tee time lottery.

For Memorial Park is a $22.50 public muni worth at least three or four times that in unique playing experience. Hence the often befuddling lottery system the city of Houston set up to dish out its tee times.

"It's a great course to play," local Dave Roser said. "But it's a pain in the butt to get on. That pretty much sums it up."

That also sells it short. Memorial Park is worth a little effort to play - especially for the Houston visitor. It's a course you'll end up talking about more to your buddies back home than two dozen of the resort style tracks in the area.

Memorial Park is that distinct. It's smack dab in the middle of the city. Yet it feels like you're playing in the middle of the woods.

Just the trip to the course can be a mind bender. It takes you to the heart of downtown, passing industrial areas with semis backed up around the corner, bus stations with port-a-potties out front, construction zones with jackhammers pounding. Skyscrapers a little farther ahead serve as beacons.

Then you take a turn on Memorial Drive and it's like you're in another world. An almost leafy suburb appears immediately. A Hummer pulls up to the electronic iron gate of a big house. Hulking elephant statues - the statues of someone with plenty of idle income (if not taste) - dominate another impressive lawn.

From city gruff to leafy rich. In one turn.

This is where you'll find Memorial Park. The 18-hole course has been here since 1936, long before the skyscrapers. Stepping out onto the first tee, you're struck by that sense of history. These trees could tell stories that Barbara Walters would love.

"It's different from a lot Houston courses because of the trees," local regular golfer Remigo Flores said. "Most of the courses in Houston, the trees are still growing in. They're little things.

"Here, the trees are mature."

And in some cases downright intimidating. On several holes at Memorial Park, the trees creep into the fairways. This is played to dramatic effect on the par-5 16th. The longest hole on the course, stretching out to 613 yards from the back tees, No. 16 has a lake stretched along its right side. But just when you think it's safe to blast away as long as you stay left, the behemoth tree comes into view.

It almost seems to be leaning over into that side of the fairway by its own accord, willing itself to knock some ill-hit drives out of the air with extended branches. Just slice one over here, buddy!

Sending a drive soaring between the lake and the leaning tree right into the middle of the fairway is a shot to relive on the 19th hole. Which, in this case, means an outdoor patio with simple plastic furniture and actual cans of beer purchased at the window. That's just another part of Memorial Park's charm.

Along with surprisingly inventive par 3s. No. 7 forces you to clear a gaping bayou hole and it's no small clear from the tips on this 223-yarder. A bridge over the bayou adds some more theater. The big green makes just getting it on below the dip another sure recipe for bogey.

No. 15 - a 183-yard par 3 - has you shooting over a large pond with a fountain shooting in it. So much for the old course having no flair. Running across the fountain shooting up on No. 15, blocking your path to the raised stonewalled fronted green is like seeing your grandpa in a leather Fonzie jacket.

If your grandpa was still cool enough to pull it off. Memorial Park certainly is.

The verdict

If at all possible, you want to work Memorial Park into your Houston trip. When you get deep into the 600-acre course (one with no houses, being city owned has its privileges), you can almost forget the traffic rushing just beyond its borders.

Holes like No. 6 - a dogleg left 388-yard par 4 with water left in which only the fountain shooting up from the water, not the flag, is visible from the back tees - tempt you with their imagination.

Call it old school drama. There is a lot of talk about framing holes these days. John Bredemus probably hadn't even heard the phrase when he designed Memorial Park back in the 1930s. That didn't stop from pulling it off better than many celebrity golf architects do today.

The fairways look wide open and inviting, but there's more trouble than you might expect. The trees come a creeping again on the par-4, 393-yard 18th, a great curving finishing hole with bunkers around a raised green. The ghosts might too.

Babe Didrikson Zaharias,
Jack Nicklaus
and Arnold Palmer have all played in tournaments at Memorial Park. The Houston Open was held here from 1951 to 1963.

With more than 60,000 rounds played on it annually, Memorial Park can look a little worn. But its greens were great on this rainy afternoon and you had a fair chance on every shot.

Conditions aren't going to ruin your day here. Memorial Park is no barebones muni. It's a great course to walk. Taking a hike among those old trees adds another dimension.

Try to play on in the middle of the week, on an off time. A weekend round at Memorial Park can stretch to six hours. Once the wait for getting on ends.

"I was out here the other Saturday, trying to get on as a single in the lottery," local golfer Kevin Walker said. "I waited two and a half hours."

He stuck it though in order to play Memorial Park though. And he was back here again in pretty short time.

Yes, this place is that special.

Dining out

If you're at Memorial Park, you're not far from the Galleria shopping center district. This is the direction to head, rather than sticking around downtown. Some of Texas' best restaurants can be found in this spread out strip mall zone, including Bistro Moderne (713-297-4383).

This French bistro with a simple menu in the slick Hotel Derek was named one of Esquire Magazine's Top 10 New Restaurants of 2005 and it doesn't disappoint. The crab salad appetizer and bouillabaisse main courses were particularly tasty.

Don't get the rabbit unless you really like rabbit, though. It's not one of the better rabbit dishes.

For a simpler meal and even surer option, Goode Company Barbecue (713-522-2530) is the way to go. This place with picnic tables to eat on under an awning and its own barbecue museum next door is liable to be the best barbecue you ever had, especially if you're not only obsessed with ribs. The brisket is the tastiest meat on the menu. The potato salad is a not-to-be-missed side. Yes, this is a place where potato salad wows.

Stay and play

If you love shopping, the Westin Galleria puts you right in the sprawling Galleria mall that only plays second fiddle to Minnesota's famed Mall of America. That's right in literally.

The Westin's actually connected to the mall. You'll be paying big for that shoe or Jimmy Choo addiction convenience though. We're talking $299 standard room rates in the wintertime.

If you want to catch an Astros game, there's the Inn at the Ballpark. Yes, its name is Inn at the Ballpark. This's no little motor lodge though. It's a new four-star hotel. However, unlike Westin Galleria, it's not actually connected to its attraction. Inn at the Ballpark is right across the street from Minute Maid Field.

Fast fact

Memorial Park actually started in 1923 as a little nine-hole, sand greens course built for the soldiers recovering at nearby Camp Logan hospital to play. In 1995, the course underwent a major conditioning renovation makeover and a new lighted driving range, that's open until 7:30 p.m. every day, was put in.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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