Masters mode is officially at DEFCON 2 as the PGA Tour returns to Hustle Town this week for the Houston Open. The Golf Club of Houston Tournament Course is set up to replicate conditions players will face at Augusta, and accordingly, this event attracts a strong field of players. Some are looking to fine-tune their games and complete final preparations before driving down Magnolia Lane. Others still hoping to lace it up on April 5th can punch their ticket by cracking into the OWGR Top-50 or earning the automatic winner’s invite. Here are five things you need to know about one of the longest-running events on Tour.
Inside the Field
Six of the top-20 players in the world will tee it up this week up on the Tournament Course including Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson, and Matt Kuchar. Jordan Spieth is back in Houston for a sixth straight year, and Phil Mickelson returns for his 11th consecutive appearance. The Houston Open always draws one of deepest international fields on Tour, and this week will have 44 players from 20 different countries. Justin Rose finished runner-up at The Masters twice after playing in Houston, while two-time major winner Martin Kaymer tees off on U.S. soil for just the third time since last year’s U.S. Open.
Eyes on Augusta?
The set up and philosophy of The Tournament Course arguably creates the best competitive environment to prepare for The Masters. Green complexes on this par-72, 7,441-yard track are rolled firm and fast (13 on the Stimpmeter) and are fairly large with steep banks. Mounds are closely shaved and the rough is light – cut down to an inch-and-a-quarter. Fairways are mown from green to tee so that the grain runs into the player. Despite these similarities to Augusta, only 16 players already exempt to play in The Masters are in the field this week, proving major championship prep really boils down to “different strokes for different folks”.
No Guarantee of Masters Success
Playing well on this Rees Jones-designed layout doesn’t necessarily correlate to Masters success. Only three Houston Open champions in the last 11 years have finished in the top-15 at Augusta: Anthony Kim (2010, 3rd at Augusta), Hunter Mahan (2012, T-12 at Augusta), and defending champion Russell Henley (2017, T-11 at Augusta). There have been four players in history who won the week prior to the Masters and then went on to win at Augusta: Ralph Guldahl (1939 Greater Greensboro Open), Art Wall (1959 Azalea Open), Sandy Lyle (1988 Greater Greensboro Open), and Phil Mickelson (2006 BellSouth Classic).
Houston We Have a Problem
The Houston Open is one of three tournaments on the Tour schedule without a title sponsor. For the first time since 1991, Shell’s red and yellow logo will not be associated with this tournament, and it’s wishful thinking to believe it can survive without a major corporate partner. To make matters worse, when the PGA announces the 2018-2019 schedule later this spring, the Houston Open will lose its position as a Masters backdrop, and a field fallout is inevitable. It’s much too early to ring the death knell on this event, and many big-name players like Spieth and Mickelson have been loyal to Houston. Whatever ultimately happens to this tournament, however, this year’s version will likely be the end of an era.
Hole 18 at GC of Houston
The Tournament Course features a quartet of par-5s that play shorter than the card yardages and 10 par-4s with only three measuring longer than 480 yards. Bombers have a distinct advantage. Fairways are wide and the rough is short, however with water in play on half of the holes players will still need to commit to their lines. The drivable 338-yard, par-4, 12th is a great example and can surrender exhilarating eagles just as easily as it can mete out disastrous bogeys or worse. Anything right will be in the lake. The challenging 448-yard, par-4, 18th is one of the most difficult closing holes on Tour with water running along the entire left side. If things are close down the stretch, this risk-reward hole will provide plenty of drama – especially for players trying to play their way into The Masters next week.
Rickie Fowler has made the cut in all six of his previous starts in Houston, including a T-10 in 2016 and a T-3 last year. Fowler’s a combined 9-over par in his third and final round scores at this event however, and that’s something he’ll have to improve to contend this week. This year Rickie’s ranked 4th on Tour in Round 3 Scoring Average, but 129th in Round 4 Scoring Average. Does this mean Fowler is sitting back and playing conservative golf on Sundays or he hasn’t been able to stand up to final round pressures? I don’t know. I do know Rickie can take a tournament by the throat with incredible play down the stretch, and he’s long past due for a victory. Phil’s won this year. Rory’s won too. Tiger almost won. A Fowler win at Houston sends Masters week hype blasting into orbit.