There’s a big sporting event this weekend in Houston, but it’s rather dwarfed by the pinnacle of its sport that this weekend’s event serves as a good primer for.
What, you think I’m talking about Saturday’s Final Four games before Monday’s NCAA Men’s National Championship Game? Nah, I’m talking about the PGA Tour’s Shell Houston Open. A few years ago, this tournament decided to as best replicate its Redstone Golf Club Tournament Course to what the golfing pros will see next week at Augusta National in the most important stop on the golf calendar: the Masters.
Now, I’m not saying there will be azaleas, Amen Corner or vastly overpriced memorabilia this week in Houston (well, maybe the memorabilia), but it really is a pseudo 72-hole practice round for Augusta, with Redstone set up with tight lies and lightning fast greens. But because of the Redstone set-up, this tournament has drawn some excellent fields – sans Tiger Woods – the past few years and has done so again.
The field this week includes 10 of the top 25 in the latest Official World Golf Rankings, with four from the Top 10: Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker. The other five are Francesco Molinari, Ernie Els, Hunter Mahan, Retief Goosen, Robert Karlsson and Louis Oosthuizen. But you also see guys who have had success at the Masters in the past playing this week even though they rarely do in regular PGA Tour events; players like Fred Couples and Jose-Maria Olazabal.
Westwood can take back the No. 1 ranking from Martin Kaymer this week with a top-two finish and the Englishman is a co-14/1 favorite on Bodog with Matt Kuchar, according to PGA Tour odds for the Shell Houston Open. Unlike Mickelson (see in a moment), Westwood admits he wants a good result before any major. And he needs one. It’s not that Westwood has been terrible in the three PGA Tour events he has played so far, he just really hasn’t been a factor with a high finish of T17. He hasn’t played since closing with a 68 at Doral a few weeks ago and is changing putters this week to shake out of the slump – that’s a big warning sign to me. Westwood has played well here the past two years, with finishes of T8 and T11.
Kuchar doesn’t win a lot, but he has to be the most consistent player on tour. He led it in Top-10 finishes last year and already has five Top-7 finishes so far in 2011. Kuchar also tied for eighth here last year. A good bet on him instead of to win would be the +125 at Bodog that Kuchar will finish in the Top 10.
Lefty (22/1), meanwhile, flat out says he’s not interested in results this week – mainly because he has a problem with Rees Jones-designed courses. He is only playing because he prefers to the week before a major.
"Houston is not going to set up well for me," Mickelson said last week.
This could all be mental for Mickelson but it seems to work on him as in the past three visits here has a best finish of T23 and one missed cut. But his T35 last year obviously didn’t affect him at Augusta.
Look for a possible playoff this week as this tournament has ended in such the past two years, with Anthony Kim edging Vaughn Taylor last year. I’m looking to go 2-for-2 on long-shot predictions this week – regular readers may remember I picked Martin Laird last week in that category and he did win the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
I say this because Taylor might be a good one at a whopping 66/1. The Shell Houston Open offers players who haven’t already qualified for the Masters one last shot to get in: by winning. And Taylor is dying to play next week because he’s an Augusta native and hasn’t played the Masters the past three years. Taylor hasn’t won since 2005 and still has yet to win anywhere but Reno, but he had that runner-up here last year (his only Top 10 at this tournament) and did play well the first two rounds at Bay Hill last week before finishing 76-77. Charles Howell III (50/1), another Augusta native, also needs a win this week to get into the Masters. He missed the cut here last year but does have four Top-15 finishes in 2011.