Houston is place to be ahead of the Masters

What is the best way to prepare the week before a major?

The best golfers in the world are constantly trying to solve that riddle, and the answer for many this week is be to tee it up in the Shell Houston Open on the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston in Humble, Texas.

Not that they aren’t thinking about the Masters next week.

“I will try to stop by (Augusta National Golf Club) on my way to Houston,” said Henrik Stenson of Sweden, who skipped the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play last week in favor of playing at Houston. “That’s what I’ve done the previous years. It’s always good to get a refresher and have a walk around the course and hit some shots and hit some putts. So, even though the golf course itself up there doesn’t change too much, it’s always good to have a little early look. …

“I mean, the scheduling is a big part of (skipping the Match Play). Given that I want to play the week before Augusta, I’ve played in the Middle East, I’ve had a couple weeks off and then I need to pick up some pace.”

Stenson, who claimed his first major title last year in the Open Championship at Royal Troon, is one of several major champions and other top players who will give the Shell Houston Open one of the strongest fields of the PGA Tour season — not counting the World Golf Championships.

Also committed are 2016 PGA champion Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth, Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose of England, Adam Scott of Australia, Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els of South Africa, rookie star Jon Rahm of Spain, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed, Jason Dufner, Stewart Cink, Lucas Glover, Retief Goosen of South Africa, Keegan Bradley, Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain and Phil Mickelson (pictured), a five-time major winner.

Included in that group are 11 of the top 30 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, 13 major champions and 10 former winners in Houston. That latter list includes Mickelson, Scott, J.B. Holmes, Hunter Mahan, Stuart Appleby of Australia, Robert Allenby of Australia, Johnson Wagner, Matt Jones of Australia and D.A. Points, who won the Puerto Rico Open last Sunday.

Top-ranked Dustin Johnson, who beat Rahm on Sunday in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Texas, was committed to the tournament, but withdrew on Monday citing fatigue, saying he needs rest ahead of the first major of the year.

Jim Herman is the defending champion, having claimed his first victory on the PGA Tour in Houston last year at the age of 38, beating Stenson by one stroke.

Herman struggled earlier this season before shooting 62 recently in the first round of the Valspar Championship on his way to a tie for third, his best result since finding the winner’s circle a year ago.

“I’m feeling good about my game again,” said Herman, whose victory gave him spots in all four majors in the same year for the first time. “I’ve never had to defend a title, so it’s going to be a fun week. …

“Obviously last year, going through–getting it done at Houston obviously changed my life and my perspective on things. I feel like I belong out here.”

Herman, ranked No. 76 in the world, needs another big finish in Houston to climb inside the top 50 and make it back to the Masters.

That Mickelson is playing is no surprise, and not only because he won the tournament in 2011 by three strokes over Chris Kirk and Scott Verplank.

“I almost always play the week before a major because if take it off, I often feel a little rusty at the start of the first round (in the major),” said Mickelson, who has won 42 times on the PGA Tour but not since he claimed the third leg of the Grand Slam by winning the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.

Lefty was not happy when the BellSouth Classic, which for several years was played the week before the Masters at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga., dropped off the PGA Tour schedule in 2009.

He believed that event was perfect preparation for Augusta, and he won the BellSouth tournament three times, including in 2006, when he followed it up a week later by claiming the second of his three Green Jackets.

Mickelson pulled off a similar double in 2013, when he captured the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open a week before his victory at Muirfield.

Now that the Houston event has been moved to a week before the Masters, don’t be shocked if that happens again, because Lefty loves the Tournament Course at what was formerly known as Redstone Golf Club.

“It is tremendous,” said Mickelson, who tied for seventh in his last stroke-play event, the WGC-Mexico Championship, in each March. “The greens are fast. The fairways are perfect and tight. They even mowed the grain … in the fairways just like Augusta does. There is no rough. The first cut is like Augusta. …

“For me personally, I like playing in a tournament that’s similar to what we’ll be playing. It’s a great place to get ready for next week.”

Obviously, Lefty is not the only one with that opinion.

–Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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