Houston last stop before Masters

Landing on the PGA Tour schedule a week before a major championship isn’t always the best thing for a tournament because many of the top golfers in the world spent that time resting and practicing.

The Shell Houston Open, which will be played this week at the Golf Club of Houston in Humble, Texas, ahead of the Masters, doesn’t have that problem.

The tournament lined up a field that includes Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Steve Stricker, Keegan Bradley, Jimmy Walker, Brooks Koepka and defending champion J.B. Holmes.

A strong international contingent will compete, too, including Ernie Els, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Lee Westwood of England, Sergio Garcia and Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain, K.J. Choi of South Korea, Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry of Ireland, Stuart Appleby and Robert Allenby of Australia, Vijay Singh of Fiji and Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand.

There are 33 players in the field who will play in the Masters.

Even though he is pleased with the entire field, tournament director Steve Timms is particularly happy that Spieth, a native of Dallas and a former All-American at the University of Texas, is playing.

Spieth lost his No. 1 ranking last week, but he could get it back this week in Houston or next when he defends his title in the Masters.

“It’s exciting to have Jordan back with us,” said Timms, who knows Spieth probably would love to get to Augusta National early.

“Not only is he the world’s No. 1 player (at the time), he’s such a solid young man.”

The Houston Open, with Shell celebrating its 25th year as title sponsor, is one of the oldest events on the PGA Tour. It was first played in 1946 at River Oaks Country Club.

Texas legend Byron Nelson won the inaugural event one year after he captured 11 consecutive tournaments en route 18 victories in the greatest season in PGA Tour history.

Singh and Curtis Strange won the tournament three times, while Arnold Palmer, Cary Middlecoff, Jack Burke Jr., Mike Souchak, Bobby Nichols and Australians Appleby and Bruce Crampton each claimed the title twice.

Other notable winners in Houston include Mickelson, Gary Player of South Africa, Gene Littler, Adam Scott of Australia, Fred Couples, Payne Stewart, Corey Pavin and Raymond Floyd.

“It’s challenging, this course, because there’s a lot of trouble, a lot of water off the tees into the greens,” said Mickelson, who won the 2011 Shell Houston Open by three strokes over Chris Kirk and Scott Verplank. “What I like about it is around the greens, there’s very soft movement.

“You hit a good shot inside 20 feet, you’re rewarded with a realistic chance to make a putt, unlike on a lot of other modern-day greens that get very contoury (sic), it’s tough to make birdie putts and be rewarded for great shots. Here you get rewarded for great shots.”

Mickelson almost always plays the week before a major because he says he feels rusty early in tournament weeks of the Grand Slam events if he does not. He will be playing in Houston for the ninth consecutive year and the 11th time overall.

He tied for fourth as defending champion in 2012 and finished in the top 20 in each of the past five years.

Spieth is playing Houston for the fourth consecutive year. He lost to Holmes last year in a playoff that also included Johnson Wagner, a week before Spieth won his first major championship.

“As a native Texan, I always like playing the Texas events,” said Spieth, who has yet to win in the Lone Star State as a pro. “I enjoy being able to drive my own car to these tournaments. I get to see a lot of friends and family who I don’t get to see a lot of the year. And then, at the same time, get ready for the Masters on a challenging track.

“I played a junior tournament here when it was Redstone (Golf Club). I want to say, shoot, that must have been almost six, seven years ago. … I think I got seventh (place). I wasn’t long enough to reach 17 and 18 in two (shots). I had driver and 3-wood, had to hit a wedge into the breeze.

“Very different golf course from back then. But we also came here at the University of Texas. … I’m familiar with this place. I played here about as much as I played anywhere on Tour.

“No excuses for not knowing my way around this track.”

Of course, he has shown at 22 that he can get around pretty much any course better than most.

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

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