By Tom LaMarre
The PGA Tour didn’t do the Houston Open any favors by moving the tournament from the week before the Masters to the fifth week of the new season, and that has to be a contributing factor for the best players in the world taking a pass this week.
Not one player from the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings is in the field, and Ian Poulter won’t be at the Golf Club of Houston https://golfclubofhouston.com in Humble, Texas, to defend the title he won the last time the event was played 18 months ago.
It also didn’t help that Shell dropped its sponsorship of the tournament after 26 years following the 2017 event.
Formerly known as Redstone Golf Club, the Golf Club of Houston has been the site of the Houston Open since 2003, but next year the event will move to Memorial Park, which has hosted this event 14 times—but not since 1963.
The shift to Memorial, which is undergoing a $13.5 million renovation, is part of a five-year agreement between the PGA Tour and the Houston Astros Foundation.
This will be the 74th edition of the Houston Open and the great Texan Byron Nelson captured the inaugural event in 1946 by two strokes in a Texas shootout over another Lone Star State legend, Ben Hogan.
Other winners include Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Cary Middlecoff, Gene Littler. Bobby Locke of South Africa, Jack Burke Jr., Bob Charles of New Zealand, Roberto DeVicenzo of Argentina, Lee Elder, Curtis Strange, Fred Couples, Corey Pavin, Raymond Floyd, Jay Haas, Payne Stewart, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh of Fiji.
When Poulter won on the first playoff hole last year, it was the 24th time in the 73 Houston Opens that the tournament went to extra holes. Only the U.S. Open has had more playoffs with a whopping total of 33.
Major champions Henrik Stenson of Sweden (pictured), Keegan Bradley, Stewart Cink and Jason Dufner give the tournament some star power this week, along with fellow veterans Bill Haas, Nick Watney, Martin Laird of Scotland, Boo Weekley, Aaron Baddeley of Australia, Alex Cejka of Germany and Pat Perez.
Former Houston Open winners in the field include Russell Henley, Matt Jones of Australia, Hunter Mahan. D.A. Points and Johnson Wagner.
Young guns teeing it up on Thursday include Cameron Champ, Sebastian Munoz of Colombia, Denny McCarthy, Sam Ryder, Scottie Scheffler, Xinjun Zhang of China, Lucas Bjerregaard of Denmark, Maverick McNealy, Robby Shelton and Beau Hossler, who played at the University of Texas and lost in a playoff to Poulter in Houston last year.
Local fans are anxious to see amateur Cole Hammer, a Houston native who plays at Texas and is in the field for his first PGA Tour event on a sponsor exemption.
“That makes it pretty cool for me because having it playing in my hometown, I would want it to be the tournament that I would want to start at,” said Hammer, who qualified for the 2015 U.S. Open when he was 15. “I’m excited, it’s a great way to test my game. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be fun to have this Texas contingent next week.”
Hammer is one of several Texans in the field, so even without the big boys, there should be plenty for Houston fans cheer about.
- Henrik Stenson, Sweden – The Big Swede, who has 20 victories as a pro including the 2016 Open Championship, is coming off a tie for third in the Scandinavian Invitation at home and has six top-20 finishes in his last seven starts. Stenson has played seven times in Houston and finished out of the top 25 once, taking second in 2013 and 2016.
- Matt Jones, Australia – The 2014 Houston Open champion, who also captured the 2015 Australian Open, has tied for 10th in A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier and tied for 29th in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open to start the new season. Jones chipped in from 46 yards to beat Matt Kuchar in a playoff at Houston four years ago.
- Russell Henley, United States – In addition to winning the Houston Open by three strokes in 2017 for his third PGA Tour victory, Henley has finished in the top 10 at the Golf Club of Houston five consecutive years, including a tie for eighth in his title defense. His best finish in three starts this season was a tie for 37th in the Shriners.
- Brian Harman, United States – The southpaw tied 18th in the Shriners after tying for third at the Greenbrier and tying for 14th at Sanderson Farms, placing him 10th in the FedEx Cup point standings. Harman has six top-20 results in his last 10 starts, but has missed the cut three times and field to break the top 50 in three other starts in Houston.
- Sebastian Munoz, Colombia – The FedEx Cup points leader after winning the Sanderson Farms Championship and tying for seventh in A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier is trying to regain that form after missing the cut last week in the Shriners. Munoz, who has won four times as a pro, is making his first start in the Houston Open.
- Daniel Berger, United States – The two-time PGA Tour winner was playing on a major medical extension, but regained his PGA Tour card with a tie for 18th in the Shriners after tying for 23rd in the Safeway Open. Berger has finished in the top 25 in each of his four starts in Houston, including fifth twice and a tie for 18th last year.
- Pat Perez, United States – After being slowed by an Achilles injury last season, the three-time PGA Tour winner seems to have his game back after he finished solo third in the Shriners, especially when he shot 62 in the third round. Perez has played eight times in Houston, but not since tying for 11th in 2015, with his best a tie for eighth in 2008.
- Cameron Champ, United States – Looking to come back strong in his Houston Open debut following a missed cut last week in the Shriners after claiming his second PGA Tour victory a week earlier in the Safeway Open. Champ also tied for 28th in the Sanderson Farms Championship and is third in the early FedEx Cup point standings.
- Denny McCarthy, United States – A late double-bogey 5 cost McCarthy a top-five finish last week in the Shriners, but he still tied for ninth, recording his sixth top-25 finish in his last 10 starts on the PGA Tour. The 2018 Web.com Tour Championship winner will be trying to improve on his only start in the Houston Open, a tie for 43rd last year.
- Beau Hossler, United States – Posted four scores in the 60s last year in Houston and seemed about to claim his first PGA Tour victory before Ian Poulter made a 20-foot birdie putt in the final hole of regulation and then beat him on the first hole of a playoff. Hossler, who played college golf at Texas, tied for 29th last week in the Shriners.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH – Jimmy Walker, United States; Scott Stallings, United States; Jason Kokrak, United States; Aaron Baddeley, Australia; Jhonattan Vegas, Venezuela; Keegan Bradley, United States; Russell Knox, Scotland.
- Lucas Bjerregaard, Denmark – The Dane won five times in Europe, finished in the top 25 of three majors last year and knocked off Tiger Woods in the WGC-Match Play.
- Lanto Griffin, United States – Was 13th at the Greenbrier, T-11 at Sanderson Farms,T-17 at Safeway, T-18 in the Shriners and is the only player with four T-20s this season.
- Xinjun Zhang, China – After four wins in China and two on the Korn Ferry Tour, Zhang is producing on the PGA Tour with a T-7 in the Safeway and T-16 in the Shriners.
- Scottie Scheffler, United States – Won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour last season and started the PGA Tour season with a T-7 at the Greenbrier and a T-16 at Sanderson Farms.
- Cole Hammer, United States – The 19-year-old Texas sophomore won twice for the Longhorns last season, qualified for 2015 U.S. Open and has numerous amateur titles.
For first-round tee times visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard.html