Dalthorp @ Houston: Fantasy Preview

by: James Dalthorp Staff Writer
Is it possible to raise the excitement level about The Masters next week? Yes, actually – by playing our Majors Challenge game! It’s only $10 and you can win $1,000 with your selected team of six golfers. Sign up here and make the best weekend of the year even better.

You can check for updates to the Shell Houston Open field at the bottom of this page, which I recommend doing before selecting your golfer.

Coming into the week, the PGA Tour rejoices. I wonder how many contracts for PGA Tour events were secretly renewed last week following Tiger Woods’ five-shot win at the Bay Hill Invitational. Somehow, someway, he managed to capture that with everything in the balance. The circus around Tiger is always active – and with everything happening around him, the crowd will roar with his every lash as they did before (if not more so). What could be more thrilling than to have Woods capture his win with The Masters right around the corner?

This week, the Shell Houston Open at Redstone Golf Club in Humble, Texas, serves as the “tune-up” for the first major of 2012. Players are more excited about this tournament, however, because of the work done by the Houston Golf Association and the superintendents via the PGA Tour. The culture here has been molded to replicate a major championship – while keeping it’s modest roots.

Roland Thatcher is playing on a sponsor’s exemption this week. He is a native of the Woodlands, about an hour from Redstone. He’s seen the Shell Houston Open blossom from a small-time event to a world-class field with a slightly altered golf course. This effect is directly related to one thing: the preparation for the following week at Augusta National. This week, three out of four major champions from 2011 are in the field: Keegan Bradley, Darren Clarke, and Charl Schwartzel.

“Listening to other guys I’ve played with and asking the same questions…basically they’re saying the conditions rival Augusta as far as the way they manicure, the way they set up, and I think that’s what gets them a decent international draw in what would otherwise be a ‘dead week’ for the PGA Tour, at least before a major,” said Thatcher. 

“They’re getting a really great field because of the way they’re setting up the tournament.”

Thatcher pointed out to me that the fairways were cut downward like Augusta, where the grass is cut towards the tees opposed to facing forward. If you have seen the Masters on TV, it’s obvious the fairways at Redstone have a significantly different look that even the USGA would approve. The bunkers are raked in a downward motion where the ball is less likely to plug and is more similar to the Masters as well.

“A lot of guys wouldn’t want to go somewhere that has a completely different feel to it,” Thatcher said. “If they want to play the week before a major… they wouldn’t want to play on bumpy poa annua somewhere. They would rather play on something that’s going to be exactly similar to what they see next week.”

Redstone plays 7,457 yards. A par 72, there are four par-5’s – which will not be helping the scores at all if the conditions stay as they were the past couple days. Players were explaining that it was more difficult to reach the par-5’s than previous years because the fairways were so soft. The greens are firm, however – making things similar to a major, if you will. Also, the wind swirls and bounces off the tall trees, causing players to judge slight wind swirls and small gusts.

Lee Westwood, ranked No. 3 in the world, is already playing in The Masters next week. Since 2007 (skipping in 2008), he’s played the Shell Houston Open every year prior to The Masters. His play in Houston reflects his major performance... his finishes were as follows: 2007: T56 Shell, T30 Masters; 2009: T11 Shell, T43 Masters; 2010: 8th Shell, 2nd Masters; 2011: T30 Shell, T11 Masters. Before Lee started this schedule trend, he had two missed cuts at Augusta and had just one high finish, in 1999. Additionally, his caddie Billy Foster has won at Augusta with Seve Ballesteros.

I asked Westwood about a variety of questions about his Augusta preparation. 

“If you don’t go into (The Masters) competitively sharp, you know, you’re not going to hit all the greens, going to have to get down a little bit as you do at most tournaments, but it just seems like it’s more important at The Masters, you know, to keep the momentum going.

“It’s nice to have the benefit around the greens playing the similar kind of shot and they got them really quick here as they do next week,” he said.

“They’ve grown the grass into as well. So that’s another thing they do for next week. It’s another thing to get used to, I suppose, you know… I think this is a great golf course. I think you’ve got to have all aspects of your game in place. But certainly it helps to be 300 yards down the middle on most holes.” 

Ranked No. 15 in the world and defending champion, Phil Mickelson, was not seen Tuesday. But Skip “Bones” McCay was out. I asked Bones about their preparation for The Masters, but he declined to comment, respectively. Besides ties to sponsor Barclays in Houston, Mickelson is a tremendous support to the local charities. With his wife’s recovery from cancer stemming in Houston’s hospitals, his ties are deep.

On a similar note, finally, Jarrod Lyle sent a letter to the players today. He mentioned he and his family are doing wonderful and he wanted to thank everyone for their support. 

“I was quite touched to watch Bay Hill and see so many of you wearing my Leuk the Duck badges out there,” Lyle said. “It means a lot to me to know I have the support from the PGA Tour family and it really gives me the strength to get back over there and compete again.”

After an update on his progress, he added, “Congratulations to Tiger for winning again at Bay Hill. Was great to see and even better with Leuk sitting up there!”
Picks for the Week

My Top 5

Johnson Wagner... Redstone tends to favor a guy who draws the ball. The trouble is usually left and the holes tend to move in a right to left angle. Wagner thinks this is one of the major reasons why he plays so well here – other than he and his caddie are Texas natives. With a couple of kids and a new workout regimen, Johnson is in a great position in his career. A win under his belt this year and going to all four majors, I think this will be a great week for him. Always under the radar. He won here in 2008 as well. By the way, he’s proclaimed himself “the moustache guy” and refuses to shave.

Padraig Harrington... He draws it, he’s a three-time major champ, and everyone at the event knows that his experience is important. Redstone requires lots of good ball striking and smart play. Harrington is capable of this. A T20 at the Transitions was a bit disappointing since he opened with 61, but I assume his game will be major ready this year. He finished T8 here last year.

Phil Mickelson... It’s a golf course he’s won on, with a 63-65 weekend last year. That kind of play is hard to beat. I think he will be well-rested and dangerous. 

Steve Stricker... He finished T4 here last year and is having a stellar season. He finished T9 and T8 in his last two events and won the opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Stricker is playing great golf and lots of players and coaches are impressed with his swing on the range.

Graeme McDowell... First time players tend to do well at the Shell Houston Open – and McDowell is hot. Usually, when he is playing well, McDowell tends to keep it going. After playing with Tiger last week and finishing T2 at the Bay Hill Invitational, I expect him to come out firing.

Others to watch

Chris Kirk finished T2 last year but had horrible finishes before and after this event, as C.A. pointed out in the 10-Fer. This means he either found it randomly that week or this course fits him like a glove. I tend to think it fits him – since the young Georgia alum and Tour sophomore bombs it and ranks top-35 on Tour in both Greens in Regulation and Greens in Regulation out of Bunkers. Those are impressive stats considering his occasional poor play. He won last year and I assume he likes the greens. A good pick. He’s also 16th in par-4 birdies. The par-4’s are tough here.

Thatcher draws it and strikes the ball very well. He’s a hometown guy and has some decent finishes here. I have seen him play lately and I expect him to be there on Sunday. After watching him make birdie on No. 18 in the practice round, I expect him to have lots of good vibes.

Westwood has shown improvement at this event over the years. I expect him to be a threat. I have watched him play at this event before and was not impressed tee-to-green. However, he has steadily improved over the years and should be comfortable.

Bud Cauley is one of the best I’ve ever seen at controlling distances with his irons – especially in mild wind conditions. He’s my pick among the newbies to have a great week.

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Photo: US Presswire