Biggest Storylines Heading into the Shell Houston Open

Mike DudurichContributor IApril 1, 2014

Biggest Storylines Heading into the Shell Houston Open

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    For a couple months at the beginning of each year, conversations about golf are often filled with Masters references.

    The first major of the year is always a big topic, especially now that the historic gathering in Augusta, Ga., is just a week away.

    But before we get to the lightning-fast greens and the intense pressure that goes along with winning a green jacket, there's the Shell Houston Open.

    Not only is it played the week before the Masters; it's played on a course that's conditioned to replicate what players will face next week.

    The SHO is also the last chance for players who haven't qualified for the Masters to get in. But they have to win in Houston to do so. Two players have done that: Johnson Wagner in 2008 and D.A. Points last year.

    Here's a look at the top storylines for the 2014 Shell Houston Open.

Last Year

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    He had to wait a lot longer than normal (thanks to a three-hour rain delay), but D.A. Points won the 2013 Shell Houston Open to earn a spot in the Masters.

    The journeyman had struggled coming into Houston, having not broken 70 in his previous nine rounds and making the cut in only two of his previous nine starts.

    But he finished strong with a final-round 66 and was able to hold off Henrik Stenson and Billy Horschel by a shot. Points trailed Stewart Cink and Bill Haas by a shot going into the final round but made six birdies to get the win.

The Field

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    Ten players in the top 20 of the Official World Golf Rankings will be in Houston this week to compete in the Shell Houston Open. The Golf Club of Houston is groomed to replicate Augusta National Golf Club as closely as possible, and 46 players who will play in the Masters next week are in the field this week.

    Powerful Henrik Stenson, last year's runner-up, is the headliner. Phil Mickelson, who won the event in 2011, is scheduled to play, but that's not a certainty after he withdrew from the Valero Texas Open on Saturday with a pulled muscle in his side. Fred Couples, who played collegiately at the University of Houston, was scheduled to withdraw because of recurring back problems.

    Other top players scheduled to play are Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson. Jimmy Walker, who started the 2013-14 season off fast, is still the FedEx Cup points leader and will play, as will Matteo Manassero of Italy and Branden Grace of South Africa.

The Course

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    The PGA Tour has been visiting the Houston area since 1946, not all at the Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course, but this stop has become one of the rocks on the tour.

    The course is the former Redstone Golf Club and has been tailored to replicate Augusta National Golf Club as closely as possible. Shaved banks throughout the course, collection areas around greens and greens that always run at least 13 on the stimpmeter.

    If that sounds like Augusta, then the 7,441-yard, par-72 beast is doing what tournament organizers hoped.

    With perhaps a Masters spot on the line, the 488-yard 18th, with water running along the entire left side, gives players all they want.

What Will Stricker Do?

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    PGA Tour veteran Steve Stricker may have a very interesting week at the Shell Houston Open.

    At this stage in his career, he's playing a limited schedule but will be in Houston hoping to sharpen his game before next week's Masters.

    But between those events is the Final Four, which includes Stricker's beloved Wisconsin Badgers.

    What do you think the chances are that Stricker is making plans to finish his round on Saturday (assuming he makes the cut) and gets from Houston to Dallas for the second semifinal between Kentucky and the Badgers? That game is scheduled to tip at 7:49 CT.

     

From the Record Book

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    Because this tournament has had several homes, there are various scoring records. Curtis Strange and Lee Trevino posted 72-hole totals of 266 in 1980 at Woodlands Country Club, Vijay Singh finished with the same total in 2003 at the TPC Woodlands and Phil Mickelson has the best total at the tournament's current site with a 268 in 2011.

    In terms of individual rounds, Ron Streck put a 62 on the scoreboard in the third round in 1981 at Woodlands Country Club. Fred Funk matched that in the third round in 1992 at the TPC Woodlands.

    At the Golf Club of Houston, the best round is 63. That score has been done by Johnson Wagner and Adam Scott in the first round in 2008, Jimmy Walker in the first round in 2011 and Mickelson in the third round in the same year.

Worth Noting

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    For whatever reason, it's tough to win the Shell Houston Open. That's not to say it's easy to win any event on the PGA Tour, but over the years, there have been 21 playoffs required to determine a winner. Only the U.S. Open has had more playoffs with 33. There have been two playoffs at the Golf Club of Houston: Paul Casey winning in 2009 and Anthony Kim in 2010.

    Longtime PGA Tour veteran Jeff Maggert made his Champions Tour debut memorable by winning the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, and he'll celebrate this week by playing in the Shell Houston Open for the 26th time. Doing so will tie him with John Mahaffey for most appearances in Houston. Maggert finished second three times in this event.

    If you're looking for someone to pick in fantasy golf this week, don't pick D.A. Points, last year's champ. There has been only one successful defense of a title: Vijay Singh in 2004-05.

     

Watching, Listening

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    Golf fans will have plenty of opportunities to see if any of the players in the field not already into the Masters can get a win in Houston and qualify to play at Augusta National next week.

    Golf Channel will provide coverage Thursday and Friday from 3-6 p.m. ET and Saturday and Sunday from 1-3 p.m. NBC will have the action from 3-6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

    Golf fans who prefer to stream will also have that option, with live-stream tournament action on GolfChannel.com/LiveExtra.

Winning and Winning

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    Winning back-to-back tournaments on the PGA Tour is a very difficult proposition.

    And when you think about winning an event the week before a major and then the major itself, the odds are very much stacked against you.

    Consider that only five players have ever won the week before the Masters and then put on a green jacket the following week.

    The list includes Ralph Guldahl, 1939 Greater Greensboro Open; Sam Snead, 1949 Greater Greensboro Open; Art Wall, 1959 Azalea Open; Sandy Lyle, 1988 Greater Greensboro Open; and Phil Mickelson, 2006 BellSouth Classic.

    That's a paltry number considering the Masters has been played since 1934.

     

Another Upset?

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    If recent form continues, don't be surprised if the winner this week in the Shell Houston Open comes from outside the ranks of golf's elite.

    Russell Henley won the Honda Classic in a four-man playoff that included Rory McIlroy. Henley was ranked 109th in the Official World Golf Rankings at the time. Patrick Reed was 44th when he won the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship.  And Matt Every was 94th when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

    The biggest shocker, though, was Steven Bowditch winning the Valero Texas Open, despite shooting 76 in the final round. The shocking part was Bowditch was ranked 339th in the world coming into last week and he beat Matt Kuchar, the 11th-ranked player in the world.

    Bowditch, by the way, jumped to 134th with the win.

     

And the Winner Is

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    Jordan Spieth, last year's 20-year-old sensation on the PGA Tour, made his first appearance in his home state of Texas last week and got off to a horrible start.

    He had to wait out a lengthy fog delay to start his first round and opened with four straight bogeys and six in the first seven holes. But give the kid credit—from that point on he was 10-under par over 65 holes and finished 10th.

    That stretch of quality will be just what Spieth needs to jump-start a season that has been so-so to this point.

    Winning in his home state will make it even sweeter.