The 2014 Shell Houston Open serves as an exciting precursor to next week's Masters Tournament. Plenty of the top golfers who should challenge for the green jacket will be in action beginning Thursday at the Golf Club of Houston in Humble, Texas.
Reigning FedEx Cup champion Henrik Stenson is the highest-ranked player in the field (No. 3), and his recent form suggests a win may be in the cards. Rory McIlroy is considered the odds-on favorite at 9-to-1, but he hasn't teed it up in competition since finishing tied for 25th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
For the first two rounds, McIlroy will play with 13-to-1 shot Dustin Johnson and former world No. 1 Luke Donald in a group that should create plenty of buzz.
With a ton of other great players set to hit the links in prodigy Jordan Spieth, recent major champions Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, FedEx Cup points leader Jimmy Walker and countless others, this has all the makings of an epic PGA Tour event.
One fan favorite is Phil Mickelson—who's slated to play with Simpson and Bradley over the first 36 holes—but his status is unfortunately in doubt.
The AFP (h/t Golf Channel's Will Gray) reports that Mickelson opted out of Tuesday's pro-am, still nursing a pulled oblique muscle that caused him to withdraw from the Valero Texas Open this past Saturday.
Should a breakthrough, unexpected winner emerge, he will automatically qualify for the year's first major at Augusta National. Gray provided some analysis of the numbers:
By my count there are 45 guys playing Houston who are already in the Masters. Leaves 99 players fighting for the final golden ticket.— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) April 1, 2014
Matt Every and Steven Bowditch recorded their maiden victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and last week in San Antonio, respectively, so it's conceivable that an unheralded player could rise to the occasion this time around.
Read on for more information on the latest tournament on the 2013-14 schedule, which should nurture some more great golf.
When: Thursday, April 3 through Sunday, April 6
Where: Golf Club of Houston in Humble, Texas
Tee Times: For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit PGATOUR.com.
Purse: $6,400,000; Winner's Share: $1,152,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
|Thursday, April 3||3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Friday, April 4||3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Saturday, April 5||1-3 p.m., 3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, NBC|
|Sunday, April 6||1-3 p.m., 3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, NBC|
Analysis of Marquee Groups
Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Luke Donald
Let's never doubt McIlroy's ability to bounce back. When he collapsed at the 2011 Masters after holding a four-shot lead entering the final round, he promptly blew the field away at that year's U.S. Open.
Similar dominance followed at the 2012 PGA Championship after he was doubted, perhaps as a one-hit wonder. Two major victories by eight strokes apiece. He's good.
But McIlroy blew another 54-hole lead at the Honda Classic, then looked as though he'd be fine following a first-round 70 at Doral in his last appearance.
Then the wheels came off, partially due to tough conditions, as he faded with scores of 74, 75 and 74 to finish.
This is an important week for McIlroy, who is currently listed as a 10-to-1 Masters co-favorite along with defending green jacket winner Adam Scott.
|Driving Distance||309.7 yards||2|
|Greens in Regulation Percentage||73.61%||1|
|Strokes Gained Putting||.715||11|
|Birdie Average||4.95 per round||1|
|All-Around Ranking||164 points||1|
|Birdie or Better Conversion Percentage||38.02%||1|
|FedEx Cup Points||1,334||3|
Johnson placed in a tie for fourth at the Shell Houston Open last year, carding a sensational final-round 65. He's known primarily as a power player, but check out the above table and how well-rounded Johnson has been this season
The supreme athlete appears riled up and ready to notch his ninth PGA victory this week:
Not much more needs to be said for Donald, who is still considered one of the better players not to have won a major. The pressure will only increase on him to win one over time, and he's coming off a tie for fourth at the Valspar Championship.
According to Donald himself, his preparation for this tournament is going well, too:
Great day of practice today, everything just seemed to click, that doesn't happen very often.— Luke Donald (@LukeDonald) March 27, 2014
This will be the clear threesome to watch in the first two rounds.
Donald is on the path to recovering his world-class form, Johnson is trying to assert himself as one of the true best players on the planet and McIlroy hopes to give himself another taste of contention before attempting to capture the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
Padraig Harrington, Ryo Ishikawa and Nicolas Colsaerts
Since it's just about impossible to see a winner like Every or Bowditch coming, this trio offers some candidates who need a victory to qualify for the Masters.
Harrington is a three-time major winner, but meticulous tweaking to his mechanics has seen the Irish star fall far. The veteran has made just three cuts in seven starts this season, not faring better than a tie for 27th at Pebble Beach in February.
It's likely that at age 42, a solid finish would serve Harrington well as he tries to pick up the pieces. Winning at this point seems like a long shot, but it's not as though he doesn't have a proven track record.
After living off of special invitations to the Masters for the past five years, missing three cuts at Augusta and seeing his game decline, Ishikawa is in an unfamiliar position.
The 22-year-old Japanese sensation, who shot as low as 58 in his native land at age 18, has found U.S. success harder to come by. Immense expectations, a completely new environment to adjust to and youth have a lot to do with that. He was blessed and cursed for achieving so much so soon.
However, things are starting to turn around. Ishikawa has three top-10s this season and has been due for a victory after 10 previous triumphs on the Japan Golf Tour.
Not long ago, Colsaerts, the Belgian Bomber, appeared to be getting back on course, exploding onto the scene at the 2012 Ryder Cup as a captain's pick.
Despite Colsaerts' immense power, he missed three of four cuts at the majors last season, though he did come in joint 10th at the U.S. Open. Perhaps the lure of the major stage can wake up Colsaerts' game. It is a good sign that his typical weakness is a bright spot in that he ranks 17th on tour in strokes gained putting.
Jimmy Walker, Henrik Stenson, Matt Kuchar
Stenson was the joint runner-up at the 2013 Shell Houston Open, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him in the thick of the hunt yet again.
Perhaps a letdown was expected for the strapping Swede after he won both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai on the European Tour. A bit of a lull to begin this season was remedied when Stenson finished joint fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his last start.
He expressed confidence after his best performance of the calendar year, per Golf Channel's Ryan Lavner: "It’s nice to get a good tournament in. Sometimes you don’t need to necessarily be where you want to be two to three weeks before a big tournament. It can turn around quickly when you get the confidence in this game."
Top-flight competition will be in close proximity in the form of Walker and Kuchar, though.
Walker has won three times on tour already in 2013-14, establishing himself as a legitimate star. A long layoff ended in San Antonio last week, where he posted his best round of the week with a 69 in the final round under difficult conditions to finish tied for 16th.
Trailing by just three strokes after 54 holes, chances for Kuchar to win the Valero Texas Open were realistic before he faded with a final-round 75. The numbers haven't been all that pretty for Kuchar this season, but he still posts solid results and is bound to have another good showing in Humble.
Which favorite is the best bet to win?
Anyone could win in this deep field—whether it be current elite golfers at the peak of their powers, past stars surging at the perfect time or others seeking a landmark win to add to their resumes.
Plenty of birdies can be had around this course. The past four champions' average aggregate score has been 272—16 under par—for 72 holes. The caliber of players on this course, combined with the stakes of qualifying for the Masters with a win, should see a lot of aggressive play.
With that being the situation, watch for how some players approach course management. Those pining for a Masters invitation may get too greedy and pay for their mistakes, while others who know they're already in will use this as more of a fine-tuning exercise if they aren't in contention.
Thanks to the depth of competitors, though, the 2014 Shell Houston Open figures to feature prominent superstars battling it out for the trophy on Sunday.