By Pete Pappas

GolfWRX Staff Writer

The first Houston Open debuted in 1922 as the Independent Insurance Agent Open, making it the third oldest tournament on the PGA Tour behind the Western Open (1899), and the Canadian Open (1904).

Yet despite this long-established pedigree, the Shell Houston Open has to sometimes feel like the black sheep of the PGA Tour schedule.

Since 2007 it’s played second fiddle to Augusta National.  And its notoriety has been more about being the final “tune-up” for The Masters (similarities or dissimilarities aside) than it’s been in being a regular event on the PGA Tour since 1946 (impressive in its own right).

The PGA Tour’s decision in 2007 to move the Houston Open to the week immediately preceding The Masters was embattled in controversy when Phil Mickelson (who prefers to play the week before a major to keep his competitive juices flowing) said he wouldn’t play the event because nothing about it resembled Augusta.

Lefty’s comments presumably were directly responsible for the 2010 renovations that did make the Tournament Course at Redstone Golf Club set up more like Augusta.  But that wasn’t exactly the player endorsement this Reese Jones course needed while trying to attract the world’s top players.

To be sure the Shell Houston Open has corralled its fair share of big names since then; for instance, Adam Scott, Paul Casey, and Anthony Kim are all champions of this event (in 2007, 2009, and 2010 respectively).

But it hasn’t quite been the flowing list of “marquee” names envisioned, as evidenced by the notable absentees this week, including seven of the world’s top-10 ranked players in the Official World Golf Rankings, with world No. 1 Luke Donald, and No. 2 ranked Rory McIlroy the spotlight missing in action.

And now with every media outlet blowing hot and cold all week about what Tiger Woods’ first victory in 923 days at the Arnold Palmer Invitational this past Sunday means, the Shell Houston Open probably won’t get the recognition it deserves once again.

Absent 2011 defending champion Mickelson robustly cracking another driver (as he did here in round one last year), the tournament before the year’s first major might just go gently into the Humble, Texas night.

But as they say, the SHO (Shell Houston Open) must go on.

The road not taken

Those players who have decided the road to Augusta goes through Redstone will include 15 major champions (including three major winners from 2011), seven previous Shell Houston Open champions, and six 2012 PGA Tour winners.

52-year old Fred Couples (one of the most popular players in tour history with 15 career PGA Tour wins) makes his 20th career start at Shell, and is coming off his first win on the over-50 circuit this season.

Couples claimed his seventh-career Champions Tour victory at the Mississippi Gulf Classic last week by sinking a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18 at the treacherous Fallen Oak Golf Course.

“The bottom line is you get a lot of chances to win if you play well,” said Couples. “It was a fun day and I’m looking forward to the Shell and then Augusta.”

2011 SHO defending champion Phil Mickelson tries to become the first player this season to win multiple times on the PGA Tour, and looks to regain momentum after a disappointing T-24 performance last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard at Bay Hill.

Mickelson sounded confident heading into Thursday.  “I find that I play my best in a major championship when I compete the week before,” Mickelson said.  “It gets me in a competitive frame of mind, and I enjoy the challenge of only having three days between competitive rounds.”

Houston we have a problem

With 25 players in Houston already safely qualified to play next week in the 77th Masters, 100 other players unambiguously need a victory to capture a birth at Augusta (absent a Masters Committee discretionary invitation).

But before you start thinking everyone in the Shell field is only there to secure that treasured “green jacket” opportunity, think again.

“I’m not smart enough to concentrate on two things at once,” said world No. 3 Lee Westwood.  “So I have to concentrate on the thing at hand, which is trying to win [The Shell Houston Open] this week.”

Everything’s bigger in Texas

The Tournament Course at Redstone is one of the longest on the PGA Tour at 7,457 yards (32 yards longer than Augusta National).  And its prodigious length is spread over a protracted 350 acres.

But is bigger really better?  The Shell course ranked 29 out of 51 in difficulty on the PGA Tour in 2011 (but first in spectator fatigue).

The coyotes wail along the trail (clap, clap, clap, clap) deep in the heart of Texas! 

Lee Westwood (10/1).  Westwood is living up to his world No. 3 billing with two top-10 finishes to go along with a top-25, and is third in scoring average (69.38) this year on tour.

The Englishman is second in greens-in-regulation and first in sand saves (which can translate to low scores on a Shell course with heavily bunkered greens and more than 60 sand traps).

Hampered by two poor days between a strong opening and closing day last year, he finished T-30 at Redstone in 2011.  But Westwood’s track record at Shell is impressive overall (with a T-11 in 2009 and a T-8 in 2010).

Westwood sees similarities between Redstone and Augusta, but he’s not just gearing up for The Masters.

“I’m not one of these people for playing the shot that I have to play next week,” he said.  “I like to play each tournament and give it the respect it deserves and play each course on its merits, play a shot when it’s necessary.”

Westwood hasn’t played since the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship (T-29).

Phil Mickelson (12/1).  The world No. 15 also has two top-10 finishes in 2012 including his thrilling victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and equally emotional playoff loss at the Northern Trust Open.

Lefty is one of only four players to triumph the week before winning The Masters, and last year went 7-under on Sunday en route to taking home the Shell Houston Open trophy (20-under, 268).

Mickelson’s bogey-free 63 on moving day in 2011 was a course record, and he led the field with 27 birdies (18 coming over the weekend).  However he was wild with his driver at Redstone (and this year is hitting fairways at a pedestrian 54 percent clip).  That’s something he’d like to improve on this week.

Phil’s iron play could also use a bit of sharpening heading into Augusta (64 percent GIR), but it’s been hard to argue with his sixth-place ranking in birdie conversion and third-place ranking in strokes gained-putting.

I think Phil is primarily interested in tinkering with and tweaking his game to position himself for a run at his fourth green jacket next week.

But if he’s in contention on Sunday in Houston, he’ll put the full-court-press on winning Shell for the second time in his career (joining a list of seven others who’ve also won twice, including last week’s masterly host, Arnold Palmer).

Steve Stricker (15/1).  In many circles Sticker is mentioned as the best American golfer on tour (of course you know who jumped into that discussion again with a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week).

In four starts this season Stricker’s notched three top-10 finishes, and a victory at the PGA Tour season opener in Hawaii (the Hyundai Tournament of Champions).

And if the PGA Tour Player of the Year voting was held today, it might be difficult to vote against him.

He’s first in birdie average, second in scrambling, and fifth in GIR this season.  Stricker is also first in back-9 scoring average (showing he brings it in the clutch).

The world No. 5 ranked player finished T-4 here last year, and has four top-11 finishes in five career starts at Redstone.

The biggest question about his game heading into Shell will be is he rested or rusty coming back for the first time since his T-8 finish at the WGC-Cadillac.

Keegan Bradley (20/1).  Bradley is a picture of consistency.  The St. John’s University alum hasn’t finished lower than 22nd place in each of his eight starts this season.

He has two top-10 finishes, and a second place finish (a playoff loss) at the Northern Trust Open.

Bradley ranks fifth in all around ranking, seventh in scoring average, 10th in scrambling, 20th in GIR, and 31st in total driving.

Like Stricker he’s also making his first start since his WGC-Cadillac T-8 finish (and is making his second ever appearance at Redstone).

Ernie Els (25/1).  Absent a “special invitation” Els needs a victory in Houston to get his 19th crack at Augusta National next week.

The Big Easy has two top-5 finishes the past two weeks but both could easily have been victories.

The pressure of this must-win scenario will be boiling over at Redstone, even higher than it was when Els’ green jacket bid was derailed with a bogey-bogey finish two weeks ago on Sunday at the Transitions Championship.

One of the most feel-good or heartbreaking stories of the PGA Tour season will unfold this week in the Houston heat.

Graeme McDowell (25/1).  McDowell nearly tamed the Tiger in Arnie’s Kingdom last week at Bay Hill finishing in solo second place.

G-Mac would rank 17th in GIR (if eligible) and 30th in strokes gained-putting.

He’s only appeared once at Redstone in 2006 (a T-54 finish).

Johnson Wagner (30/1).  “Fear the Stache.” 

Wagner’s first career victory came here at the Shell Houston Open in 2008.

He’s currently ranked No. 1 in the FedExCup standings.

His four top-10 finishes are the most on Tour (including his latest T-4 last week at Bay Hill).

Kevin Streelman (80/1).  GolfWRX Swagger.”

I’m picking Streelman purely on what I’ll call a “WRX swagger hunch.”

Feeding hundreds of thousands of frenzied GolfWRX maniacs your 2011 Masters yardage book?

Seriously good karma Streels!

Perfect Pairings

Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Fred Couples

Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood

Kyle Stanley, Anthony Kim, Ernie Els

Hunter Mahan, Johnson Wagner, Steve Stricker

John Huh, Louis Oosthuizen, Robert Allenby

Ben Crane, Scott Piercy, Y.E. Yang

Lucas Glover, Jason Bohn, Camilo Villegas

Billy Mayfair, Kevin Streelman, Matt Every

Should I stay or should I go?

Put yourselves in the spikes of a PGA Tour professional.  You’re heading into Augusta, the first major championship of the season (and possibly the biggest).

Would you take the week off?  Would you play the Shell Houston Open?  Would you just kick it with friends and watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory?

Redstone is set up to be similar to Augusta National.

Some players like Tiger prefer to skip the week before The Masters and get in some final preparation and specific practice.

Others like Phil prefer to keep the momemtum going and play straight into that major.

Whichever route of preparation you’d choose, I’m sure you have good reasons.  But if it were me?  I wouldn’t settle for similar.


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Odds provided by Las Vegas PGA Tour Golf Betting Odds

You can follow Pete on twitter @TheGreekGrind

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Pete is a journalist, commentator, and interviewer covering the PGA Tour, new equipment releases, and the latest golf fashions.

Pete's also a radio and television personality who's appeared multiple times on ESPN radio, and Fox Sports All Bets Are Off. And when he's not running down a story, he's at the range working on his game.

Above all else, Pete's the proud son of a courageous mom who battled pancreatic cancer much longer than anyone expected.

You can follow Pete on twitter @PGAPappas


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