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It’s SHO time: The Shell Houston Open preview

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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.

Notes

Television Coverage

Thursday and Friday: Golf Channel 3-6 p.m. EST

Saturday and Sunday: NBC 3-6 p.m. EST

Radio Coverage

Thursday through Sunday: SiriusXM Satellite Radio 12-6 p.m. EST

Odds

Odds provided by Las Vegas PGA Tour Golf Betting Odds

You can follow Pete on twitter @TheGreekGrind

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour Talk” forum.

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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

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. peak904

    Apr 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    Did Phil put in play C taper shafts in his irons this week?

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Opinion & Analysis

“I Love You, Tiger!” At Big Cedar lodge, an outpouring of affection for Tiger Woods

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What a difference a year makes.

About one year ago, Tiger Woods was in Branson, Missouri at Big Cedar Lodge to announce that he was designing a golf course there; Payne’s Valley, his first public course. That day was attended by hundreds of national and local media, the Lieutenant Governor of Missouri and Johnny Morris, Bass Pro Shops owner and the visionary behind the amazing golf complex that has been established at Big Cedar Lodge.

That day, Woods had not played competitive golf for awhile, and he was recovering from multiple surgeries. Woods took a couple of ceremonial swings, the last of which clearly left him in physical distress. Days later, he was in surgery again and his playing career looked to be all but over. The situation became worse when Woods was arrested for driving under the influence, found with multiple substances in his system. It seemed as though the sad mug shots from that arrest might be as prominent in his legacy as the smiles and fist-pumps that accompanied his 79 wins and 14 major championships.

Fast forward to yesterday, where Woods was back in Missouri to do a Junior Clinic at Big Cedar. An estimated crowd of over 7,000 kids and parents showed up on a school day to catch a glimpse of Woods. The atmosphere was carnival-like, with sky divers, stunt planes making flyovers and rock music blaring from giant speakers. When Woods finally arrived, the reaction was electric. Mothers and their kids were chanting. “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” at the top of their lungs. Photographers battled soccer moms for position to get a picture of his swing. Some of the kids were as young as 6-years-old, which means that they had probably not seen Woods hit a meaningful shot in their life. At one point, when Woods was hitting shots and explaining how to execute them, a woman shouted, “I love you, Tiger!” Not to be out done, a woman on the other side of the crowd, who was their with her husband and kids, shouted “I love you more, Tiger!” Maybe the only people with more affection for Woods would be the people in the golf business. A senior marketing official in the golf industry leaned over at one point in the event and said, “God, we could use just one more from him.”

Woods swing looks completely rehabilitated. He was hitting shots of every shape and trajectory on-demand, and the driver was sending balls well past the end of the makeshift driving range set up for the event. But even more remarkable was the evidence of the recovery of his reputation. Surely there are still women out there that revile Woods for the revelations of infidelity, and no doubt there are those that still reject Woods for his legal and personal struggles. But none of them were in Missouri yesterday. Mothers and children shrieking his name confirmed what we already knew: Tiger Woods is the single most compelling person in American sports, and he belongs to golf.

Unlike a year ago, Woods is swinging well, and seems as healthy and happy as he as ever been as a pro. Add to that the unprecedented outpouring of love from crowds that once produced a combination of awe and respect, but never love. Fowler, McIlroy, Spieth and the rest may get their share of wins and Tweets, but if the game is to really grow it will be on the broad, fragile back of Tiger Woods. It’s amazing to think what can happen in one short year.

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Opinion & Analysis

12 reasons serious golfers don’t realize their potential

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What stops serious golfers from realizing their potential? If you are an amateur who wants to get better, a young player trying to achieve more, or a young professional with big dreams, this article is for you.

I’ve made a career out of helping athletes maximize their abilities, golfers in particular. And the things I see young playing professionals doing prior to our work together is often what is holding them back. The reality is that most young players, no matter what their level, have three key problems:

  1. They’re distracted by what’s not important
  2. They have no detailed structure and plan to reach the targets they determine are important to them
  3. They have no formal process to develop mindset and attitude

In the list below, I share what I see working with these young players and some common blind spots.

1. No real plan and steps to achieve targets

Most players do not know how to create a long-term and short-term plan that outlines all steps needed to reach targets. Players should have yearly plans with targets, steps and actions and weekly plans to organize/schedule their time and prioritize key needs.

2. Not focused enough on the object of the game

This goes hand in hand with No. 1. Surprisingly, players seem to forget that the object of the game is get the ball in the hole in the least amount of strokes. Trophies and checks are not issued for the best swing, the best putting stroke or most balls hit.

3. Not enough pressure in practice

Most young players have loose practice. The intensity of feelings between the practice tee and the course are too different. Focus and intensity must be a part of all practice. Add competition and outcomes to sessions so some urgency is created.

4. Too much practice time on full swing

The data is clear — most shots in golf happen from 100 yards and in from the green. If the majority of practice time is not spent on these shorter shots, practice time is wasted.

5. An obsession with the look of the swing

Players are not generally prepared to own their own swings and embrace the differences that make them unique. Obsessing over swing mechanics is a major distraction for many players. Many players convince themselves that if it doesn’t look “good” on their iPhone, their swing won’t get results.

6. No structure with the driver

Since scoring is the main goal, a consistent, reliable shape to each shot is important. My experience has been that if players are trying to go both ways with the driver, that is a sure-fire way to elevate numbers on the card. Pick a shape and eliminate one side of the course. Predictability from the tee increases a player’s confidence to put the ball in the fairway more often, creating more opportunities to score.

7. Expectation that they will hit the ball well everyday

Many players have the unreasonable expectation that they will hit lots of fairways and greens every time they play. This expectation leads to constant disappointment in their game. Knowing that the leading professionals in the game average about 60.6 percent driving accuracy and 11.8 greens in regulation per round should be a good benchmark for the expectations of all players.

8. Trying to be too robotic and precise in putting

Some players get so caught up in the mechanics of putting that their approach becomes too robotic. They become obsessed with precision and being perfect. Feel, flow and instinct have to be a central part of putting. This can get lost in an overly robotic mindset trying to be too precise and perfect.

9. No process for assessment and reflection

Players do not have a formal process for assessing practice or rounds and reflecting on the experience. The right lessons are not consistently taken away to ensure step-by-step improvement. Knowing how to assess practice, play and ask the right questions is key to development.

10. Getting in their own way

The voice inside of most young players’ heads is not helpful for their performance. It’s often a negative, demanding voice that insists on perfection. This voice leads to hesitation, frustration and anger. The voice must be shaped (with practice) into the right “emotional caddie” to support efforts and promote excellence over perfection.

11. A focus on the negative before the positive

A default to the mistakes/flaws in the round before looking at the highlights and what worked. When asked about their round, most players highlight three-putts, penalty shots and any errors before anything else. Emphasis should always be on what went well first. Refection on what needs improvement is second.

12. The blame game

Young players love excuses. Course conditions, weather, coaching and equipment are a few of the areas that are often targets, deflecting responsibility away from the player. Many players do not take full responsibility for their own game and/or careers.

I hope this provides some insights on roadblocks that could get in your way on the path to reaching your targets in the game. Whether it’s lowering your handicap, winning a junior tournament, working toward the PGA Tour — or just general improvement — considering these observations might help you shorten the road to get there.

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Opinion & Analysis

Fantasy Preview: 2018 Valero Texas Open

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With one of the weakest fields of the year, TPC San Antonio hosts the Valero Texas Open this week. Only one player from the top-20 in the Official World Golf Rankings will tee it up here. That man is Sergio Garcia, who co-designed this course with Greg Norman.

Just like last week at the RBC Heritage, the wind can wreak havoc at TPC San Antonio. The course features an exposed layout, making the level of wind is often unpredictable. Expect it to be a factor yet again this year. Unlike last week, the longer hitters do have an advantage on this course, which measuring more than 7,400 yards with little rough off the tee.

Last year, Kevin Chappell held off a charging Brooks Koepka to post 12-under par and win his first title on the PGA Tour.

Selected Tournament Odds (via Bet365)

  • Sergio Garcia 14/1
  • Matt Kuchar 18/1
  • Charley Hoffman 18/1
  • Luke List 25/1
  • Ryan Moore 28/1
  • Kevin Chappell 28/1
  • Adam Scott 30/1

From the top of the market, it’s hard not to love Luke List (25/1, DK Price $10,000) this week. The big-hitting American is still looking for his first win on the PGA Tour, but he is knocking on the door relentlessly. In his last eight events, List has finished no worse than T-26.

He was so close once again last week, and he should take plenty of confidence from that performance onto a course that theoretically should suit him much better. On this long track, List will have a significant advantage as one of the longest hitters on Tour. Over his last 24 rounds, he ranks 5th in Strokes Gained-Off The Tee and 1st in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green. List is also flushing his irons. He was second in the field last week for Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green, and over his previous 24 rounds he sits 3rd in the same category.

It’s not only his long game that is highly proficient right now, either. List’s short game has been stellar over this impressive stretch, too. He ranks 8th for Strokes Gained-Around the Green and 28th for Strokes Gained-Short Game over his last 24 rounds.

The one department holding the big man back is his putting, where he ranks 145th for the season. The rest of his game is so sharp at the moment that he’s in the enviable position of not needing that hot a week with the flat-stick to win. He only needs an average week on the greens to finally break through and claim his first PGA Tour event. There’s nothing to suggest List isn’t going to play well once more this week, and at 25/1 he seems undervalued.

Returning to a track that he adores, Brendan Steele (33/1, DK Price $8,900) is always a danger at this event. As well as winning the title here in 2011, Steele has finished in the top-20 three times since then. Whatever it is about TPC San Antonio, it’s a course that brings out the best in Steele’s game.

It’s been an excellent season for the West Coast native, too. He won his opening event of the season at the Safeway Open and has since finished in the top-30 six times. One of the main reasons for his strong run of form has been his work with the driver. Steele is ranked 1st in Strokes Gained-Off The Tee over his last 24 rounds, and he has only failed to post a positive Strokes Gained statistic in this category once since this event last year.

Recently, Steele’s game is showing trends that he may once more be close to hitting the form that saw him win at the back end of last year. In his previous 24 rounds, the Californian is ranked 10th in Ball Striking and 7th in Strokes Gained-Total. Always a threat at this event, Steele is coming into this week with all parts of his game in sync. He should be a live threat once more in San Antonio.

Another man who has played well all year is Xander Schauffele (35/1, DK Price $8,800). The Californian has made seven of eight cuts this year, and he has finished in the top-25 in four of those occasions. Excellent off the tee, TPC San Antonio should suit the 24-year-old this week, too. Schaufelle ranks 7th in Strokes Gained-Off The Tee and 17th in Strokes Gained-Tee to Green over his last 24 rounds.

With wind likely to play a factor this week, pure ball striking will be necessary. That shouldn’t be an issue for Xander, who sits 7th in Strokes Gained-Ball Striking over his last 24 rounds. There is nothing off about Schauffele’s game right now. He ranks 21st in Strokes Gained-Putting over his previous 12 rounds and 5th in Strokes Gained-Approaching the Green over the same period. It’s only a matter of time before the two-time PGA Tour winner puts himself in the thick of contention again, and there’s no reason why it can’t be this week.

Recommended Plays

  • Luke List 25/1, DK Price $10,000
  • Brendan Steele 33/1, DK Price $8,900
  • Xander Schauffele 35/1, DK Price $8,800
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