With public eyes trained steadily on Augusta National and next week’s Masters, the Shell Houston Open can often be overlooked. But if you join in on that stream of thought you might just be missing a lot, especially of you are a fan of golf course architecture and seeing how the best players in the world adapt to a trying layout.

Clearly no golf course or tournament can replicate what happens in Augusta but there is a reason why there is such a strong field in Houston this week; it is perfect preparation for the 1st major championship of the year. And much better than simple practice because as a player you are immersed in a competitive environment where most of your foes are also teeing it up.

Defending this week will be Paul Casey who spoke to the media today about his defense, but mostly about preparation for The Masters. Of course, if you have any hope of winning next week your golf game better already be in shape. “I feel ready,” says Casey who points to his win at the Redstone Golf Club in Humble last year as the launching point for a new-found bravado. 

He says that getting that win and moving to the #3 spot in the World Golf Rankings proved to him that he was now ready to even start thinking about realistically winning a major. “I’m happy with the pressure; I can handle this. I know now I’m ready to compete every single week.”

And compete he will have to do this week if he hopes to repeat and pocket just over a $1 million. Last year he simply needed a bogey on the 1st extra hole to dispose of J.B. Holmes. Holmes made a double bogey after hitting a ball into the 8 acre pond on the Redstone Tournament course known as “the big ball washer.”

This year the daunting presence of that ball gathering chasm remains but there are a few more tweaks to the pristine course that plays to nearly 7500 yards. 

After last year’s tournament Redstone Superintendent Randy Samoff and his staff made a few changes on heir Tournament Course with the goal of giving players more of the same types of shots they will see at Augusta National in the following week. That including enlarging the short cut areas around most greens, widening collar cuts around the greens including areas between greens and bunkers, and extending shaved banks on the lake holes. 

It’s even more reason for the players to sign up for Houston although they hardly need encouragement. “(The) course is absolutely perfect, greens best on tour,” says tournament supporter and past Champions Stuart Appleby. Never afraid to give an opinion, it is a ringing endorsement for the layout.

Casey does look like a strong hope to defend’ he has finished inside the top-ten in each of his 2010 PGA Tour starts, but he will have to push hard past a field filthy with worthy contenders.

Two focal points would have to be a couple smooth swingers, Ernie Els and Fred Couples.

Els is an obvious choice as the only two-time winner on tour this year and brimming with the confidence of last week’s win. Length, touch, and a committed putting stroke able to tackle the massive Redstone greens are the perfect formula for a Shell Houston Open win and Els has all those in spades. 

Given his age Couples might be less apparent as a true challenger but his tie for 3rd in 2009 shows he is more than sentimental favorite. Factor in three consecutive wins on the Champions Tour, an affinity for the Houston area and a golf game that traditionally peaks early in the year and he is a viable option as a potential champion. Oh, did we mention he also won the tournament in 2003?

I might just be hoping for the great storyline but really, what harm is there in that?

Also enhancing the field this week, mostly due to the Masters to follow, is a bevy of International players. Teeing it up will be  defending Masters champion Angel Cabrera, Padraig Harrington, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Andres Romero, CharlSchwartzel, Adam Scott, Jeev Milka Singh and Lee Westwood.

Domestic players sprinkled among the talented 144 player array are Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Lucas Glover, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III and Hunter Mahan. Mahan has a strong record in Houston and a win this year so keep an eye on him.

This report provided to GolfWRX.com by Flagstick Golf Magazine (www.flagstick.com).

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