Rory McIlroy has decided to take on a new approach to this year’s major championships and that involves playing in the previous week. Consequently he is the favourite for the Houston Open a week ahead of the US Masters. Tiger Woods is not playing this week and with concerns about an ongoing back problem he has not yet confirmed he will be playing at Augusta.
The host course this week is at the Golf Club of Houston in Texas and this is the seventh year in succession that the tournament has come to this track. The organisers are looking to help Masters entrants by setting the course up to provide a similar test. That strategy is reflected in a field that includes McIlroy and three times Masters champion, Phil Mickelson.
The key skills for good scoring this week are hitting the greens in the correct number of shots and a competent short game. When missing greens scrambling becomes important and one player who excels in this area is Steve Stricker. The veteran plays a limited schedule now but when he appears he can still compete. Winning may be beyond Stricker this week but a top 10 finish is perfectly feasible.
In 2013 the Golf Club of Houston was the 13th hardest for scrambling and the toughest on the PGA Tour for scrambling from the rough. That means that players who can save par from off the green will have a comparative advantage over the rest of the field. The greens are undulating with difficult run-off areas and that is another factor that puts a premium on accuracy and recovery when missing the putting surfaces.
An indication of the type of player to excel is the skill’s profile for the defending champion DA Points. In the 2013 Houston Open he was tied tenth for greens in regulation, 10th in strokes gained putting, fifth in scrambling and eighth in average distance of putts made. That analysis suggests a functioning short game is the key to success.
Henrik Stenson won the Race to Dubai and FedEx Cup last season and according to his caddie hardly missed a shot in three months. Winning 10 million dollars may have affected his hunger and his form this year has been no better than moderate. However, he looked just about back to his best when finishing fifth in the Arnold Palmer Invitational on his latest start.
He was the best player for greens in regulation in Palmer’s event at Bay Hill and is a player that combines current form with course form. He has made the payout places in the Houston Open in two of the last five years. Given a good week on and just off the greens Stenson could contend this week.
In identifying potential winners we have to factor in that there is a major next week. McIlroy would probably swap ten Houston Opens for a Green Jacket, something he will surely win at least once during his carer. If he wins at Augusta McIlroy will be three quarters of the way to a career grand Slam but in any case he looks like winning about 8 majors before retiring.
Mickelson is another player who plans his playing schedule around the majors. However, it is the US Open that he now craves the most. Winning the British Open last year is the highlight of a career that only requires him to win the national championship of his country to complete the set of majors. Only five players have won each of the four professional majors so Mickelson would be joining an exclusive club.
Luke Donald reached the summit of the game and became the first player to win the money lists on both main Tours in 2011. However, he has a poor record in the majors at which he seems to put undue pressure on himself especially in the first round. This week’s course should suit his game and he tied fourth on his last start. He would lead the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting if he had played enough rounds to figure in the standings.
Lee Westwood is another English player who will honing his game this week ahead of the Masters. He is the only player in the history of the sport to finish in the top three in each major without winning one. He has now moved his family to the States to give himself the best chance to win that elusive major but he could finish his career without winning one like Colin Montgomerie.
If fully focused on winning this week Westwood would have a chance based on his course form. His current form is solid and he has made the cut in the last five Houston Opens finishing five shots or fewer behind the winner in three of those years. Westwood is also on a solid run of form in the PGA Tour but is not in the top 50 for the key skills of greens in regulation, scrambling and strokes gained putting.
Tee to the green Westwood is still one of the best players in the world. Given a better than average short game he would have surely won a major but now turned 40 its debateable how longer he can come back from the disappointments of repeatedly coming up short in the majors. He looked disconsolate at the end of last year’s PGA Championship, in which he gain failed to take advantage of a winning chance.
With several leading contenders the Houston Open could see a winner from Britain and Ireland. A more likely scenario is a big priced champion as the quality players will be more concerned about preparing for the Masters next week rather than winning this regular Tour event.
On Par Profits