Whether stars play or skip, Houston Open has identity

By Doug FergusonMarch 29, 2016, 11:26 pm

Tiger Woods has never played the week before the Masters, and it's hard to argue with the results. He has won it four times.

Then again, he was better than everyone else.

Phil Mickelson is the opposite. He prefers to play the week before the Masters to get into a competitive spirit, and it has worked out pretty well for him, too. Along with his three green jackets, Lefty has six other finishes in the top three.

There is no magic formula for getting ready for Augusta National.

Steve Timms was aware of that 10 years ago when the Shell Houston Open was offered the chance to move away from its late April date and take the week before the Masters. Timms is the tournament director. For him, the tradition unlike any other was getting asked by local media if Woods was coming to Houston.

Move to the week before the Masters, and the answer would be pretty clear.

And that's what they did.

''We had the date two weeks after the Masters, and we had some indifferent field qualities,'' Timms said Tuesday, finding a gracious way of saying that fans needed the pairing sheet to figure out who was coming up the fairway. ''It's 'no man's land' after Augusta. So whenever we were approached, we felt like that gave us a fighting chance to be a week before Augusta. Some guys like to play their way in. We were thinking specifically about Phil.

''Tiger and Phil, those were the needle movers.''

It's work out well. Generations change, and so do playing habits. Woods still doesn't play the week before the Masters. Right now, he's not playing at all. Mickelson, who won the Houston Open in 2011, is 45 and still going strong. He already has a trio of top 5s this year and remains wildly popular.

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But it's no longer just about Mickelson.

Also playing at the Golf Club of Houston this week is Jordan Spieth, no longer No. 1 in the world but still recognized as the 22-year-old Texan who is the reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion. The field also includes Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson.

Playing the week before worked out well for Spieth in 2015. He lost in a three-man playoff at Houston, then went to Augusta National and was so dominant in his wire-to-wire win that he became the first player in more than 60 years to never let anyone closer than three shots after the opening round.

For the Houston Open, however, it was more than just a change in dates.

Timms got together with agronomists and the PGA Tour staff to try to create something unique, with Augusta National in mind. No one will ever confuse Golf Club of Houston with Augusta National (one serves brisket, the other pimiento cheese). But there were enough characteristics to make it an ideal place for those who wanted to compete.

The banks and mounds around the greens were closely mown. The rough was shaved down. The fairways were mown from the green to the tee so that the grain is into the player, just like at Augusta. The greens are firm (weather permitting) and fast, estimated at 12 on the Stimpmeter.

''Now it's become our identity,'' Timms said. ''And we've had the good fortune of having a number of players that have played here and won the next week.''

Angel Cabrera (2009), Mickelson (2010), Charl Schwartzel (2011) and Spieth (2015) all played Houston the week before slipping into a green jacket.

Houston's field used to be so week that the winner received 22 world ranking points in 2006 when it was two weeks after the Masters. The first year after changing dates, the winner received 46 points.

And then came the biggest break of all. The Masters restored its tradition that PGA Tour winners (except opposite-field events) would get into the Masters starting in 2008. That gave Houston another layer of drama, with players such as Johnson Wagner and Matt Jones getting into Augusta at the last possible minute.

Since then, the winner has received an average of 54.5 points. One year, the Shell Houston Open had a stronger field than any regular tour event on the Florida swing.

Still, it's a player's choice. Jason Day was headed to Augusta National later this week to start preparing. So was Adam Scott. Both play a limited schedule, anyway.

''My argument is if you really wanted to practice for the Augusta setup, why don't you just go to Augusta?'' Schwartzel said.

Those playing in the Shell Houston Open want that last chance to get into the Masters, or they're already in and want to get sharp.

''They want to practice their competitiveness,'' Schwartzel said. ''You're not looking to find some sort of game. It's too late to find a game now.''

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After Further Review: Tiger's return comes at perfect time

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 2:19 am

Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the current state of golf as Tiger Woods returns to competition ...

Less than four days before Tiger Woods returns to official competitive golf for the first time in a year, Jon Rahm, the new second-ranked player in the world, won on the PGA Tour and Rory McIlroy made an impressive 2018 debut on the European Tour (T-3).

Not since Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus crossed paths at the 1960 U.S. Open has there been so many superstars all poised for big seasons, with world No. 1 Dustin Johnson having already won this year and Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas both coming off stellar seasons.

It’s a good time for golf. - Rex Hoggard

On Tommy Fleetwood's continued success ...

There have been scores of talented European players whose skills didn’t translate to the PGA Tour … and maybe, in a few years, Tommy Fleetwood will prove to be no different.

He sure looks like the real deal, though.  

His title defense in Abu Dhabi – on the strength of a back-nine 30 in windy conditions – was his third title in the past 12 months and 11th top-10 overall. A few of those have come in majors and World Golf Championship events, too, which led the reigning Race to Dubai champion to accept PGA Tour membership for this season.

Beginning at Riviera, he plans to play exclusively in the States through May, then reassess for the rest of the year. Hope he sticks, because he’s a fun personality with tons of game. - Ryan Lavner

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Rahm passes Spieth to become world No. 2

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:25 am

With his win Sunday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, Jon Rahm picked up his second PGA Tour victory and moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup points standings.

He picked up one more No. 2, too.

The 23-year-old Spaniard passed Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, behind only Dustin Johnson.

In 19 months, since June 2016, Rahm has rocketed from No. 776 in the world to No. 2, thanks in part to his low divisor, his number of events played.

Asked after his playoff victory over Andrew Landry to discuss his rapid ascent up the world rankings, Rahm was almost at a loss.

“It's hard to believe to be honest, passing Jordan Spieth,” he said. “That's a three-time major champion. I only have two wins. He's got 10-plus, right? It's again – I've said it many times – I never thought I was going to be at this point in my life right now.”

Rahm may only have two PGA Tour titles, but this is his fourth worldwide win in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. He also took the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and the DP World Tour Championship on his way to claiming the European Tour’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Award.

Dating back to the start of last season on the PGA Tour, Rahm has racked up 12 top-10s, three runner-ups, and two wins.

He will head to Torrey Pines next week ready to defend for the first time.

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Brady compares self to Woods after winning AFC title

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 1:05 am

Tom Brady and Tiger Woods are two of the all-time greats in their respective sports ... a fact that is not lost on the five-time Super Bowl winning quarterback.

Fresh off leading the New England Patriots to a AFC Championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady was asked about winning the game despite a cut on his throwing hand - which made national news heading into the matchup.

His response invoked the name of a certain 14-time major winner, something that would be tough to pull off, if not for the fact that he is, you know, Tom Brady.

“I think it's kind of arrogant to say it bothered me when we had a pretty good game, so I wouldn't say that," the 40-year-old told reporters after the game. "It's like when Tiger Woods said, ‘That was my C game’ and he won the tournament."

Tiger Woods winning with his "C game" may be a distant memory for golf fans, but no matter what game he brings, his next chance to win comes next week at Torrey Pines during his official comeback to the PGA Tour.

Brady has a shot at his sixth Super Bowl title in two weeks. The Patriots would probably benefit from him bringing a little better than his "C game" as well.

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Rahm beats Landry in playoff to win CareerBuilder

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 1:00 am

Jon Rahm birdied the fourth extra hole Sunday to defeat Andrew Landry in a playoff, win the CareerBuilder Challenge and move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Here’s how things played out in overtime at PGA West:

Leaderboard: Rahm (-22), Landry (-22), John Huh (-20), Adam Hadwin (-20), Martin Piller (-20), Kevin Chappell (-19), Scott Piercy (-19)

What it means: This is Rahm’s second PGA Tour win and his fourth worldwide victory in the last year, dating back to last season’s Farmers Insurance Open. Rahm took the early lead Thursday with an opening 62 and after rounds of 67-70, he started the final round two back. On Sunday, he made five birdies without dropping a single shot on the intimidating Stadium Course. In the clubhouse at 22 under, Rahm watched as Landry made birdie on 18 to force a playoff.

Rahm missed birdie putts that would have ended the tournament on the final hole of regulation and on each playoff hole. Finally, on his fourth trip down 18 of the day, his birdie bid found the cup. With the victory, Rahm passes Jordan Spieth to move to No. 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking, trailing only Dustin Johnson. He enters next week at Torrey Pines looking to defend for the first time.

Best of the rest: A two-time Web.com winner playing his second full season on the PGA Tour, Landry shot 68 Sunday, making birdie on the 72nd hole to force extras. Once Rahm finally made birdie on the fourth playoff hole, Landry's putt to extend slid by on the right edge. This is Landry's best career finish on the PGA Tour. Had he won, he would have secured full Tour status through the 2019-20 season and earned invites to the Masters, Players, and PGA Championships.

Round of the day: Sam Saunders fired an 8-under 64 to register this best finish of the season, a tie for eighth at 18 under. The reigning Web.com Tour Championship winner was 9 under par through 12 holes before making bogey at 13 and parring his way into the clubhouse.

Biggest disappointment: Overnight leader Austin Cook was eyeing his second win of the season but never contended. The RSM champion carded two double bogeys Sunday en route to a 3-over 75, dropping him from the 54-hole lead to a tie for 14th.

Shot of the day: Rahm's putt to win:

Quote of the day: "One of us had to do it and either one of us would have been a well-deserving champion." - Rahm on his playoff victory over Landry