Stat attack!: Shell Houston Open preview

By John AntoniniApril 1, 2014, 8:39 pm

With all due apologies to the Shell Houston Open, this week on the PGA Tour is all about the run-up to the Masters. Or maybe, apologies aren’t necessary as Masters preparation is certainly a big part of the SHO. Conditions at the Tournament Course at Golf Club of Houston are similar to that of Augusta National – notably in the short game areas, where shaved banks off the greens and quick putting surfaces try to replicate what players will see next week. And it’s attracted quite a field. Twenty-three of the world’s top 50 are in Texas for the tournament, and 46 players in the field are also scheduled to play the Masters. Does playing this week help? It certainly can’t hurt to play a course featuring similar conditions prior to a major. In fact since the SHO was moved before the Masters in 2007, six players – including Lee Westwood (pictured) twice – have finished in the top 10 in both tournaments.

Top-10 finishes at the Shell Houston Open and the Masters: 2007-2013

 Year Player Houston Masters
 2013 Lee Westwood T-10 T-8
 2012 Phil Mickelson T-4 T-3
 2012 Louis Oosthuizen 3 2
 2010 Lee Westwood T-8 2
 2010 Anthony Kim 1 3
 2009 Hunter Mahan T-6 T-10
 2007 Stuart Appleby T-2 T-7

It is important for a player to have success prior to the Masters. Not necessarily right before the Masters, but at some point in the year. Since 1990 only Angel Cabrera has won the Masters without a top-10 finish that season on the PGA Tour or the European Tour. (Which wouldn’t have foretold victory for Tiger Woods this year, even had his back surgery not forced him to miss the Masters for the first time in 20 years.) Entering this week there are six Masters players in the Houston field ranked in the top 100 in the World who do not have a top-10 on either tour this season.

Masters contenders in the Houston field with no top-10s in 2013-14

 World Ranking Player Best 2013-14 finish
 15 Steve Stricker T-33 WGC-Match Play
 38  Lee Westwood T-20 Northern Trust Open
 54 Jonas Blixt T-16 WGC-Cadillac
 82 Angel Cabrera T-52 Northern Trust
 86 Roberto Castro T-19 WM Phoenix Open
 87 D.A. Points T-28 Hyundai T of C

There’s Westwood again. A top-10 this week would seem to be a must if he intends to end his streak of 63 majors without a victory. All Westwood needs is a strong finish. It’s a good thing he doesn’t need to win. Only one European has won the Shell Houston Open (Paul Casey in 2009), although quite a few have fared well in recent years.

Europeans who finished in the top 10 at the Shell Houston Open since 2010

 Player Year Finish Strokes back
 Henrik Stenson 2013 2 1
 Brian Davis 2013 T-6 3
 Lee Westwood 2013 T-10 5
 Carl Pettersen 2012 2 1
 Brian Davis 2012 T-4 4
 Padraig Harrington 2011 T-8 9
 Lee Westwood 2010 8 4

Stenson, last year’s co-runner-up to D.A. Points, would seem a likely candidate to win this week. He has a career scoring average of 69.42 at the Tournament course (fourth best), but 2014 hasn’t been kind to the world’s top players. Only one PGA Tour winner in 2013-14 was ranked in the top 10 on the Official World Golf Ranking at the time of his victory (Zach Johnson was ninth when he won the Hyundai T of C). There are five top-10 players in the Houston field. Can Stenson or one of the others break through?

Top-10 players in the Shell Houston Open

 Rank Player Best Houston finish
 3 Henrik Stenson T-2, 2013
 5   Phil Mickelson Won, 2011
 7 Rory McIlroy T-19, 2009
 8 Sergio Garcia T-77, 2009
 10 Dustin Johnson T-4, 2013

Mickelson’s oblique strain makes Stenson and Dustin Johnson the favorites from that list to contend this week, but another long-lost star lurking just outside the top-10 also has favorite status at the SHO. Steve Stricker, ranked 15th, is one of three players with at least three top-10s at the Shell Houston Open since it moved to the Tournament Course in 2006.

Most top-10s in the SHO since 2006

 Top-10s Player Years
 4 Hunter Mahan T-5 in 2007, T-6 in 2009, T-8 in 2011, Won in 2012
 3 Bob Estes 2 in 2006, T-9 in 2007, T-6 in 2008
 3 Steve Stricker 3 in 2006, T-9 in 2007, T-4 in 2011

Three others have finished in the top 10 at Houston in each of the last two years.

Top-10s at the SHO in 2012 and 2013

 Player 2012 2013
 Brian Davis T-4 T-6
 Keegan Bradley T-4 T-10
 Louis Oosthuizen 3 T-10

Not surprisingly, several players on the previous lists join Stenson among the top-10 in scoring average at the SHO since 2006.

Best scoring average at the Shell Houston Open: 2006-2013, minimum 8 rounds

 Player Rounds Scoring average
 Chris Kirk 8 68.88
 Adam Scott 10 69.20
 Bud Cauley 8 69.38
 Henrik Stenson 12 69.42
 Keegan Bradley 12 69.92
 Louis Oosthuizen 14 70.00
 Steve Stricker 26 70.00
 Phil Mickelson 22 70.14
 Hunter Mahan 26 70.15
 Graham DeLaet 10 70.20

One final thought: All of those players except for Cauley are in the Masters, and he would get invited if he wins this week. The winner of the Shell Houston Open gets a last-minute berth into the Masters. If like Cauley, the SHO winner is a Masters rookie, he would become the 24th first-timer in the 2014 field. That would set a tournament record, breaking the mark of 23 Masters rookies set in 1935, when Bobby Jones’ Augusta National Invitational was only in its second year.

If you haven’t already done so, please follow me on Twitter at @johnantoninigc.




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The missing link: Advice from successful tour pros

By Phil BlackmarJanuary 20, 2018, 1:24 am

Today’s topic is significant in that it underscores the direction golf is headed, a direction that has me a little concerned.

Now, more than ever, it has become the norm for PGA Tour players to put together a team to assist in all aspects of their career. These teams can typically include the player’s swing coach, mental coach, manager, workout specialist, dietician, physical therapist, short-game guru, doctor, accountant, nanny and wife. Though it often concerns me the player may be missing out when others are making decisions for them, that is not the topic.

I want to talk about what most players seem to be inexplicably leaving off their teams.

One of the things that separates great players from the rest of the pack – other than talent – is the great player’s ability to routinely stay comfortable and play with focus and clarity in all situations. Though innate to many, this skill is trainable and can be learned. Don’t get too excited, the details of such a plan are too long and more suited for a book than the short confines of this article.

So, if that aspect of the game is so important, where is the representative on the player’s team who has stood on the 18th tee with everything on the line? Where is the representative on the team who has experienced, over and over, what the player will be experiencing? In other words, where is the successful former tour player on the team?

You look to tennis and many players have such a person on their team. These teacher/mentors include the likes of Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Brad Gilbert. Why is it not the norm in golf?

Sure, a few players have sought out the advice of Jack Nicklaus, but he’s not part of a team. The teaching ranks also include some former players like Butch Harmon and a few others. But how many teams include a player who has contended in a major, let alone won one or more?

I’m not here to argue the value and knowledge of all the other coaches who make up a player’s team. But how can the value of a successful tour professional be overlooked? If I’m going to ask someone what I should do in various situations on the course, I would prefer to include the experienced knowledge of players who have been there themselves.

This leads me to the second part of today’s message. Is there a need for the professional players to mix with professional teachers to deliver the best and most comprehensive teaching philosophy to average players? I feel there is.

Most lessons are concerned with changing the student’s swing. Often, this is done with little regard for how it feels to the student because the teacher believes the information is correct and more important than the “feels” of the student. “Stick with it until it’s comfortable” is often the message. This directive methodology was put on Twitter for public consumption a short time back:

On the other hand, the professional player is an expert at making a score and understands the intangible side of the game. The intangible side says: “Mechanics cannot stand alone in making a good player.” The intangible side understands “people feel things differently”; ask Jim Furyk to swing like Dustin Johnson, or vice versa. This means something that looks good to us may not feel right to someone else.

The intangible side lets us know that mechanics and feels must walk together in order for the player to succeed. From Ben Hogan’s book:

“What I have learned I have learned by laborious trial and error, watching a good player do something that looked right to me, stumbling across something that felt right to me, experimenting with that something to see if it helped or hindered, adopting it if it helped, refining it sometimes, discarding it if it didn’t help, sometimes discarding it later if it proved undependable in competition, experimenting continually with new ideas and old ideas and all manner of variations until I arrived at a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals which proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Hogan beautifully described the learning process that could develop the swings of great players like DJ, Furyk, Lee Trevino, Jordan Spieth, Nicklaus, etc.

Bob Toski is still teaching. Steve Elkington is helping to bring us the insight of Jackie Burke. Hal Sutton has a beautiful teaching facility outside of Houston. And so on. Just like mechanics and feels, it’s not either-or – the best message comes from both teachers and players.

Lately, it seems the scale has swung more to one side; let us not forget the value of insights brought to us by the players who have best mastered the game.

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Woods, Rahm, Rickie, J-Day headline Torrey field

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 20, 2018, 12:47 am

Tiger Woods is set to make his 2018 debut.

Woods is still part of the final field list for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open, the headliner of a tournament that includes defending champion Jon Rahm, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.

In all, 12 of the top 26 players in the world are teeing it up at Torrey Pines.

Though Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, he hasn’t broken 71 in his past seven rounds there and hasn’t played all four rounds since 2013, when he won. Last year he missed the cut after rounds of 76-72, then lasted just one round in Dubai before he withdrew with back spasms.

After a fourth back surgery, Woods didn’t return to competition until last month’s Hero World Challenge, where he tied for ninth. 

Woods has committed to play both the Farmers Insurance Open and next month's Genesis Open at Riviera, which benefits his foundation. 

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Even on 'off' day, Rahm shoots 67 at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 20, 2018, 12:36 am

Jon Rahm didn’t strike the ball as purely Friday as he did during his opening round at the CareerBuilder Challenge.

He still managed a 5-under 67 that put him just one shot off the lead heading into the weekend.

“I expected myself to go to the range (this morning) and keep flushing everything like I did yesterday,” said Rahm, who shot a career-low 62 at La Quinta on Thursday. “Everything was just a little bit off. It was just one of those days.”

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

After going bogey-free on Thursday, Rahm mixed four birdies and two bogeys over his opening six holes. He managed to settle down around the turn, then made two birdies on his final three holes to move within one shot of Andrew Landry (65).

Rahm has missed only five greens through two rounds and sits at 15-under 129. 

The 23-year-old Spaniard won in Dubai to end the year and opened 2018 with a runner-up finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. He needs a top-6 finish or better this week to supplant Jordan Spieth as the No. 2 player in the world.

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Landry stays hot, leads desert shootout at CareerBuilder

By Associated PressJanuary 20, 2018, 12:35 am

LA QUINTA, Calif. – Andrew Landry topped the crowded CareerBuilder Challenge leaderboard after another low-scoring day in the sunny Coachella Valley.

Landry shot a 7-under 65 on Thursday on PGA West's Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course to reach 16 under. He opened with a 63 on Thursday at La Quinta Country Club.

''Wind was down again,'' Landry said. ''It's like a dome out here.''

Jon Rahm, the first-round leader after a 62 at La Quinta, was a stroke back. He had two early bogeys in a 67 on the Nicklaus layout.

''It's tough to come back because I feel like I expected myself to go to the range and keep just flushing everything like I did yesterday,'' Rahm said. ''Everything was just a little bit off.''

Jason Kokrak was 14 under after a 67 at Nicklaus. Two-time major champion Zach Johnson was 13 under along with Michael Kim and Martin Piller. Johnson had a 64 at Nicklaus.

Full-field scores from the Career Builder Challenge

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

Landry, Rahm, Kokrak and Johnson will finish the rotation Saturday at PGA West's Stadium Course, also the site of the final round.

''You need to hit it a lot more accurate off the tee because being in the fairway is a lot more important,'' Rahm said about the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course, a layout the former Arizona State player likened to the Dye-designed Karsten course on the school's campus. ''With the small greens, you have water in play. You need to be more precise. Clearly the hardest golf course.''

Landry pointed to the Saturday forecast.

''I think the wind's supposed to be up like 10 to 20 mph or something, so I know that golf course can get a little mean,'' Landry said. ''Especially, those last three or four holes.''

The 30-year-old former Arkansas player had five birdies in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. After winning his second Tour title last year, he had two top-10 finishes in October and November at the start the PGA Tour season.

''We're in a good spot right now,'' Landry said. ''I played two good rounds of golf, bogey-free both times, and it's just nice to be able to hit a lot of good quality shots and get rewarded when you're making good putts.''

Rahm had four birdies and the two bogeys on his first six holes. He short-sided himself in the left bunker on the par-3 12th for his first bogey of the week and three-putted the par-4 14th – pulling a 3-footer and loudly asking ''What?'' – to drop another stroke.

''A couple of those bad swings cost me,'' Rahm said.

The top-ranked player in the field at No. 3 in the world, Rahm made his first par of the day on the par-4 16th and followed with five more before birdieing the par-5 fourth. The 23-year-old Spaniard also birdied the par-5 seventh and par-3 eighth.

''I had close birdie putts over the last four holes and made two of them, so I think that kind of clicked,'' said Rahm, set to defend his title next week at Torrey Pines.

He has played the par 5s in 9 under with an eagle and seven birdies.

Johnson has taken a relaxed approach to the week, cutting his practice to two nine-hole rounds on the Stadium Course.

''I'm not saying that's why I'm playing well, but I took it really chill and the golf courses haven't changed,'' Johnson said. ''La Quinta's still really pure, right out in front of you, as is the Nicklaus.''

Playing partner Phil Mickelson followed his opening 70 at La Quinta with a 68 at Nicklaus to get to 6 under. The 47-year-old Hall of Famer is playing his first tournament of since late October.

''The scores obviously aren't what I want, but it's pretty close and I feel good about my game,'' Mickelson said. ''I feel like this is a great place to start the year and build a foundation for my game. It's easy to identify the strengths and weaknesses. My iron play has been poor relative to the standards that I have. My driving has been above average.''

Charlie Reiter, the Palm Desert High School senior playing on a sponsor exemption, had a 70 at Nicklaus to match Mickelson at 6 under. The Southern California recruit is playing his first PGA Tour event. He tied for 65th in the Australian Open in November in his first start in a professional tournament.