Masters-like conditions draw star-studded field

By Golf Channel DigitalApril 1, 2010, 4:13 am

2007 Shell Houston Open

HUMBLE, Texas – Fred Couples is back on the regular Tour this week, joining stars like Phil Mickelson, resurgent Ernie Els and defending champion Paul Casey at the Houston Open, an event that’s embraced its niche as the run-up to next week’s Masters.

Couples, 50, feels rejuvenated by his success on the seniors Champions Tour and he’s putting as well as he has in a long time.

Couples, who will play a practice round for the Masters with Tiger Woods on Monday, laughs off the notion that he’s one of the favorites at Augusta National. But he’s definitely one to watch at Redstone, where he has a pair of top-4 finishes the last two years.

“I’m fading out on the regular Tour a little bit,” Couples said, “but this is a great opportunity for me, because I won the last three times on the Champions Tour. Winning is a lot of fun, and so far, this year has been a lot of fun.”

Els is riding a streak of his own, with victories in his last two starts. He can become the first player to win three in a row since Woods won five straight in 2008.

Els isn’t totally comfortable with his game, though, after nearly letting last week’s win at Bay Hill slip away. He led by five shots with six holes left on Sunday, then hit two shots into the water. Rain forced a suspension, and Els had to return on Monday to make four tense pars and win.

He said his alignment is “out of whack” and he’s working with swing coach Butch Harmon this week to iron out the kinks.

“I’ve been working on that a little bit the last couple of days and I’d just like to have it under pressure,” Els said. “Obviously, next week, you’ve got to do everything right under the biggest pressure you’re ever going to find.”

Mickelson is another one of 30 players in Houston who’s already qualified for the Masters. Mickelson is seeking his first win of the year, but like Els, he’s more focused on fine-tuning his game for the season’s first major.

“My game this year hasn’t been what I expected,” said Mickelson, who tied for 30th at Bay Hill last week. “I keep saying it doesn’t feel far off. I haven’t put together the scores, and I think this week in Houston is an important week for me because I feel like my game has been pretty close.”

The players are once again raving about the condition of The Tournament Course at Redstone. Organizers have lured another top-notch field by spreading the word that the course is set up to simulate the conditions at Augusta National, from the fast greens and runoff areas to the light rough and the fairways mowed toward the tee.

“I think it’s an advantage for the players who play here going into next week,” Mickelson said. “The ball will react certain ways out of the first cut of rough and fairway, getting adjusted to the speed of the greens—all that goes into preparation for next week.”

The Houston Open moved to the week before the Masters in 2007, and the results don’t fully support the notion that the event is a perfect tuneup.

Mickelson missed the cut in Houston last year, then finished fifth at the Masters. Couples finished fourth in 2008 and third in 2009, but missed the cut at Augusta both years. Casey beat J.B. Holmes on the first playoff hole here last year to secure his first PGA Tour victory, then said he was disappointed with a tie for 20th at The Masters.

“I think physically and emotionally, it took a little bit out of me,” Casey said. “If you don’t have everything in place going into a major, then you’re going to be found out. I think that showed where I finished at Augusta the following week.”

Inclement weather has become an annual intrusion at the tournament, and thunderstorms are possible on Friday and Saturday this year.

The event has been delayed by bad weather every year since 2006, when it moved to the Tournament Course from the adjacent members’ course at Redstone. Last year, rain pushed back the start of the tournament by 2 1/2 hours, and high winds forced the suspension of play later on Thursday.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.