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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After Further Review: Woods wisely keeping things in perspective

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 3:17 am

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

On Tiger Woods' career comeback ...

Tiger Woods seems to be the only one keeping his comeback in the proper perspective. Asked after his tie for fifth at Bay Hill whether he could ever have envisioned his game being in this shape heading into Augusta, he replied: “If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.” He’s healthy. He’s been in contention. He’s had two realistic chances to win. There’s no box unchecked as he heads to the Masters, and no one, especially not Woods, could have seen that coming a few months ago. – Ryan Lavner

On Tiger carrying momentum into API, Masters ...

Expect Jordan Spieth to leave Austin with the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play trophy next week.

After all, Spieth is seemingly the only top-ranked player who has yet to lift some hardware in the early part of 2018. Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have all gotten it done, as have Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and most recently Rory McIlroy.

Throw in the sudden resurgence of Tiger Woods, and with two more weeks until the Masters there seem to be more azalea-laden storylines than ever before.

A Spieth victory in Austin would certainly add fuel to that fire, but even if he comes up short the 2015 champ will certainly be a focus of attention in a few short weeks when the golf world descends upon Magnolia Lane with no shortage of players able to point to a recent victory as proof that they’re in prime position to don a green jacket. – Will Gray

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Davies not giving up on win, HOF after close call

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 3:06 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies knows the odds are long now, but she won’t let go of that dream of making the LPGA Hall of Fame.

At 54, she was emboldened by her weekend run at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She tied for second, five shots behind Inbee Park.

“The more I get up there, I might have a chance of winning again,” Davies said. “I'm not saying I will ever win, but today was close. Maybe one day I can go closer.”

Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, but she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in 2001. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Over her career, she has won 20 LPGA titles, four of them major championships. She was the tour’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996. She probably would have locked up Hall of Fame status if she hadn’t been so loyal to the Ladies European Tour, where she won 45 titles.

Though Davies didn’t win Sunday in Phoenix, there was more than consolation in her run into contention.

“Now people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

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Davies impresses, but there's no catching Park

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 2:40 am

PHOENIX – Inbee Park won the tournament.

Laura Davies won the day.

It was a fitting script for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on Sunday, where nostalgia stirs the desert air in such a special way.

Two of the game’s all-time best, LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park and World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies, put on a show with the tour’s three living founders applauding them in the end.

Park and Davies made an event all about honoring the tour’s past while investing in its future something to savor in the moment. Founders Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Marlene Hagge Vossler cheered them both.

For Park, there was meaningful affirmation in her 18th LPGA title.

In seven months away from the LPGA, healing up a bad back, Park confessed she wondered if she should retire. This was just her second start back. She won feeling no lingering effects from her injury.

“I was trying to figure out if I was still good enough to win,” Park said of her long break back home in South Korea. “This proved to me I can win and play some pain-free golf.”

At 54, Davies kept peeling away the years Sunday, one sweet swing after another. She did so after shaking some serious nerves hitting her first tee shot.

“It’s about as nervous as I’ve ever felt,” Davies said. “I swear I nearly shanked it.”

Davies has won 45 Ladies European Tour events and 20 LPGA titles, but she was almost 17 years removed from her last LPGA title. Still, she reached back to those times when she used to rule the game and chipped in for eagle at the second hole to steady herself.

“It calmed me down, and I really enjoyed the day,” Davies said.

With birdies at the ninth and 10th holes, Davies pulled from three shots down at day’s start to within one of Park, sending a buzz through all the fans who came out to root for the popular Englishwoman.

“People were loving it,” said Tanya Paterson, Davies’ caddie. “We kept hearing, `Laura, we love you.’ It was special for Laura, showing she can still compete.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Davies relished giving all the young players today, who never saw how dominant she once was, some flashes from her great past.

“Yesterday, after I had that 63, a lot of the younger girls came up and said, `Oh, great playing today,”’ Davies said. “It was nice, I suppose, to have that. I still am a decent player, and I actually used to be really good at it. Maybe that did give them a glimpse into what it used to be like.”

She also relished showing certain fans something.

“Now, people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

Davies was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996, when she won two of her four major championships. She was emboldened by the way she stood up to Sunday pressure again.

In the end, though, there was no catching Park, who continues to amaze with her ability to win coming back from long breaks after injuries.

Park, 29, comes back yet again looking like the player who reigned at world No. 1 for 92 weeks, won three consecutive major championships in 2013 and won the Olympic gold medal two years ago.

“The reason that I am competing and playing is because I want to win and because I want to contend in golf tournaments,” Park said.

After Davies and Marina Alex mounted runs to move within one shot, Park pulled away, closing ferociously. She made four birdies in a row starting at the 12th and won by five shots. Her famed putting stroke heated up, reminding today’s players how nobody can demoralize a field more with a flat stick.

“I just felt like nothing has dropped on the front nine,” Park said. “I was just thinking to myself, `They have to drop at some point.’ And they just started dropping, dropping, dropping.”

Yet again, Park showed her ability to win after long breaks.

In Rio de Janeiro two years ago, Park the Olympic gold medal in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year, in just her second start upon returning.

“I'm really happy to have a win early in the season,” Park said. “That just takes so much pressure off me.”

And puts it on the rest of the tour if she takes her best form to the year’s first major at the ANA Inspiration in two weeks.



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Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”