Success at Houston doesn't mean success at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerApril 2, 2014, 9:28 pm

HUMBLE, Texas – After careful consideration, Augusta National has decided that it will still host the Masters next week, even without Tiger Woods.

That’s good news, because there is no mourning here at the Shell Houston Open. Players are too busy multitasking. One eye on the Golf Club of Houston, the other on Augusta.

A few similarities exist between the two tracks, which helps explain why 46 players in this week’s field will also head to Georgia on Sunday night.  

You might have heard that the Golf Club of Houston is long (7,400 yards) and fairly generous off the tee. That there is virtually no rough. That the greens are quick and shaved down toward the water. That the fairways are mowed from green to tee.

But let’s not get carried away. This golf course is flatter than Augusta. There is water on more than half the holes. Players are hitting just as many drivers as 3-woods. Augusta has lots of chipping areas around the green; here, there is lots of sand and water.

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If these guys truly wanted to spend their week playing a course that simulated the holes and conditions at Augusta National, they would probably just, you know, go play Augusta National.

“They do as much as they can to replicate it,” Steve Stricker said Wednesday, “but it’s tough. It’s one of the most unique places in the world.”

OK, so the players are here for something else.

That reason: Because it’s one final chance to test their game under tournament pressure … assuming, of course, that they can move into contention.

“And,” Rory McIlroy said, “that’s ultimately what you want to do again next week.”

Sure, that’s the ultimate goal, but recent history shows that good play here doesn’t exactly portend Masters success.

Consider this: Of the seven Houston Open winners since 2007, Anthony Kim (2010) is the only one who went on to finish in the top 10 at Augusta.

Or how about this: Only once in the past six years – and just five times since 1997 – has the Masters champion had a top 10 in his final start before Augusta.

And, OK, one more: Fifteen of the last 28 major winners have played the week before a major. Five had top 10s in those tune-up starts. Only two, Tiger and Phil, have won back to back.

The double dip is even more rare at Augusta – Mickelson is the only player in the last 25 years to accomplish the feat. Previously, Sandy Lyle (1988), Art Wall Jr. (1959) and Ralph Guldahl (1939) won the Masters after also winning the previous week.

That’s not to say that an 80-80 start at this tournament won’t lead to a similar implosion at Augusta because, well, it probably will. Rather, consider this a history lesson, a reminder not to pick your Masters favorites based on the first page of the Houston Open leaderboard. If forced to choose, players would like to peak next week.

Oh, and speaking of Masters favorites, McIlroy is one of five top-10 players in this week’s field.

A year ago, he played Houston, failed to break 70 and signed up for the Texas Open at the deadline, desperate for more reps.

Now? He arrives with eight top 10s in his last 10 stroke-play starts, no longer worried about his contracts or his equipment, and the odds-on favorite for the Masters.

“Everything is just more settled,” he said.

In three previous appearances at the Golf Club of Houston, McIlroy hasn’t finished better than 19th. Despite that sub-par record, he praised the Augusta-like setup, describing it as “brilliant.”

Even more brilliant? If Houston serves as a springboard for Masters glory.

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in four months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014. 

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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."