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Stat attack!: Shell Houston Open preview

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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.

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