Punch Shot: Who needs Masters momentum in Texas?

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The PGA Tour hits Texas for two weeks as players get a final fortnight to either qualify or find their form for the season's first major. Who most needs to gain some Masters momentum in the Lone Star State? Our writers weigh in:

By RYAN LAVNER

With all of the will-he-or-won’t-he questions surrounding Tiger Woods, and the doubts about Rory McIlroy’s form, and the possibility of Bubba Watson repeating as champion, one superstar has gone virtually unnoticed during this Masters run-up: Phil Mickelson.

You remember Phil, right? The three-time Masters champion? The 42-time PGA Tour winner? The guy who was supposed to be competitive at Augusta into his 50s?

Things haven’t gone so well of late. He has finished outside the top 10 in 30 of his last 32 PGA Tour starts. He’s down to No. 21 in the world, or a spot ahead of Kevin Na. This season, he’s regained some pop in his driver but is still hitting it crooked. He’s not finding many greens. He’s not finding the bottom of the cup, either.

All of which has lowered expectations for Mickelson entering this year’s Masters, a tournament he won three times in a seven-year span but has either missed the cut or finished outside the top 50 in the last two editions. For the first time in forever, he’s under the radar, which is probably how he’d prefer it as he works out the kinks.

His first chance to show some form comes this week in San Antonio, where he’s making just his second start since ’92. A better barometer will come next week in Houston, where he’s fared well each of the past four years, finishing inside the top 16 each time, including a win in ’11.

If Phil has another Masters run in him, then it’s time to come out of hibernation. 


By REX HOGGARD

For every player, the drive down Magnolia Lane is a reason to get out of bed in the offseason, a reason to go to the range when it’s cold and empty.

So when Harris English finished 36 holes last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational tied for second place, the pressure understandably mounted.

English needed to finish tied for sixth or better at Bay Hill to move into the top 50 in the world rankings and qualify for the Masters. He struggled on the weekend to rounds of 72-75 to slip back to 29th place.

So instead of preparing for his second start at the year’s first major, he headed west to play this week’s Texas Open, where the ultimate deadline looms.

For a kid raised in south Georgia, who played four years at the University of Georgia, a tee time at Augusta National in early April transcends just another start.

It’s similar to the pressure he endured last year when he played his first Masters. He’d started the season with a victory in Mexico and five top-10 finishes and headed to Augusta with dark-horse status.

Last spring he let the pressure of the moment get to him, carding rounds 74-76. A year later he has a chance to see how far his game has progressed.


By RANDALL MELL

You can’t win if you’re not in.

Paul Casey is showing flashes of a return to the form that once helped the Englishman rank as high as No. 3 in the world, but it won’t help him at the Masters if he isn’t playing. Casey is No. 49 in the world today with a weak grip on an invite to Augusta National. To guarantee his first trip there since 2012, Casey has to remain among the top 50 in the world rankings when they come out at the conclusion of this week’s Valero Texas Open. Casey, though, isn’t playing the Texas Open. So, he’ll be holding his breath this week, hoping Marc Warren (No. 52) and Harris English (No. 53) don’t take his invite away. They are both playing the Texas Open, and nobody’s more motivated to make it than English, who was raised in Georgia and played for the University of Georgia.

If Casey doesn’t get in via the world rankings, he’ll still have one more possible route to Augusta. He is committed to playing the Shell Houston Open next week, the last chance players have to earn a Masters invite. If he falls out of the top 50 this week, Casey will need to win in Houston. The upside if he is in that desperate position is that he has won the Shell Houston Open before. He won it in ’09, his lone PGA Tour title.

If Casey does gets his Masters invite this week, his showing in Houston will still matter. After missing the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, Casey will want to take as much as confidence as he can to Augusta National, where he has shown he can play. He was T-11 at the Masters in ’08, T-10 in ’07 and T-6 in ’04.


By NICK MENTA

After the neck issues and the haircut and the weight loss, at this point neither Jason Dufner nor his game are recognizable.

It’s been roughly 18 months since anyone has seen the ball-striking machine that was knocking down flagsticks at Oak Hill. Since losing to Adam Scott in a playoff last year at Colonial, the 2013 PGA champion has just one top-10 finish in 13 Tour events. In five starts in 2015, he’s been cut twice and finished no better than T-17. He’s 120th in total driving, 120th in ball striking and 97th in strokes gained-putting. Not exactly a recipe for success on Tour, let alone at Augusta.

Winless since his lone major victory, Dufner has gone from eighth in the Official World Golf Ranking in August 2013 down to 50th at present. If he wasn’t guaranteed a Masters invite through 2018, he’d be fighting just to get in the field.

Dufner hasn’t played the Valero Texas Open since 2008, before the tournament’s move to TPC San Antonio, but he’ll be in the field this week with the option of playing the Shell Houston Open – known for its vaguely Augusta-like setup – the week before the Masters.

People go to Texas to find themselves all the time, right? Right.