HUMBLE, Texas – Jhonattan Vegas could barely speak English when he made his first appearance in a PGA Tour event, as an amateur at the 2003 Houston Open.
He was 18 then, and qualified less than a year after moving from his native Venezuela to Houston to fine-tune his game with Franci Betancourt, an instructor who had taught him as a boy.
Vegas missed the cut, but felt secure enough to make the city his adopted hometown. He’s back at Redstone for the Houston Open this week, now a fast-rising tour rookie with a victory already under his belt.
The big-hitting Vegas is one of 33 players in the field who have already qualified for next week’s Masters. But a win in Houston would have additional meaning to Vegas, a former University of Texas star who now lives only 20 minutes from the course.
“That first Tour experience was this one here and since that time, it’s great to be back,” Vegas said. “I think just the whole state of Texas, I’ve been in a pretty ‘home’ feeling. When I’m here, I feel really comfortable. I like everyone around.”
Vegas earned his invitation to Augusta when he won the Hope Classic in January in just his fifth career start on the tour.
“I knew that I could win here – I didn’t know it was going to be that quick,” he said. “You never know when things are going to happen. That’s kind of what I do and just try as hard as I can every single time and hope for the best.”
Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Fred Couples are also in the field, using the tournament to tune up for the season’s first major. Anthony Kim is the defending champion.
Organizers have embraced the Houston Open’s distinction as the run-up to the Masters, setting up the Tournament Course with conditions similar to those at Augusta. The fairways are wide and mowed toward the tees, the rough is light, the greenside mounds are shaved and the greens themselves are lightning-fast.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen is playing the course for the first time after hearing positive feedback about it.
“A lot of the players said it’s as close as you can get it to the Augusta setting or grass,” Goosen said. “That definitely made me decide to play this year.”
The course can also boast one of the tour’s toughest holes, the water-lined, 488-yard 18th. It ranked as the 20th most difficult hole on tour last year, with a 4.317-stroke average, and usually yields final-round drama.
In 2007, Adam Scott had a one-shot lead, but pulled his tee shot into the water. He took his drop, hit his approach safely away from the water, then holed a 48-foot par-saving putt to win.
In 2009, Paul Casey bogeyed the 18th on the final day to slip into a playoff with J.B. Holmes. The players returned to the 18th tee, Holmes found the water with his drive, and Casey won with a conservative bogey.
Last year, Vaughn Taylor rolled in an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 18 in the final round to tie Kim and force another playoff. Taylor then hit the greenside bunker to the right off the tee, while Kim made a routine par for the victory.
“It’s a tremendous hole,” Kim said. “When the wind blows, it’s as tough as it gets. You can’t bail out anywhere. Right is no good. The second shot is actually harder if you’re in that bunker than if you’re right of the bunker.
“You have to hit a couple of quality golf shots,” Kim said, “and the green’s not very easy, either.”
Westwood tied for eighth in 2010 and finished second to Mickelson at the Masters the following week, bolstering the notion that Redstone works as a suitable tuneup. Westwood is playing at Houston for the fourth time in five years.
“The main point is they try to get the greens as quick as possible which, when you get to Augusta next week, it’s not as big a shock,” Westwood said. “They’re pretty immaculate this week and run at a great pace.”
But Westwood is looking for more than just a few practice rounds this week. Now No. 2 in the world behind Martin Kaymer, Westwood has failed to crack the top 10 in six starts.
His routine of playing the week before a major has served him well, though it has yet to produce a breakthrough victory. He was the runner-up to Louis Oosthuizen at last year’s British Open, and tied for third at both the British Open and PGA Championship in 2009.
“I like to be competitive going into the week of a major,” Westwood said. “You look at all the major championships, I’m playing the week before. Like if I come into it, have another couple of weeks (without playing a tournament), I could be rusty for even nine holes, and that’s too much in a major championship.”
Shell Oil Company has sponsored the tournament since 1992. On Tuesday, the oil giant extended its title sponsorship through 2017.