Stat attack!: Shell Houston Open preview

By John AntoniniApril 1, 2014, 8:39 pm

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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Snedeker leads by one heading into final round

By Associated PressAugust 19, 2018, 3:26 pm

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Brandt Snedeker took a one-stroke lead into the final round of the weather-delayed Wyndham Championship after finishing the third round Sunday with a 2-under 68.

Snedeker was at 16-under 194 through three rounds of the final PGA Tour event of the regular season. Brian Gay and David Hearn were at 15 under, with Gay shooting a 62 and Hearn a 64.

Thirty players were on the course Saturday when play was suspended because of severe weather. After a delay of 3 hours, 23 minutes, organizers chose to hold things up until Sunday morning.

Snedeker, who shot an opening-round 59 to become just the 10th tour player to break 60, is chasing his first victory since 2016 and his second career win at this tournament.

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Olesen edges past Poulter in Ryder Cup standings

By Will GrayAugust 19, 2018, 3:10 pm

With only two weeks left in the qualification window, Thorbjorn Olesen is now in position to make his Ryder Cup debut.

Olesen finished alone in fourth place at the Nordea Masters, two shots out of a playoff between Thomas Aiken and eventual winner Paul Waring. Olesen carded four straight rounds of 68 in Sweden, including a final-round 67 that featured three birdies over his final seven holes.

It's a tight race for the fourth and final Ryder Cup spot via the World Points list, and Olesen's showing this week will allow him to move past Paul Casey and Ian Poulter, both of whom didn't play this week, into the No. 4 slot. Olesen is now also less than 40,000 Euros behind Tommy Fleetwood to qualify via the European Points list.

The top four players from both lists on Sept. 2 will qualify for next month's matches, with captain Thomas Bjorn rounding out the roster with four selections on Sept. 4. Poulter and Casey will both have a chance to move back in front next week at The Northern Trust, while the final qualifying week will include the PGA Tour event at TPC Boston and Olesen headlining the field in his homeland at the Made in Denmark.

Even if Olesen fails to qualify automatically for Paris, the 28-year-old continues to bolster his credentials for a possible pick from his countryman, Bjorn. Olesen won the Italian Open in June, finished second at the BMW International Open three weeks later and has now compiled four top-12 finishes over his last five worldwide starts including a T-3 result at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational earlier this month.

In addition to the players who fail to qualify from the Olesen-Poulter-Casey trio, other candidates for Bjorn's quartet of picks will likely include major champions Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.

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Thompson bounces back from rule violation

By Randall MellAugust 19, 2018, 2:22 am

If Lexi Thompson’s trouble in the sixth fairway brought back any painful memories Saturday at the Indy Women in Tech Championship, she shook them off in a hurry.

If the approach of another rules official amid a spirited run of brilliant play rattled her, she didn’t show it.

Thompson posted an 8-under-par 64 in the third round despite another awkward rules infraction.

Her round was impressively bogey free but not mistake free, and so her work will be a little harder Sunday chasing Lizette Salas.

After incurring a one-shot penalty for violating a local rule in effect for preferred lies, Thompson will start the final round five shots back instead of four.

She knows she’s fortunate she isn’t six back.

If a rules official hadn’t witnessed Thompson in the middle of committing the infraction, she could have been assessed an additional penalty shot for playing from the wrong spot.

Thompson got the penalty after stepping on the 10th tee and blowing her drive right, into the sixth fairway. She got it after picking up her ball over there and lifting, cleaning and placing it. She got it because she wasn’t allowed to do that in any other fairway except for the fairway of the hole she was playing.

The preferred-lie rule was distributed to players earlier in the week.

The story here isn’t really the penalty.

Full-field scores from Indy Women in Tech Championship

It’s Thompson’s reaction to it, because she opened this week in such heartfelt fashion. After skipping the Ricoh Women’s British Open to take a month-long “mental break,” Thompson revealed this week that she has been struggling emotionally in the wake of last year’s highs and lows. She opened up about how trying to “hide” her pain and show strength through it all finally became too much to bear. She needed a break. She also candidly shared how the challenges of being a prodigy who has poured herself into the game have led her to seek therapists’ help in building a life about more than golf.

That’s a lot for a 23-year-old to unload publicly.

Last year may have been the best and the worst of Thompson’s career. She said dealing with that controversial four-shot penalty that cost her the ANA Inspiration title, watching her mother battle cancer and losing a grandmother were cumulatively more difficult to deal with than she ever let on. There was also that short missed putt at year’s end that could have vaulted her to Rolex world No. 1 for the first time and led to her winning the Rolex Player of the Year title. She still won twice, won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average and was the Golf Writers Association of America Player of the Year.

That’s a lot of peaks and valleys for a young soul.

That’s the kind of year that can make you feel like an old soul in a hurry.

So seeing a rules official approach her on Saturday, you wondered about Thompson gathering herself so quickly. You wondered what she was thinking stepping up and ripping her next shot 215 majestic yards, about her hitting the green and saving par. You wondered about how she  bounced back to birdie 13 and 14 and finish bogey free.

With this week’s soul bearing, you wondered a lot about what rebounding like that meant to her.

We’re left to wonder from afar, though, because she wasn’t asked any of those questions by local reporters afterward. The transcript showed three brief answers to three short questions, none about the penalty or the challenge she met.

Of course, there were other questions to be asked, because local rules have been an issue this year. Did she read the local notes with the preferred lies explanation? She got hit with another local rules issue in Thailand this year, when she hit her ball near an advertising sign and moved the sign, not realizing a local rule made the sign a temporary immovable obstruction.

Of course, there were other good stories in Indy, too, with Sung Hyun Park poised to overtake Ariya Jutanugarn and return to Rolex world No. 1, with Salas holding off Park so brilliantly down the stretch Saturday.

Thompson, though, is the highest ranked American in the world. She’s the face of American women’s golf now. A face more tender, resolute and vulnerable than we have ever seen it.

Folks along the ropes watching her on the back nine in Indy Saturday got to see that better than any of us.

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Salas capitalizes on Park gaffe to take Indy lead

By Associated PressAugust 19, 2018, 2:07 am

INDIANAPOLIS – Lizette Salas waited patiently for Sung Hyun Park to make a rare mistake Saturday.

When the South Korean mishit her approach shot into the water on the par-4 16th, Salas capitalized quickly.

She rolled in her birdie putt then watched Park make double bogey – a three-shot swing that gave Salas the lead and the momentum heading into the final round of the Indy Women in Tech Championship. Salas closed out her 8-under 64 with a birdie on No. 18 to reach 21 under – two shots ahead of Park and Amy Yang.

“I have been striking the ball really well, and I just had to stay patient,” Salas said. “And yeah, putts dropped for sure. I just really felt comfortable.”

If she keeps it up one more day, Salas could be celebrating her first tour win since the 2014 Kingsmill Championship and her second overall. With five of the next six players on the leader board ranked in the world’s top 30, Salas knows it won’t be easy.

The changing weather conditions weather might not help, either. If the forecast for mostly sunny conditions Sunday holds, the soft greens that have kept scores at near record-lows through the first three rounds could suddenly become quicker and less forgiving.

But the 29-year-old Californian seems to have the perfect touch for this course, which weaves around and inside the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

She shot three sub-par rounds and finished tied for fifth last year here. This year, she has three more sub-par rounds including a course record-tying 62 on Thursday and has been atop the leader board each of the first three days.

“I have been so confident the whole year,” Salas said. “I have a different mentality, I’m a different player. So I’m just going to go out and play as if I’m behind.”

Full-field scores from Indy Women in Tech Championship

Salas’ toughest challenge still could from Park, who spent most of Saturday flirting with a 54-hole scoring record.

She birdied the last four holes on the front side and made back-to-back birdies on Nos. 13 and 14 to reach 21 under with a chance to become the sixth LPGA player to ever finish three rounds at 23 under.

The miscue at No. 16 changed everything.

She never really recovered after dropping two shots, settling for par on the final two holes for a 66 after shooting 68 and 63 the first two days. Yang finished with a 65 after going 68 and 64.

“I was a little weary with right-to-left wind,” Park said. “I think a little bit of weariness got to me, but overall, it’s OK.”

Defending champion Lexi Thompson was five shots back after completing the final nine of the second round in 2 under 34 and shooting 64 in the afternoon.

She made up ground despite being assessed a one-stroke penalty after hitting her tee shot on No. 10 into the sixth fairway and lifting the ball without authority. Rules officials had implemented the preferred lies rule because more than an inch of rain had doused the course.

Thompson still made her par on the hole though it temporarily broke her momentum after making six birdies on the front nine in her first appearance since taking a monthlong break to recover from physical and mental exhaustion.

“Twenty-seven holes, I definitely had a few tired swings toward the end,” said Thompson, who finished each of the first two rounds with 68s. “But overall, a lot of positives. I hit it great. I made some really good putts.”

Three players – Nasa Hataoka of Japan, Jin Young Ko of South Korea and Mina Harigae – were tied at 15 under. Ko started the third round with a share of the lead but had three bogeys in a round of 70.

Now, all Salas has to do is cash in one more time.

“I’ve been knocking on the door quite a bit in the last four years, haven’t been able to get it done,” Salas said. “I’ve got good players behind me, I’ve just got to play my game.”