HUMBLE, Texas – Throw a stick at the field list for next week’s Masters and you’ll probably hit the name of someone carrying unbridled momentum down Magnolia Lane.
Expectations for a wide-open race at Augusta National seem well-founded, considering the fact that nearly every pre-tournament favorite can point back to a week within the last three months as reason he’ll be the one to slip into the green jacket.
Dustin Johnson has a win under his belt in 2018, as does Justin Thomas. And Jon Rahm, and Rory McIlroy, and Phil Mickelson, and so on.
The list is exhaustive, at least in the non-Tiger division, but it could gain another name this week at the Houston Open.
Entering the last week before the first major, both Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler said all the right things. Their games feel close. Their fine-tuning list is short. A pit stop in Houston represents a chance to button up a few loose ends before hopping in the jet and heading east.
But watch the smile creep across Spieth’s face as he talks, or glimpse the self-assured manner in which Fowler is currently striding around the Golf Club of Houston, and you’ll realize how very far a little bit of good play at the right time can go.
With all the puzzle pieces for Augusta National spread out on the board, theirs are among the few that seemed conspicuously absent from the pile of confident favorites. Perhaps not for much longer.
“Honestly, my goal for this week’s been accomplished just in two rounds,” said Spieth, who trails Beau Hossler by two shots at 9 under. “I don’t really need to see a whole lot for next week, but it is nice to work my way into contention. And obviously, tomorrow the goal is to stay that way.”
When it comes to the soft science of Masters momentum, Spieth knows that of which he speaks. It was here three years ago that he came within a whisker of winning the tournament, ultimately falling to J.B. Holmes in a playoff. Seven days later, he was sized up for his first green jacket.
Fowler’s experience goes back a few more years, albeit with fewer high points. But just last year he opened with a 64 in Houston en route to a T-3 finish, then contended deep into the weekend in Augusta. He has an opportunity to replicate at least the first part of that scenario after rounds of 66-68, forfeiting a share of the lead only with his watery bogey on the final hole Friday.
“It’s been a great week so far, and the checklist for the most part, we have everything done that we wanted to get done going into the week,” Fowler said. “I think the only two things left would be get in contention late Sunday, and holding the trophy.”
The two men are friends on and off the course, from Augusta National to Baker’s Bay, and in recent weeks they’ve stuck to a similar refrain: the game feels just the slightest bit off, but the pieces are in place. Perhaps the putter need only heat up a few degrees to bring it all together.
It’s a similar verse to the one McIlroy was singing after his missed cut at the Valspar, only for him to turn around and rally to a victory at Bay Hill the very next week that promptly moved his name from the group of Masters favorites who might be missing an ingredient to those that will stroll down Magnolia Lane with swagger.
Spieth and Fowler both insist that a win this week would be a luxury, and not a necessity, in order to feel good about their prospects next week. It’s a position that’s likely a little easier to hear from Spieth, given that he’ll set up shop next week in the champions’ locker room.
But this is a game where the margins are thin, and the difference between mediocre and great on a week-to-week basis is often hard to pinpoint. Spieth spoke after his opening round that, of all things, it was a missed par putt that got him back on track. For Fowler, it’s simply been trying to strike a balance.
“You’re not trying to make serious changes the week prior, but make sure it’s dialed in and it’s heading the right way and not getting too far off,” Fowler said. “I feel like golf, you’re always kind of teetering one way to the next in trying to find that sweet spot and not move too far away from it.”
The countdown to the Masters has moved from months to weeks to, improbably, merely days. It draws closer with each piped drive and each made putt, an oasis on the horizon that will demand only the best from the best.
But before they arrive, Spieth and Fowler both detoured to Houston in order to get their affairs in order. With the tournament only at the halfway point, both men have already found what they sought – with still a little more to play for in the coming days.
“These last two days, I played this golf course probably as well as I’ve ever played it,” Spieth said. “Being patient and committing to shots when I needed to, but staying away from the trouble when I needed to and let it come to me. So more of the same this weekend, hopefully.”