HUMBLE, Texas – To rest, or not to rest: that is the question.
The Golf Club of Houston offers players at the Shell Houston Open a sneak peek of what they will see next week at the Masters. The rough has been trimmed to a nice backyard length. The areas around the greens are mown closely, and the putting surfaces offer a glossy shine while running at 12 or higher on the Stimpmeter.
It’s a bona fide dress rehearsal, but then again, Augusta National is a test unto itself. In baseball, a rehab start in AAA only goes so far to prepare a batter before he has to step in and face Madison Bumgarner.
For 35 players, this week’s stop will serve as final preparations for the season’s first major. It’s a number that could reach 36 if this week’s winner is not otherwise exempt for the Masters, and one that was expected to be higher before 11th-hour withdrawals from Henrik Stenson (flu) and Jimmy Walker (illness).
With the field at Augusta National pushing the century mark, the vast majority of next week’s participants are getting in final prep work elsewhere. So is there merit to competing the week before one of the game’s biggest pressure-cookers, or is it better to remain outside the ropes?
It’s tough to say.
“Some weeks you play terrible and then the next week you play amazing,” Sergio Garcia said. “Some weeks you play great and then the next week you play terrible, and some weeks you play great and then you play great.”
Garcia knows just how fickle this stretch can be. Last year he played well in Houston, taking the 36-hole lead before finishing third. He went on to miss the cut at Augusta by a shot.
“You never know what’s going to come out,” he reasoned.
Recent Masters results show an even divide in strategy. Of the 14 winners since 2001, seven have played in a tournament the week before, seven have practiced elsewhere. That includes three green jackets apiece for Tiger Woods, who has never played the week before the Masters, and Phil Mickelson, who makes it a point to play the week before majors.
Each of the last three Masters have been won by rested players, while each winner from 2008-11 had played the week prior.
A look at the recent near-misses, though, tips the scales in favor of those teeing it up this week in Houston. Louis Oosthuizen and Angel Cabrera both showed signs of progress at Shell before playoff losses at Augusta National in 2012 and 2013, respectively, while the two players who shared second last year followed the same schedule.
That includes Jordan Spieth, who bounced back from a missed cut in Houston to finish second in his maiden Masters trip. This week he headlines the field, fresh off a win last month in Tampa and a runner-up finish last week in San Antonio.
“Historically, I’ve played well the second, third week in a row on a stretch,” Spieth said. “I just seem to get some of the kinks out of the way early in the first couple weeks and not make as many mental errors.”
Last year 47 players teed it up in both events, with the results again divided: 22 missed the cut in Houston, while 23 went on to miss the cut at the Masters. Only three players managed a top-10 at both stops, led by Matt Kuchar who went P2-T5. Rory McIlroy was among that select group a year ago, as was Rickie Fowler, who next week will look for a fifth consecutive top-five result in a major.
“Playing the week before majors, I feel like can help you a lot, especially if you play well,” Fowler said. “I feel like you can go through a bit of a checklist and understand where your game is at, what you may need to work on … versus sitting at home working on the game and then kind of finding out what you have the Thursday of a major.”
The poster child for the prep-by-playing movement is Mickelson, who in 2006 won the now-defunct BellSouth Classic the week before claiming his second green jacket. He remains the only player to pull off such a double-dip since 1989.
But more and more players are following in his footsteps, including Patrick Reed. A Houston resident, Reed skipped his hometown event last year in advance of his first Masters but this week will tee it up in the Lone Star State.
“I played the week before in two of them (last year), made both of the cuts, and then the other two I did not play at all, I didn’t make a single cut,” Reed said. “So we’re going to see if that’s part of it.”
There is no shortage of theories in play this week in Houston, some of which will pan out while others will send players back to the drawing board. Is the Masters winner in this week’s field?
Only time will tell.