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Intensity is up as The Masters approaches
By Curtis Strange
Special to ABC Sports Online

The push to The Masters has begun. Even though it's a big week for Houston, from the players' perspective, everything you do at this point is in training and preparation for The Masters.

With that said, the Shell Houston Open is still an important week, and you want to do well here. Everything is more magnified right now. The intensity is up a little bit, and the players are a little more fired up every time they go to the golf course. You can't do much more, but you think about things a little more thoroughly because you have a huge tournament in two weeks.

Looking ahead to The Masters, always on the top of the list of favorites is Tiger Woods. He's home preparing. But everybody seems to me to be a little off right now. Ernie Els has been playing well, but didn't play well the last couple of weeks.

Phil Mickelson didn't play well last week, and he has to be able to figure out the press. The press is on him about his wonderful, aggressive play. It's going to make him second-guess a little bit, which is sad. When Arnold Palmer was doing this, it was fantastic. When Mickelson is doing it, it's not smart play. C'mon, give me a break. I think he's exciting, great to watch, great for the game. He's playing his own game. So hopefully, he says to hell with everybody else.

Davis Love III isn't playing great, David Duval isn't playing great. The next two weeks are important leading up to The Masters for them, as well.

It's a good tournament and it's a nice course. It all depends on how the players prepare.

The course
Hal Sutton
Hal Sutton won last year in Houston with a 10-under 278.
The TPC at The Woodlands is not a long golf course. Ten years ago, it was a better than average course. Now, with technology, it's a little shorter. It's a good course to play. It has some good holes. Length is not a huge advantage. Because of that, I played well there.

It has good greens and a lot of water, especially on the back nine. The 17th and 18th holes are two of the finest closing holes you will see. On No. 17, you have to avoid water on the left. Normally a 3-wood off the tee, then a second shot over the water. On the 18th, it's a second-shot water. It's always a great finishing hole. You have to hit a heck of a shot to get it up close.

It's spring time, so scores around 15-under par should challenge for the championship.

Players to watch
Since I am playing, I don't care who is playing until the weekend.

But I will be anxious to see how Craig Perks plays after the biggest week of his life. ABC is going to interview him this weekend, to give a little more background on a player who won his first tournament at The Players Championship.

Curtis Strange is a three-time winner of the Shell Houston Open. He is a golf analyst for ABC Sports and a regular contributor to ABC Sports Online.

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Houston Open field

2001 Houston Open results

Houston Open past champions

2002 Masters field

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 Craig Perks recaps his first career PGA Tour victory.
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