Plenty of possibilities in Houston
The Tournament Course at Redstone might be as close to playing Augusta National Golf Club as many people will ever come. The public access, par-72, 7,400-yard Rees Jones and David Toms design has tall pines, lightning-fast undulating greens, light rough, fairways mown toward the tee boxes and shaved banks around the water hazards.
Since 2007, when the Shell Houston Open's spot on the PGA Tour schedule was moved to the week before the Masters, the Tournament Course has become a nice primer for players trying to prepare for Augusta in tournament conditions. Opened in 2005, the Tournament Course is a flatter, more wide-open layout than Alistair MacKenzie's gem, but many of the top players have come to admire its common traits with its older and more private Georgia sibling.
There are 31 players at Houston this week who are in the field at Augusta. Most of them have come specifically to prepare for what promises to be one of the most exciting Masters in years. Tiger Woods' triumphant return to the winner's circle on Sunday at Bay Hill after a 30-month PGA Tour drought has cast him into the spotlight as the favorite to win his fifth green jacket. It's not the worst bandwagon to join. Woods was dominant in a 5-stroke victory at Arnie's tournament with command of every aspect of his game.
But in this early juncture of the season, there have been several notable players building strong credentials for Augusta. A number of these players are at Redstone this week. They include Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley, Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, Johnson Wagner and two-time Houston Open winner Fred Couples, who got his seventh win on the Champions Tour on Sunday at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic.
Mickelson, the defending champion who last year shot an impressive final-round 65 to win by three shots over Scott Verplank and Chris Kirk, is the most celebrated among the group. Mickelson -- the 41-year-old, 40-time PGA Tour winner -- has three green jackets overall and a win this season at Pebble Beach. He's cooled off some since taking a few weeks off after finishing second at the Northern Trust Open, but he always seems to raise his game a notch or two for the majors.
After finishing second to Woods at Bay Hill, McDowell is in Houston trying to get his first win of the year. Last year he took the week off between Bay Hill and Augusta, where he would miss the cut. In 2011, the 32-year-old former U.S. Open champion missed the cut in all four majors. But for a double-bogey at the first hole Sunday at Bay Hill, he might have been able to put some pressure on Woods.
With 35-worldwide wins, the 38-year-old Westwood is in the class of players who should have won a major championship by now. In 2010, he finished second in both the Masters and the British Open. Last year, he had a T-3 at the U.S. Open and T-8 at the PGA Championship. At the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February, Westwood had a chance to regain the No. 1 ranking in the world, but Rory McIlroy beat him in the semifinals.
With Westwood's recent record at the majors, it might be easy for him to look past this week and ahead to Augusta, but he's trying to stay focused.
"I'm here to win to the Shell Houston Open," Westwood said Tuesday. "I'm not smart enough to concentrate on two things at once so I have to concentrate on the thing at hand, which is trying to win this week."
Mahan, a quiet and unassuming 29-year-old Dallas resident, beat McIlroy in the final at the Match Play. His other top-10 of the year came at the Farmers Insurance Open. He has two top-10s at the Masters, the most recent being a tie for eighth in 2010. Mahan is one of the best pure drivers on tour, a skill that will serve him well at Augusta. He's always ranked somewhere near the top of the tour in total driving.
Bradley, Schwartzel and Darren Clarke are three of last year's major champions in the field this week. As for Bradley, with eight top-25s in eight 2012 starts, including a second at the Northern Trust Open where he showed a lot of courage to get into a playoff with Mickelson and Bill Haas, the 25-year-old former St. John's star has a fondness and a real comfort level with the limelight. The Masters will be just his second career major.
Last year, Schwartzel finished 30th in Houston before going on to win the Masters with four closing birdies on Sunday. This year he's had two top-5s in four events on the PGA Tour. No one saw him coming last year when he took control of the Masters, but now he's expected to do well at Augusta as a past champion.
Wagner doesn't have the pedigree of these other players, but with four top-10s this season including a win at the Sony Open, he's got the lead in the FedEx Cup standings. The 32-year-old former Virginia Tech star could become the first player with a mustache since Craig Stadler in 1982 to win the Masters.
Ernie Els is on the outside looking in at the players headed to Augusta after the finish at Redstone. He has to win this week to qualify for the Masters. Another top-5 won't be good enough to make it into the 96-man field at Augusta. At Bay Hill, he missed key putts that could have gotten him a solo third finish that might have put him inside the top 50 in the world. The big South African will need to make everything this week if he wants to play in his 19th straight Masters.
The winner in Houston will most likely emerge from that group of 31 players already booked for Augusta. But a hungry player like Els or a young upstart like Bud Cauley could steal the show and punch their tickets to the grandest golf stage in the world.
Because Els, Cauley and 120 other players in the field were not afforded recent trips to play practice rounds at Augusta, Redstone will at least offer them a glimpse of what those greens are like until they can see the real thing in another week or another year.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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