Shell Houston Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
IT IS the tournament nobody wants to win. The Shell Houston Open comes just one week before The Masters and very few players win on successive weeks. Mind you, Jim Herman wasn't complaining when he took the title 12 months ago. The 39-year-old was in tears after holding off Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson to land his maiden tour victory and secure his place at Augusta.
The tournament was won in 2010 by Anthony Kim (remember him?), by Phil Mickelson in 2011, Hunter Mahan in 2012, DA Points in 2013, Matt Jones in 2014 and JB Holmes in 2015. Stenson has a great record at Houston - he also finished second in 2013.
The Swede has grown in both stature and confidence since winning The Open at Royal Troon last year, and he will have no concerns about winning in the week before The Masters. He has struggled with a series of niggling injuries of late, but Stenson never seems to play poorly, and when he does, he always finds a way to grind out a score. The wind often blows in this part of the world, and Stenson is one of the very best when it comes to controlling his ball flight in challenging conditions. He also happens to be a terrific clutch putter.
Matt Kuchar, another who has a runner-up finish to his name in Houston, has had a slow start to the season. The American did a huge amount of work on his game during the off-season and is a determined character. People misjudge him because he always plays with a smile on his face, but the competitive fires burn brightly within Kuchar and he will not have enjoyed struggling. He is one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour and will surely click back into gear before very much longer.
Don't write off Herman's chances either. His life changed for ever as a result of his win here. He doesn't have to worry about earning enough to keep his card for another two full seasons and has produced some superb golf and a couple of very low scores in 2017. He will return to Houston with a swagger in his step and good feelings about returning to the scene of the best week of his professional career.
Jordan Spieth will head to Augusta as most people's idea of the favourite to land a second Green Jacket. He has already won once this year, and if he doesn't do so again in 2017 then I will eat my laptop. It is his putting that makes all the headlines, but there is so much more to Spieth's game than a magic putter. Yes, he holes more than his share of putts in excess of 20 feet, but the key to his return to top form is his ability to hit greens in regulation - a statistic in which he leads the way on the PGA Tour.
Like Stenson and Johnson, Spieth is in Houston to claim another title, and if he does so will head to Augusta even more convinced that he is going to win The Masters again.
Adam Scott, another former Masters champion, arrives in Houston looking for some form. The tall Australian remains a magnificent ball striker (one of the best in the game), but his travails with the short stick are well known and he can't be looking forward to the glass-like surfaces he will face at Augusta. But it is all about confidence for Scott and if he can get a few putts to drop this week, who knows what he can achieve?
Daniel Berger is one of the most improved players on the PGA Tour, having found a consistency that is the envy of many. He looks increasingly like a future major winner, but his ball flight is unlikely to be suited to Augusta National. He may have to settle for another good finish in Houston instead.
Justin Rose took the unusual decision to sit out the WGC Dell World Match Play Championship in Austin, Texas, opting instead to play in Houston. It indicates two things - he still harbours concerns about the state of his fragile back and is determined to prove his form before heading off to Augusta for another tilt at The Masters. Rose has come close to winning the season's opening major on several occasions but knows only too well that he needs to be at the peak of his powers if he is to have a chance. This week will tell us much about the state of his game.
As is his wont, Phil Mickelson refuses to take the easy way out. The left-hander is playing some astonishing golf just now and after his exertions in Austin he might have been forgiven for taking the week off. Not a bit of it. He still hits the ball a mile, and he still visits parts of the golf course that no other human being has ever seen, but his powers of recovery are still miraculous. More than anybody else in the field, he is desperate to win again. Could this be his week?
To Win: Matt Kuchar. The smiling assassin
Each Way: Phil Mickelson. Wants it so badly he can taste it
Matt Kuchar. Ready to rock again
Phil Mickelson. The most entertaining player on tour
Dustin Johnson. Has no weaknesses
Jon Rahm. Will soon be challenging Johnson for top spot in rankings
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Keeps grinding out good finishes
Bernd Wiesberger. Glorious golf swing
Rickie Fowler. Shotmaker on a shotmaker's course
Jimmy Walker. Returning to his best
Jordan Spieth. In great shape for Masters
Adam Scott. Can he hole some putts?
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