Houston Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
WITH all thoughts turning towards Augusta and The Masters, Russell Henley returns to defend his Houston Open title. It was a victory that Henley desperately needed after a dismal 2016 season.
The American shot three rounds of 63 on his way to victory at the Sony Open in 2013 and then added the Honda Classic in 2014, but it all became something of a struggle for him after that.
“I was lost with my swing and questioning everything,” said Henley. “I think that happens when you play against the best players in the world.” Henley struggled with consistency. He was either brilliant or he was dismal. He finished 44th in the FedExCup race as a rookie in 2013, 19th in 2014 and then dropped well out of the top 50. In 2016, Henley arrived in Houston having missed five straight cuts. He turned things around that week, finishing in a time for fifth place and 12 months ago he had seven birdies in a final round of 65 to get back in the winners’ circle. It was his 13th consecutive sub-par round at the Golf Club of Houston.
It’s a strange thing. Every player will tell you that there is a course somewhere that suits his or her eye, and for Henley this is the one. Another man who loves the place is Phil Mickelson, who won the tournament in 2011. It was won in 2012 by Hunter Mahan, in 2013 by DA Points, in 2014 by Matt Jones, of Australia, in 2015 by JB Holmes and in 2016, against all the odds, by journeyman Jim Herman. The course also holds a special place in the heart of Paul Casey, who won way back in 2009 – his only victory on the PGA Tour until that final round of 65 secured the recent Valspar Championship for the Englishman, seeing off the challenge of Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed.
Casey has been in a rich vein of form for a couple of years and, with another victory finally tucked under his belt, but he has skipped this year's tournament. The Englishman is a brilliant ball striker, and has been for an awfully long time. Known as Popeye on account of his bulging forearms, he struggled to control his emotions after winning at Innisbrook resort, but he took the week off at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and will surely be looking forward to The Masters. Casey has a terrific record at Augusta, reeling off top-10 finishes for fun. Few people would have mentioned his name when considering potential winners of the first major of the season, but you can be sure that he will figure on many lists now.
The key to his victory in the Valspar was his putting. He would be the first to admit that he has struggled on the greens in recent times, but he admitted that he had been working tirelessly and said that he has finally found something. You don’t win at Augusta unless you can putt, so he will be hoping that he can keep the magic going for a little longer.
And then there is Henrik Stenson. He has twice finished runner-up here, along with a third place, in recent years and admits that he loves the course. On top of that, the former Open champion is in sensational form right now and when he plays well he can beat anybody, on any course. He chose not to play in the World Match Play in Austin, Texas, and thus arrives in Houston feeling fit and fresh.
Jordan Spieth lost in a playoff in Houston a couple of years ago. The three-time major champion is having a rough ride right now, and says that he feels like he is playing catch-up. During the winter he suffered a bout of mononucleosis, lost weight and was unable to practice the way he would have liked. He only decided to take part in the WGC Mexico Championship at the last minute, and thought long and hard about whether he should play in the Valspar, an event he won three years ago. In the end, he did play but missed the cut. He also failed to make the weekend at the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, which is one of his favourite events. The worrying thing for Spieth is that the wondrous putting stroke with which he has won The Masters, US Open and Open Championship appeared to have deserted him.
"I have been trying to figure out what was the best strategy to be as rested and prepared for Augusta," Spieth said. "I just wasn't sure. I haven't had a whole lot of rest."
His illness badly affected his preparations for the 2018 season. He said that he was only able to do four one-hour practice sessions in December. "I probably lost a full month, month-and-a-half because of it," Spieth said. "The problem was in that time coming back, the basic stuff after you take a couple of weeks off … is the time you figure out all the basics: the ball position, the alignment issues. And then I was starting to have those problems, especially in the short game, while I was having to play tournaments. And so it adds to that frustration level.
“I am not concerned about my putting. The stroke is fine – it is just a matter of sorting out some alignment issues.”
After his sensational victory at the WGC Mexico Championship, when he beat Justin Thomas in a playoff, Mickelson believes that he can win The Masters again. And he won’t be in the least bit concerned if he also manages to win this week.
Having chosen to sit out the WGC World Matchplay, Rickie Fowler makes his fifth consecutive start in the Houston Open. Last year he opened with an eight-under-par round of 64 to lead the field by one. He eventually finished in a tie for third place during a week in which he recorded an astonishing 27 birdies in 72 holes.
Lee Westwood emerges from a period of hibernation in the certain knowledge that unless he can start to produce some world-class performances – and soon – then he can forget all about making a 11th appearance for Europe in the Ryder Cup. When he played in the US Open in 2016, Westwood was ranked 34th in the world – he is now 89th, and falling further. He is 44 years old now, but will surely draw some inspiration from the recent success of Mickelson at the age of 47.
Rafa Cabrera Bello
Shubhankar Sharma, of India, has accepted an invitation to the tournament as he continues his dream season. After Houston he will be flying to Georgia to make his debut in The Masters. He is now comfortably ensconced in the top 64 in the world and is assured of entry into all of the World Golf Championship events – if he can climb into the top 50, which is surely inevitable, he will also guarantee himself a start in all four majors. Sharma may only be 21 years of age but he is not short of self belief or confidence. Just imagine the impact he will have on the sport back home in India if he can win on the PGA Tour or, heaven forbid, land a major.
Rickie Fowler. Ready for a win
Phil Mickelson. Can you really bet against the old boy?
Henrik Stenson. Looked great at Bay Hill
Rickie Fowler. Needs a boost ahead of The Masters
Phil Mickelson. Continues to defy the years
Henrik Stenson. Striking the ball quite beautifully
Jordan Spieth. Needs to rediscover his putting touch
Jason Dufner. You can never write him off
Ryan Palmer. Back to his best once more
Shubhankar Sharma. Walking on air
Russell Henley. Adores texas
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Hugely underrated player
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