We're just a week away from the year's first major but before US Masters fever takes over, we have a decent line-up assembling in Texas for the Houston Open so read our man's comprehensive preview ahead of Thursday's start here...
“In the last 12 years, since the event switched to this venue, 11 of the 12 winners have ranked inside the top-10 for Par 4 Scoring and all 12 have ranked inside the top-10 for birdies made.”
George Bowden and Peter O'Hara tied a tournament called the Houston Professional Golf event way back in 1922 and there was a tournament of sorts sporadically held annually in the Houston area up until 1938.
Nothing happened during the war years but 1946 saw the first official staging of the Houston Open, and the tournament started with a bang, with Byron Nelson getting the better of Ben Hogan by two strokes. There was no event in 1948 or 1969 but it's been an ever-present on the PGA Tour otherwise and since 2007, except for 2013, it's always been played the week before the US Masters.
Golf Course of Houston, Humble, Texas
Par 72, 7441 yards, stroke average in 2017 - 71.98
Formally known as Redstone, the Golf Course of Houston was Rees Jones' first 'from scratch' design. It was built specifically to host this event and will be doing so for the 13th time in-a-row this year.
The fairways are wide with little rough to speak off and water is in play on half the holes. The Bermuda greens are larger than average and in an attempt to simulate conditions at Augusta National, home of the US Masters next week, they'll be playing fast. Most years they aim for around 13 on the stimpmeter.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting with Featured Group coverage on Thursday at 13:30.
Last Five Winners
2016 - Russell Henley -20
2016 - Jim Herman -15
2015 - J.B Holmes -16 (playoff)
2014 - Matt Jones -15 (playoff)
2013 - D.A Points -16
What Will it Take to Win the Houston Open?
Last year's winner, Russell Henley, ranked 29th for Driving Distance and fourth for Driving Accuracy but it doesn't really matter what you do off the tee here. We've seen recent winners top the Driving Distance stats (JB Holmes in 2015) and we've seen winners rank as lowly as 50th and 61st (Hunter Mahan in 2012 and D.A Points in 2013) for DD. Henley's fourth was the lowest any winner has ranked here for Driving Accuracy and the next best is the 2016 winner, Jim Herman, who ranked 16th, so being straight is far from vital. Phil Mickelson was able to win in 2011 despite ranking 67th for DA and a year earlier, Anthony Kim won despite the entire field finding more fairways than him. It's impossible to determine whether length or accuracy from the tee is more important but the most significant stat has been Greens In Regulation.
Henley ranked fourth for GIR and five of the first six home last year ranked ninth or better. The three players ranking first, second and third for GIR in 2016 all finished inside the top-ten, the two players Holmes beat in a playoff in 2015, Jordan Spieth and Johnson Wagner, ranked tied third for GIR and Henley, who finished fourth in 2015, hit more greens than anyone else. The 2014 playoff protagonists, Matt Jones and Matt Kuchar, ranked one and two for greens hit and the 2012 winner, Hunter Mahan, also ranked first for GIR.
Par 4 Scoring has been really important here too. The first two home last year, Henley and Sung-Hoon Kang, first and second for Par 4 Scoring and the first and second in 2016, Herman and Henrik Stenson, ranked tied second on the par fours, Holmes ranked number one for Par 4 Scoring three years ago and Spieth, who lost in the playoff, ranked second. In the last 12 years, since the event switched to this venue, 11 of the 12 winners have ranked inside the top-10 for that stat and all 12 have ranked inside the top-10 for birdies made. Nobody made more birdies than Henley 12 months ago.
Is There an Angle In?
Quail Hollow, home to the Wells Fargo Championship and the venue for last year's USPGA Championship, looks to correlate very nicely with this track. Vijay Singh, Anthony Kim and J.B Holmes have all won both this event and the Wells Fargo and Houston winners Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott and even D.A Points have come very close to winning at Quail Hollow. Points was beaten in a playoff in 2012 and the man that beat him was last year's Houston third, Rickie Fowler, who was matched in-running here at just [1.46].
Another event that may be worth looking at closely, and another event that Fowler has traded at odds-on in before getting beat, is the Phoenix Open, staged at TPC Scottsdale. Holmes is a two-time winner there, the 2011 Houston winner, Phil Mickelson, has won there three times, and Hunter Mahan has also taken both titles in the last eight years.
Huge outsider, Mark Wilson, the Phoenix Open winner in 2011, was in-the-mix at halfway here three years ago and so was Graham DeLaet, who traded at odds-on in Phoenix four years ago. This year's Phoenix Open winner, Gary Woodland, doesn't frank the form particularly well. In his sole appearance in this event, he could only finish 33rd but the man he beat in the playoff in Phoenix, Chez Reavie, finished seventh here in his only appearance back in 2016. And that's especially pertinent given Reavie only managed three top-tens all year in 2016 and he was out of form when he finished seventh here.
Both venues have plenty of water in-play, nice wide fairways, and little rough and the results certainly suggest the two venues correlate nicely.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Australians often play well in Texas, with the usually dry and windy conditions tending to replicate the sort of conditions experienced Down Under. Stuart Appleby and Adam Scott won here in 2006 and 2007 and Matt Jones became the third Aussie to take the title in 2014. And outsiders have fared well here of late too...
I have fond memories of backing last year's winner, Henley, at [60.0] and I also backed Holmes at [38.0] in 2015 so I'm looking forward to seeing if I can bag a third winner in four years but it's a tough event in which to pick the winner. Those two were very well-fancied in comparison to the other recent winners. The 2016 winner, Jim Herman, was matched at [1000.0] before the off and so too was the 2013 winner, D.A points, and Jones was matched at [200.0] back in 2014. There are some high-class players in the line-up this week but it might be worth swerving them all if recent evidence is anything to go by.
If we look at the last four results, it looks like this is a venue to back players coming form off the pace but I really don't think that's the case. Henley trailed by six strokes at halfway and he was still four back with a round to go and Holmes, in 2105, was the first winner on the PGA Tour to come from six back with a round to go since Matt Jones had done so in this event 12 months earlier, but they were all aided greatly in one way or another...
Henley may have trailed by six at the halfway stage but he only had one main in front of him - the inexperienced Sung-hoon Kang. The Korean still led through 54 holes (by three over Fowler and four over Henley) but understandably, he just couldn't keep up the ridiculous pace he'd set himself. His 65 and 63 over the first two days was followed by rounds of 71 and 72 and Henley's sensational seven-under-par 65 in round four saw him go to win by three.
Both the 2014 and 2015 results were unique in their own way too. Jones, who had been sitting fourth through 54 holes, benefited from a really poor finish by Matt Kuchar, who had led by four with a round to go, and Holmes got lucky with the weather, but we already knew he was capable of ridiculously low scoring.
He'd fired an incredible opening 62 in tricky conditions at Trump International the month before his final round 64 here and he was helped out considerably by the conditions.
Rain had softened the course nicely and the fact that he started out way before the leaders was most advantageous. As the day wore on the air appeared heavier and making birdies wasn't quite as easy as it had been when Holmes embarked on his final round. All the stars aligned for Holmes, as they had done for Jones 12 months earlier and in the fullness of time, these three results could well be viewed upon as a bit freakish.
Prior to 2014, Adam Scott in 2007, who benefited from a late Stuart Appleby collapse, had been the only winner not to be within two of the lead with a round to go and every winner bar Holmes has been inside the top-four places after 54 holes.
The short par four 12th is easy enough and the par five 13th ranked the second easiest on the course last year but after that the finish is tough enough with the par five 15th the only easy hole coming in. That averaged 4.87 last year and it was the fourth easiest hole encountered. The 14th and 16th are demanding par threes and 17 and 18 both average over par every year, with the par four finishing hole, with water very much in play throughout, consistently ranking as the hardest on the course. Last year it averaged 4.31.
Justin Rose has been knocking at the door of late, with a fifth-place finish at the Valspar Championship and a third in the Arnold Palmer, but his form here is only ordinary, reading 52-14-37-15 and I suspect his participation is based on how good a prep the event has been for him for the US Masters. He didn't play here in 2016 when he finished only 10th at Augusta but after his 37th in 2015 and his 15th last year, he went on to finish second in the Masters. This could be more of a ticking over exercise than all guns blazing assault on the title and for that reason I'm more than happy to look elsewhere.
Jordan Spieth will be desperate to get a good week in before he heads to Georgia and particular focus will be on his putting. He currently ranks highly for GIR and Par 4 Scoring and he has form at Phoenix. He was also second here in 2015 so he ticks a lot of boxes but he's short enough for me given how poorly he's been putting and next week is surely the main target.
Rickie Fowler should be the favourite. Over the last three months on the PGA, he ranks fifth for GIR and seventh for Par 4 Scoring. He's a winner at Quail Hollow, he's traded at odds-on several times in Phoenix and he arguably should have won here 12 months ago too. This course is ideal for him as his form figures of 65-63-6-71-10-3 suggest and he's been in great form of late too but he's just far too fragile in-contention for my liking.
Fowler was bang there in Phoenix with a round to go but he finished 11th and he hit the front during round three last time out in the Arnold Palmer but eventually finished 14th. He's never been great in-the-mix and he appears to be getting worse.
Henrik Stenson's course and current form is a bit Jekyll and Hyde. His numbers at this course read 3-21-2-54-2-MC and his last four starts have produced form figures that read 6-60-MC-4. After a rare missed cut at the Valspar Championship, he opened-up with a 64 to lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last time out but he was eventually reeled in following a pair 71s on the weekend. We're far more likely to see the in-form Henrik but I'm not prepared to bet on it.
The last of the five big guns in the line-up is the 2011 winner, Phil Mickelson. After a run of great results, that culminated in his first win in five years at the WGC-Mexico Championship, Lefty admitted he didn't play with the usual intensity at the Match Play last week and I suspect we'll see some sort of bounce back here. He's been well-backed to win a fourth Green Jacket, eight years after his third, and he'll be looking to get back on song ahead of another attempt at further Augusta glory but he's short enough for me.
I had a shortlist of a half a dozen or so but the only two players I'm happy to back at the prices on offer are the aforementioned Chez Reavie and James Hahn.
Hahn, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, ranks highly for both Par 4 Scoring and GIR, he was 11th in Phoenix in February and he's won at Quail Hollow. He's also averaged 4.5 birdies per round over the last three months - ranking sixth for Birdie Average.
Chez Reavie @ [85.0]
James Hahn @ [130.0]
If I do back any more, I'll post any bets to Twitter and kick off the In-Play Blog early.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter