Houston Open: Bank on Burns in Texas

Golfer Sam Burns
Worthy favourite, Sam Burns

After three tournaments on foreign soil, in Japan, Bermuda and Mexico, the PGA Tour returns to the US this week for the Houston Open. Read Steve's in-depth preview ahead of Thursday's start here...

"Sam Burns has shortened up at the head of the market and I’m not surprised. He’s the one they all need to beat."

Tournament History

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. The tournament lost its sponsors after the 2017 edition and having been played in the week before the US Masters every year since 2007, with the exception of 2013, it was shuffled back in the schedule in 2019.

As a result, the tournament was contested by a much weaker than normal field two years but because of the schedule reshuffle due to the pandemic, the tournament was once again played out the week before the US Masters last year.

Dustin Johnson warmed up nicely for Augusta, finishing second before going on to win the US Masters the following week and this year's US Masters champ, Hideki Matsuyama, finished tied for second alongside DJ.

The tournament doesn't precede a major championship this time around but it does return to last year's new venue, Memorial Park, for the second time.

Venue

Memorial Park Golf Course, Houston, Texas

Course Details

Par 70, 7412
Stroke Average in 2020 71.03

Originally designed by John Bredemus, Memorial Park, a municipal parkland course, was completely reworked in 2019 by Tom Doak, who was assisted by Brooks Koepka.

On Koepka's advice, bunkers were reduced from 54 to 20 and many were replaced by steep slopes covered in short grass. Runoff or collection areas if you prefer. The idea behind the move was to allow handicap golfers to putt up on to the green, rather than play from sand, and to test the pros a bit more. The majority of recreational golfers struggle playing out of bunkers but none of the pros do so it was a clever and logical move.

MEMORIAL PARK HOUSTON 2021.jpg

The course is entirely Bermuda and the large MiniVerde Bermuda greens, which will be set at least 12 on the stimpmeter, have plenty of undulation.

The course was very well received when first used last year and as a result, 70 of the 132 strong field are playing it for the second year in-a-row.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Skt Sports all four days, starting at 8:00 on Thursday

Last Six Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2020 - Carlos Ortiz -13 200.0199/1
2019 - Lanto Griffin -14 65.064/1
2018 - Ian Poulter -19 150.0149/1
2017 - Russell Henley -20 60.059/1
2016 - Jim Herman -15 800.0799/1
2015 - J.B Holmes -16 38.037/1

What Will it Take to Win the Houston Open?

It's very hard to draw too many conclusions from just one renewal - especially given how the field appeared to get to know the track day-by-day last year.

After scoring averages of 72.3 and 71.3 in the first and second rounds, the field improved to average 70.3 in the third round and 68.8 in the final round.

It played fast and firm and quite tough, with only three players managing to get to double-digits under-par so it will be interesting if familiarity brings the scores down this year but for what it's worth, the stats to come to the fore 12 months ago were Scrambling and Strokes Gained Tee to Green.

The winner, Carlos Ortiz, topped the Scrambling stats for the week, with Talor Gooch, who finished fourth, ranking second, and the first four home ranked fifths, second, sixth and 11th for SGT2G.

Could Riviera form be key?

As already stated, it's dangerous to make any assumptions after just one renewal at the venue but form at Riviera looks well worth considering.

Sam Burns led this event through rounds two and three before he imploded on Sunday last year and he was five clear in the Genesis Invitational in February at Riviera.

Dustin Johnson, tied second last year, is a standing dish around Riviera (won there twice), and the man that finished alongside him here, Hideki Matsuyama, has four top-11 finishes from just seven starts.

That all makes sense given the last two US Masters winners were alongside each-other here and that a total of 12 Masters Champions have now won 24 editions of the Genesis Open at Riviera.

Talor Gooch, who finished fourth here, has Riviera form reading 20-10-12 so that's clearly the best place to start.

How much of an advantage will last year's runners have?

As highlighted above, it was very noticeable how much the scoring improved as the week wore on and the winner, Ortiz, Talor Gooch, and MacKenzie Hughes, all shot seven-under-par 63s on Sunday last year, suggesting anyone playing here for the first time this year could be significantly disadvantaged. Backing anyone that wasn't in the field 12 months ago could be risky.

If playing the tournament match bets is your thing, playing those with course experience against those without it, could be a good angle-in too. For example, Cameron Smith is odds-on to beat Tony Finau but the Aussie is making his debut this week.

Thumbnail image for Tony-Finau-1280.gif

That might nor be a great example as Smith plays Augusta nicely but then again, Finau has three top-tens in four starts there and he's been second twice at Riviera. Both are candidates for the title given their correlating course form but hopefully you get my drift.

Is There an Identikit Winner?

This has been a decent tournament for outsiders over the years and Ortiz was a 200.0199/1 chance 12 months ago. In the last eight years alone, we've seen longshots, Ortiz, D.A Points, Matt Jones, Ian Poulter and Jim Herman all take the title but I'm not convinced that trend will continue at this venue if last year is anything to go by...

With the likes of DJ, Matsuyama, Koepka, Tyrrell Hatton and Jason Day all inside the top-seven and ties and with Open Championship winner, Shane Lowry, just a stroke outside the places, the cream really did rise to the top in 2020

.

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

2020 - Carlos Ortiz - tied second, trailing by one 7.413/2
2019 - Lanto Griffin - led by one stroke 4.03/1
2018 - Ian Poulter - tied for the lead 4.77/2
2017 - Russell Henley - third and trailing by four 6.611/2
2016 - Jim Herman - tied for the lead 11.521/2
2015 - J.B Holmes tied 18th - trailing by six 160.0159/1

In-Play Tactics

Looking at last year's result, Memorial Park is somewhere where winning form off the pace is perfectly possible.

Ortiz sat second after rounds one, two and three last year but DJ trailed by seven after round one and by five after 36 holes, and four of the eventual top-ten trailed by at least seven strokes at halfway. Koepka, who finished tied fifth, and Hughes, who finished tied ninth, both trailed the halfway leader, Burns, by nine strokes!

The opening hole is tough and it ranked as the second hardest on the course last year but four of the five hardest holes (11, 12, 14 and 18) all come after the turn so that needs bearing in mind if trading in running.

Market Leaders

Sam Burns has shortened up at the head of the market and I'm not surprised. I know it's early in the season but he already ranks first for SGT2G on the PGA Tour and following his mishaps here and at Riviera, the 25-year-old has learnt how to win, closing out both the Valspar Championship in March and the Sanderson Farms Championship a month ago. He's the one they all need to beat.

Although playing in his home state, Scottie Scheffler is debuting at the course this week and he looks readily opposable at only 20.019/1. He's yet to win on the PGA Tour and only last Sunday he backed off after an early charge in Mexico on Sunday.

As talented as he clearly he is, I get the impression things are going to have fall into place perfectly for him to get across the line for the first time and off the pace in-play might be the best way to get Scottie onside.

As already touched upon, this place may well suit Cameron Smith and Tony Finau has course experience (24th in 2020). There's been money for Koepka on the strength of his course knowledge and his fast finish last year but he isn't in great shape and the one I like towards the front of the market is Sungjae Im, who finished 50th last year.

Im won the Honda Classic (another event staged on a tough par 70 track) in his 50th start on the PGA Tour and he won the Shriners Hospital Open on his 100th last month so success here would ruin the sequence, but his stats suggest he's the perfect fit.

Im ranked first for SGT2G at the Shriners and third for that stat last time out when following the victory with an impressive enough ninth at the CJ Cup and he's ranked inside the top-ten for Scrambling in six of his last nine starts (including the last three).

Selections

I've got at least one big outsiders lined up for the Find Me a 100 Winner column and I'll be with that but my only pre-event picks for now are the favourite, Sam Burns, and Sungjae Im.

Selections:
Sam Burns @ 20.019/1
Sungjae Im @ 29.028/1

I'll be back shortly with the Dubai Championship preview.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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