With the year's first major fast approaching, the world's finest are on show in Texas hoping to hone their games to perfection ahead of the US Masters. Read what it's going to take to find success on the eve of the Augusta showpiece with The Punter's comprehensive Shell Houston Open preview here...
“J.B Holmes has already finished runner-up at both the Farmers Insurance Open and the WGC-Cadillac Championship this year and he could make it third time lucky here. He’s in form, he likes it here and he’s a reasonable price.”
Byron Nelson won the first Shell Houston Open in 1946. In recent years, the event has been staged in the week before the US Masters (not in 2013) which guarantees a decent field and this year's renewal is no exception with eight of the world's top-15 players in the line-up.
Golf Course of Houston, Humble, Texas
Par 72, 7441 yards, stroke average in 2014 - 72.24
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 10th 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 on Thursday.
Last Five Winners
2014 - Matt Jones -15 (playoff)
2013 - D.A Points -16
2012 - Hunter Mahan -16
2011 - Phil Mickelson -20
2010 - Anthony Kim -12 (playoff)
What Will it Take to Win The Shell Houston Open?
With big hitters, Adam Scott, Paul Casey, Anthony Kim and Phil Mickelson winning four of the first six renewals at this venue, and with the likes of Bubba Watson, Robert Garrigus and J.B Holmes all placing in the early years, this looked like a course where length off the tee would forever prove beneficial but the last three winners have all been relatively short off the tee.
Avoiding the water and finding plenty of greens in regulation has been the key of late with last year's playoff protagonists, Matt Jones and Matt Kuchar, ranking one and two for greens hit. Hunter Mahan hit more greens than anyone else in 2012 and the 2010 and 2012 winners, Phil Mickelson and D.A Points, ranked 11th and 10th respectively for greens in regulation.
In the last nine years, since the event switched to this venue, eight of the nine winners have ranked inside the top-10 for par 4 performance and all nine have ranked inside the top-10 for birdies made.
As was the case last week, and for much of the Florida Swing, good wind players will again be advantaged with the forecast already suggesting fairly breezy conditions throughout much of the week.
Is There an Angle In?
Matt Kuchar traded at odds-on to win both this event last year and the Valero Texas Open the week before, so he could feasibly have won back-to-back Texas tournaments, but I fancy he'll be the exception and not the rule going forward. He was incredibly consistent last year and after finishing 5th at San Antonio and runner-up here he went on to finish fifth at Augusta before winning The Heritage at Harbour Town Links.
Everyone else that was in-the-mix at the Valero missed the cut here and that really isn't surprising. As it was this year, the Texas Open 12 months ago was played in extremely testing conditions and anyone in-contention knew they'd been in a battle. Given this is only the second year that this event has followed the Valero, I haven't gone any stats to back up the theory and a theory is all it is but I'd consider those that missed last week's event more closely than those that endured what transpired to be nothing less than a war of attrition.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Australians often play well in Texas - the usually dry and windy conditions tend to replicate the sort of conditions experienced Down Under - and they have a very good record at this venue with last year's victor, Jones, being the third Aussie to win here. Stuart Appleby and Adam Scott won here in 2006 and 2007.
There aren't too many from Down Under in the line-up this year and those that are here are handsomely priced but that's not necessarily a bad thing - the last two winners were outsiders.
Keep one eye on the US Masters market
With the Augusta showpiece now just days away, what happens here will have a huge impact on the Masters market and every year big moves are made. Punters seem ahead of the game this year and the market for Augusta looks set at the top but anyone that plays well here is bound to shorten up for next week. The one I'm really interested in is Justin Rose - he ticks a lot of boxes for next week but he needs to show some improved form.
It's always difficult to gauge how hard those in the reckoning for next week's major will be pushing this week but I've come to the conclusion its best not to even think about it. Winning any PGA Tour title is a big deal and should someone start well, they'll never take it easy because they're protecting themselves for a potentially gruelling tournament in a week's time. A win's a win and if you fancy someone here don't leave them out because you think they may be saving something for next week. In reality, that just doesn't happen.
Following two rounds of 70, which had seen him trail by five strokes at halfway, Lefty looked to be going nowhere here in 2011 until a blistering 63 in round three saw him enter the final round tied for the lead. He then shot 65 in round four to win by a comfortable three strokes. Twelve months later, Hunter Mahan, trailed by four after rounds one and two before a Saturday 65 saw him move up to second, two off the lead. He shot 71 in round four and won by just one. And last year's winner, Matt Jones, was three behind after round one and four behind after round two. It is possible to overcome a slightly slow start here but most winners get off to a flier.
Three of the nine winners have led after round one and we've seen two wire-to-wire winners - Stuart Appleby and Johnson Wagner. D.A Points was never out of the first three or more than a stroke off the lead after flag fall two years and Jones was never outside the top-four after round two. He was however fully six back with a round to go and had a serious Matt Kuchar collapse to thank for his win.
The only other winner to be more than two back with a round to go is Adam Scott. He benefited from a very late Stuart Appleby collapse in 2007 but without relying on others misfortunes, it's a tough place to close win from off the pace.
The short par 4 12th is easy enough and the par 5 13th ranked the easiest on the course last year but after the finish to the course is tough enough with the par 5 15th the only easy hole coming in. That averaged 4.9 last year and was the 5th easiest hole encountered. The 14th and 16th are demanding par 3s and 17 and 18 both average over par every year, with the finishing hole, with water very much in play throughout, consistently ranking as the hardest on the course.
Jordan Spieth was just about edging Henrik Stenson at the head of the market until the Swede pulled out with flu. Stenson took to Twitter to say this, "No Augusta practice, No Shell Houston Open due to getting the flu, hope to be up and running next week in Georgia."
In relation to Spieth, as already stated, I don't see playing last week as a positive and you have to question why he's here at all.
I know he's young but I don't think two gruelling weeks in Texas are ideal preparation for Augusta given his game is already in good nick and given what he said yesterday after finishing second to Jimmy Walker, his decision to play here is verging on baffling.
"I feel great with my last start being a win, and this being a runner-up. I'm going to play next week in Houston on a golf course that's really not well suited for me. I know that going in, so hopefully I can stay calm and collected and just try and pick some tight lines and just trim off the fat, which is what I'm trying to do next week to get ready for Augusta."
Spieth is one hell of a talent and he could very easily defy his own words and tee it up and win but in his two starts here to date he's finished 50th and missed the cut and that's more than enough to put me off completely.
Second favourite Jimmy Walker put in a thoroughly professional performance to comfortably hold Spieth and co at bay at the Valero over the weekend and he's clearly in good order but with Augusta on his mind, it's difficult to imagine him hitting the ground running on Thursday and competing hard again here.
Patrick Reed continues to improve and impress and he showed his indomitable fighting spirit to full affect last time out when he narrowly failed to win the Valspar Championship. I can see him contending here again here but given he missed the cut in his only previous visit, he too looks short enough.
From the wrong side of the drawer, Matt Kuchar, performed admirably at the Valero last week and if he can put last year's horror show out of his mind (was matched at 1.051/20 before throwing the event away) he could go well again here but he's far too fragile to play at just 22.021/1. Kuchar's currently trading at over 40.039/1 for next week's US Masters and he's definitely one to keep an eye on in the market there. He has some great form at Augusta and he'll shorten up considerably if he goes well here.
I've never fared particularly well with this event and with very little to go on trends-wise I'm taking it easy here but I have managed to find three that I thought represented a wee bit of value.
Although he missed the cut last time out at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, J.B Holmes has been in terrific form this year. He's already finished runner-up at both the Farmers Insurance Open and the WGC-Cadillac Championship and he could make it third time lucky here. He lost a playoff here to Paul Casey in 2009, finished 8th in 2012 (his best effort that season) and he sat just one off the lead after round one last year before going on to finish 12th. He's in form, he likes it here and he's a reasonable price. He's as straightforward a wager as it gets.
Second up is Phil Mickelson, who also has a great record at the venue. Since winning here in 2011 he's finished 4th, 16th and 12th and he's been showing some slightly encouraging signs of late too. He was on the fringes of contention at both the Honda Classic and the Valero last week and although his game isn't quite what it was, it wouldn't be the biggest shock to see it all click sooner rather than later and anything around 40.039/1 looks too big.
And finally, I wanted to get an Aussie onside but there aren't too many to choose from so I've plumped for defending champ, Matt Jones, who's arguably playing better than he was 12 months ago anyway.
Winning back-to-back is never easy and that is a negative but his current form is impossible to crab. Reading backwards, in his last four starts, he finished 26th last week from the wrong side of the draw, third the week before at Bay Hill, 14th at the Northern Trust Open and 7th in the AT & T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. That's a consistent run of figures few can boast and as long as he doesn't get too hung up about defending, I can very easily see him back in-the-mix again this week.
J.B Holmes @ 38.037/1
Phil Mickelson @ 42.041/1
Matt Jones @ 50.049/1
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter