With just one week to go before the US Masters, our man takes an in-depth look at this week's warm-up for Augusta on the PGA Tour, the Shell Houston Open, where a stellar field assembles at Redstone ahead of the year's first major...
“Henrik Stenson caught my eye last time out at Bay Hill when ranking top for both fairways hit and greens in regulation. He looks to be over his injury problems now and given he finished runner-up here last year, as well as 21st when out of form in 2012 and third in 2009; he could just be ready to win again.”
This will be the 67th renewal of the Shell Houston Open and this year, the event returns to it's now traditional slot before the year's first major - the US Masters. The Shell swapped places with last week's event, the Valero Texas Open, twelve months ago - something to do with when Easter fell if I recall correctly - but prior to last year the Shell had preceded the Masters in each of the five previous years.
Redstone GC Tournament Course, Humble, Texas
Par 72, 7441 yards, stroke average in 2012 - 71.87
A Rees Jones design, Redstone was built to host this event and will be doing so for the ninth year in-a-row this time around. It's a long track, with water in play on ten holes. Greens are slightly larger than average and in an attempt to simulate conditions at Augusta National, home of the US Masters next week, they'll be playing very fast, at least 13 on the stimpmeter.
Live on Sky all four days - 20:00 on Thursday and Friday and 18:00 over the weekend
Last Five Winners
2013 - D.A Points -16
2012 - Hunter Mahan -16
2011 - Phil Mickelson -20
2010 - Anthony Kim -12 (playoff)
2009 - Paul Casey -11
What will it take to win the Shell Houston Open?
Last year's winner, D.A Points, ranked just 61st for driving distance and Hunter Mahan, twelve months earlier, ranked just 50th, so length of the tee isn't an essential requirement, despite the course's length, although big hitters Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim and Paul Casey won the previous three renewals.
Accuracy off the tee doesn't seem particularly vital either and although the last three winners have ranked inside the top-12 for greens hit, Kim ranked 50th and Casey 31st at finding greens the week they won.
Points won thanks to a solid all round performance and a great week around the greens (he ranked 5th for scrambling). Mahan found more greens than anyone else when he won and Lefty succeeded thanks to a hot putter. As well as missing plenty of greens, Kim ranked dead last for driving accuracy but he scrambled and putted brilliantly and Casey won thanks largely to his putting (ranked 2nd).
It's a pretty confusing picture so if you're going to use stats for clues, I wish you luck. Putting seems to be the best angle-in but it's just about impossible to know who might be about to have a good week on the greens on any given week.
Is there an angle in?
We've had eight renewals at Redstone now and Johnson Wagner is the only winner not to have previously won an event - and even he has subsequently won again. We've had a run of first time winners on the PGA Tour (three in the last four weeks) but if history is anything to go by, that run may come to end here.
Look twice at anyone with a connection to Texas. Last week's winner at the Valero Texas Open, Steven Bowditch, lives in Texas and he wasn't a one-off, Texans and Texan residents have a habit of winning in the Lone Star State.
Keep your 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. Anyone that plays well here is bound to shorten up for next week so trading next week's event this week makes sense.
How hard will the big guns be pushing?
It's always difficult to gauge how hard those in the reckoning for next week's major will be pushing the week before 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.
I'd be more wary of backing this week's winner at Augusta as it's notoriously difficult to win any two titles back-to-back and doubly so if the second one's a major. Hunter Mahan has twice won the week before a major but then struggled but Phil Mickelson has achieved the feat twice before. He won the Masters in 2006, after winning the BellSouth Classic in a canter, and only last summer he followed victory in the Scottish Open with Open Championship glory seven days later.
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. So it is possible to overcome a slightly slow start but most winners here get off to a flier.
Three of the eight winners have led after round one and we've seen two wire-to-wire winners - Stuart Appleby and Johnson Wagner. And last year's winner, Points, was never out of the first three or more than a stroke off the lead after flag fall.
Adam Scott benefited from Appleby's late collapse when he narrowly failed to defend in 2007 and he's still the only winner at Redstone to come from as many as three shots back after three rounds. Don't expect an off-the-pace winner on Sunday.
The finish to Redstone is plenty tough enough, with the par 5 15th the only easy hole coming in. 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.
Given he hasn't got great form figures here and that he's fluffed his lines a couple of times in-contention already this year I'm definitely in no rush to back the market leader, Rory McIlroy, although a case can always be made for him in the first round leader market, or as a back-to-lay trade. He tends to start well but after a break of almost a month I'm happy to leave him out altogether here.
Dustin Johnson has been playing consistently well in 2014 and he finished fourth here 12 months ago so I couldn't put anyone off him and I definitely wouldn't want to put anyone off Henrik Stenson, who I really like this week...
The Swede caught my eye last time out at Bay Hill when ranking top for both fairways hit and greens in regulation. He looks to be over his injury problems now and given he finished runner-up here last year, as well as 21st when out of form in 2012 and third in 2009; he could just be ready to win again.
It's going to be very difficult for Stenson to reach the dizzy heights he climbed to at the end of 2013 but if he is to bounce back to that sort of scintillating form, at a venue that clearly suits and after his impressive performance at Arnie's place, this could well be the week.
Having withdrawn from the Valero Texas Open on Saturday, when shaping up quite nicely, we still have no idea whether 2011 winner, Phil Mickelson, will even make the line-up on Thursday. I got the distinct impression the withdrawal was very much a precaution though and if he's felt nothing since and been given the green light, he looks too big to leave out at 27.026/1.
Not only did he win easily here in 2011 but he put up a stout defence 12 months later and if he's fit and ready to go it would be typical of Phil to improve considerably and contend. He was out of form and a big price in 2011.
I was more than happy to 21.020/1 about Henrik Stenson on the Sportsbook and I've had a much smaller bet on Phil. After that, I've chanced four outsiders...
I had a sneaky little feeling that Geoff Ogilvy, who I had backed before the off at 250.0249/1, might make a charge last Sunday from five back at the Valero Texas Open but it wasn't to be. After an opening round of 74 he'd left himself just too much to do and with the course playing tough, playing catch-up was nigh on impossible. Nevertheless, tied 11th was a marked improvement and given he has previous form here (2nd in 2008 and 6th a year later).
Jonas Blixt disappointed when I backed him last time out after his eye-catching performance at Doral but at a huge price I was prepared to give the two-time PGA Tour winner another chance.
I've followed Paul Krishnamurty in on an old favourite of mine, Ben Crane, and I've also given Michael Thompson another try too after he played quite well last week.
Henrik Stenson @ 21.020/1 (Sportsbook)
Phil Mickelson @ 27.026/1
Jonas Blixt @ 170.0169/1
Geoff Ogilvy @ 130.0129/1
Ben Crane @ 250.0249/1
Michael Thompson @ 280.0279/1
I'll be back later today with my preview for this week's European Tour event - the NH Collection Open.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter