Although the news of Tiger Woods having back surgery and withdrawing from the 2014 Masters has dominated the headlines around the world of professional golf this week, there is still one tournament to play before the world turns its full attention to Augusta National. The Shell Houston Open gets underway tomorrow morning and has a full field of players either trying to hone their games for next week, or trying to make the field for The Masters.
The folks at The Golf Club of Houston in Humbolt, Texas take great pride in setting up the course and greens to emulate the speed and texture of those at Augusta, so the event draws a bunch of people wanting to be ready when they go to Augusta, and The Shell Houston Open provides that challenge. Of course $6.2 Million Dollars in prize money, and 500 FedEx Cup points don’t hurt either.
Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Luke Donald (1:40 p.m. ET Thursday off No. 1, 8:50 a.m. ET Friday off No. 10):
This is a great pairing for the first two rounds. Luke Donald may be a little intimidated joining two big hitters like McIlroy and Johnson, but I’ sure he can give both of them a few short-game pointers that would help the next week. McIlroy, the seventh ranked player in the world, is looking to extend his streak of top-25 PGA TOUR finishes this week in Houston. Johnson tied for fourth last year while Donald is returning to Houston for the first time since 2010.
Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia, Steve Stricker (1:50 p.m. ET Thursday off No. 1, 9 a.m. ET Friday off No. 10):
This group pays tribute to players from three separate decades, or the good, bad, and the ugly. I’ll let you figure out which is which. Steve Stricker, who is on a very short schedule last year, and even more-so this year, does have three top 10′s in Houston with 13 starts. In his only appearance here last year, Jordan Spieth finished 50th and missed the boat to Augusta. Sergio only played her once back in 2009, and finished T77.
Phil Mickelson, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley (8:50 a.m. ET Thursday off No. 10, 1:40 p.m. ET Friday off No. 1)
Phil Mickelson was a probable no-show here after withdrawing from The Valero last week in the final round, but Phil is old-school, and if he says he will play, I’m betting he at least tees it up on Thursday. Webb Simpson, and Keegan Bradley are both major champions, but both are in need of something to happen before they go to Augusta. The 2012 US Open Champ returns to Houston for the first time since 2011 when he tied for 16th while Bradley, the 2012 PGA champ, has top-10s in his last two starts here.
Matt Kuchar, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker (9 a.m. ET Thursday off No. 10, 1:50 p.m. ET Friday off No. 1)
Of all groups to watch, this one may well produce the winner on Sunday afternoon. Matt Kuchar was on his way to a challenge at TPC San Antonio last Sunday before the “Wild Texas Wind” and a slow playing partner helped him start spraying his tee shots all over the golf course. Henrik Stenson is ranked number three in the world, and with Tiger Woods nursing a bad back has to have his sights set on that spot. He played well at Bay Hill and looks to have his early season woes under control. He lost in a three-way playoff last year to D.A. Points. The start of his run to both The FedEx Cup and Race To Dubai championships. FedEx Cup leader, Jimmy Walker needs to show people he can win someplace other than Hawaii and California.