As it typically does at this time of year, Augusta has been getting most of the attention of the golf world, with The Masters kicking off in one week.
However, those who want to improve their chances of winning a green jacket would be well served to take their game to Houston this week. The Shell Houston Open, which has been played the week before The Masters for a decade now, provides a tremendous last chance to get in form before the first major of the year.
And for those not currently in the Masters field, it provides a different kind of last chance, as the winner receives Augusta’s final exemption. It’s also a great tournament on its own, which we saw last year when the unheralded Jim Herman out-dueled the redoubtable Henrik Stenson down the stretch to capture his first career PGA Tour title.
The star-studded event boasts a field of seven players in the top 15 of the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), an excellent number for a non-major or WGC event. Regardless of their primary motivation for playing in Houston, the Shell Houston Open provides a worthy challenge to 144 of the world’s best.
The Shell Houston Open is one of the longer-running events on Tour, with its inaugural event teeing off in 1946. It has had star power from the beginning with Byron Nelson winning by two over Ben Hogan in that first year, and Bobby Locke taking the title in year 2.
Over the years, other winners have included Cary Middlecoff, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, Vijah Singh, and Phil Mickelson. Singh and Curtis Strange are the only three time winners, with seven other players having won twice.
The tournament has always been held in the Houston area, but has bounced around a lot between different venues. The Golf Club of Houston Tournament Course has hosting it since 2006, with a different course at the same club the setting of the three previous editions. In 2007, the Shell Houston Open was moved to the week before The Masters, where it currently resides on the PGA schedule.
Shell Oil Company notified the Tour and the Houston Golf Association that it will not continue as title sponsor beyond the 2017 tournament. Shell has sponsored the tournament since 1992.
Name: Golf Club of Houston, Tournament Course
Where: Humble, Texas
Distance: 7441 yards
Architect: Rees Jones
Winning Share: $1,224,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
The defending champion of the Shell Houston Open is Jim Herman. In one of the biggest feel-good stories of the year, the anonymous 38-year-old Herman chipped in for birdie on the 16th hole on Sunday, and then held off Henrik Stenson for his first career victory.
Dustin Johnson finished in third place, two strokes behind Herman. Ranked 191st in the world at the time, the Shell Houston victory granted Herman his first Masters invite.
Other Recent Champions
2015: J.B. Holmes
2014: Matt Jones
2013: D.A. Points
2012: Hunter Mahan
2011: Phil Mickelson
Lowest Final Score
The lowest final score at the Shell Houston Open was the 266 shot three times, first in 1980 by both Curtis Strange and Lee Trevino, and then again in 2002 by Vijay Singh.
Event: 62, two times (Ron Streck, Fred Funk)
Golf Club of Houston: 63, five times (Johnson Wagner, Adam Scott, Jimmy Walker, Phil Mickelson, Scott Piercy)
Round 1: 4-7:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 2: 4-7:00 PM (Golf Channel)
Round 3: 1-3:00 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (NBC)
Round 4: 1-3:00 PM (Golf Channel); 3-6:00 PM (NBC)
1.Last Chance To Qualify For The Masters
There are so many amazing venues on Tour, and professionals will say that it is an honor and privilege to play any of them.
That being said, there’s something special about The Masters. It is the tournament that everyone dreams about playing as a kid. Likewise, the green jacket is one of the most distinguished prizes in sports. The tournament course at the Golf Club of Houston isn’t Augusta, although in terms of style and features, it is one of the closest on Tour, but it does offer something that can change a career: a Masters exemption.
Since 2007, when the Shell Houston was moved to the week before The Masters, one of its biggest appeals is that it is the last chance to get into the field at Augusta.
On four occasions a non-exempt player won the tournament to get into The Masters field, including Jim Herman last year. The others were Matt Jones (2014), D.A. Points (2013), and Johnson Wagner (2008).
The Shell Houston field is replete with non-exempt players who would give anything to be at Augusta next week. Here is a look at the top five:
It seems crazy that a man who played in the final group on Sunday at Augusta last year might not even make the field this year, but that is what Smylie is facing.
The final round 81 that dropped him from second to T29 in the Masters field may have caused considerable harm to his psyche, as he has not been the same since. He has missed 15 of his last 23 cuts since that event, and 2017 has been an especially large struggle as he has missed 7 of 10 cuts with nothing better than a tie for 45th place.
If Kaufman wants his shot at Masters redemption, he will need to play much better than he did in his last event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he missed the cut after shooting 78-77.
A regular on the lists of best players to never win a major, the 39-year-old Donald may not have a lot of time left to get off that notorious list. Donald is coming off a 2016 season where he finished runner-up twice and earned $1.6 million, a far cry from the $6.6 million he netted in 2011, but still respectable.
He missed last year’s Masters, but has three career top 10s in the event. A win in Houston might mean as much to him as anyone in the field.
The 30-year-old former FedEx Cup winner is ranked 71st in the world, and has two top five finishes in 10 events this season, but has not yet received a Masters invite.
Horschel played well at Augusta last year, but a T17 was just a little short of an automatic exemption, so he is taking his chances in Houston, where he hasn’t played since finishing runner-up in the 2013 edition.
The long-hitting Utah native Finau, is off to a fantastic 2017 on the PGA Tour, with three top-10 finishes already. He has one career victory, last year’s Puerto Rico Open, but that event does not offer a Masters exemption, so Finau has still not played Augusta on the biggest stage.
He got off to a great start in Houston last year, with a first-round 68, but an untimely 76 in round two caused him to miss the weekend. He has been phenomenal tee-to-green this season, but troubles on the greens have held him back. He is currently ranked 72nd in the world.
Charles Howell III
An Augusta, Georgia native, The Masters is especially meaningful to Howell III. However, he has not yet qualified for this year’s version, despite being in the midst of a tremendous season where he has had four top 10s in 13 events, and currently ranks 13th in the FedEx Cup standings.
He finished runner-up at the difficult Farmer’s Insurance Open, and had a very strong showing at last week’s WGC-Match Play, winning a brutally-difficult group over Tyrell Hatton, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, and Jeunghun Wang, before falling victim to the Jon Rahm buzzsaw in the round of 16.
At 64th in the world, Howell III is the highest-ranked player not currently in the Masters field.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Baddeley, Keegan Bradley, Harris English, Lucas Glover, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Andrew “Beef” Johnston, Geoff Ogilvy, D.A. Points, Robert Streb
2. How High Can Rahm Soar?
With world #1 Dustin Johnson withdrawing from the Shell Houston due to fatigue after winning his third straight start, Jon Rahm, the man who nearly pulled off a five-stroke comeback against DJ in last week’s WGC-Match Play, might be the hottest player in the field.
While this will mark the 22-year-old superstar Spaniard’s first time at Houston, his inexperience may not matter with how incredible he has been everywhere as of late. He has finished in the top 5 of FOUR of his past five starts, including a victory at the Farmer’s Insurance Open, the first win of his young career.
Since going pro after a T23 as an amateur at last year’s U.S. Open, Rahm has been consistently great, with just one missed cut in 16 events, a span where he has finished in the top ten six times, with all six actually being T5 or better.
Not enough good things can be said about Rahm’s performance as a professional, but it should not come as a surprise as he was an all-time great amateur, winning the Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s best collegiate player twice, and holding the #1 spot in the world amateur rankings for 60 weeks.
In spite of playing just 16 events since turning pro, Rahm is 14th in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), putting him in position to be one of the fastest ever to reach the world top 10.
3. What About Phil?
Phil takes his Masters prep seriously, and has found benefit to a Houston warm-up the week before. He has consistently placed well here, and like at most places, he will be one of the favorites in the field.
In addition to his past success at the Shell Houston Open, his recent form has been very encouraging. He has taken on a heavy workload since mid-January, and the results have been strong: in his seven 2017 starts, he has made each cut and has placed inside the top 25 in five of them.
Despite his advancing age in sports years (he turns 47 this year), his play on the year has gotten progressively better; his past two starts, both WGC events, have resulted in top 10 finishes.
At last week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Phil had his best ever showing in the event, absolutely dominating his group of J.B. Holmes, Daniel Berger, and Si Woo Kim, and then obliterating Arnold Palmer Invitational winner Marc Leishman in the round of 16 before Bill Haas got the better of him in the quarterfinals.
It added up to a T5 for Phil, a showing that sent a loud message to the Tour that he is still at the top of his game. And it would not surprise anyone if he is in contention in Houston this week, and then again at Augusta next week.
Other Notables In the Field
Being a Dallas native helps, but home-field advantage did not do much for Spieth last week in Austin at the WGC-Match Play, as Spieth lost his opening match against Hideto Tanihara, split against Ryan Moore, and failed to advance to the round of 16.
Despite the hiccup, Spieth has looked tremendous this season. He already has a victory (AT&T Pebble Beach) and four top-10s in 2017. He has not been quite as amazing since Pebble, although he did shoot the low-round of the tournament at the WGC-Mexico.
Spieth has played well in Houston before; he was T13 last year and T2 the year prior, falling to J.B. Holmes in a playoff.
At #5 in the world, Stenson is the highest ranked player in the field. Despite recent match-play brilliance, he took last week off, but is now well-rested for a Masters push. He was a shocking missed cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which may have been a factor in his decision to stay home last week.
Stenson was runner-up at last year’s Shell Houston Open, missing a putt on 18 that would have forced a playoff with Jim Herman. He was also runner-up in 2013, finishing one stroke behind D.A. Points.
Another surprise DNS at the WGC-Match Play, Fowler looks reborn in 2017, after a decidedly unspectacular 2016 (at least from April-on). He won the Honda Classic in late February, and finished T4 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, in addition to two other finishes inside the top 20.
Fowler was T10 at last year’s Shell Houston Open. His best finish in the event was a solo-sixth in 2014.
At #13 in the world, Rose is one of the best European players in the field. Rose, too, is looking the part in 2017, with a runner-up finish at the Sony Open, and a pair of T4s at the Farmer’s Insurance Open and the Genesis Open.
Rose has played in Houston just twice, not finishing well either time, but with his current form, the Olympic Gold Medalist is still a threat to be a factor on Sunday.
As one of the few players in this field with a green jacket, Scott knows a thing or two about Masters prep. He typically skips the Shell Houston Open, but decided to add it to this year’s schedule, a decision he hopes leads to a repeat of 2013, where he won the first major of the year in a thrilling playoff against Angel Cabrera.
He knows if he’s feeling it going into Augusta, he stands a great chance of a repeat performance. Scott has finished outside the top 14 just once in five events this season.
Credit: Getty Images, PGA Tour Media, Shell Houston Open Communications