PGA Tour Preview: On Task In Houston

Anthony Kim is the defending champion at the 2011 Shell Houston Open
Anthony Kim is the defending champion at the 2011 Shell Houston Open

You can’t really blame more than a few PGA Tour players this week as they play the Shell Houston Open.  But with the first major of the year just days away, dreams of Augusta and a green jacket can be hard to ignore.  That is exactly what an elite field of players must do with more than a million dollars on the line and a stern golf course ready to challenge them for every single nickel they try to earn.

The Rees Jones-designed Redstone Golf Club Tournament Course does not suffer the foolish or inattentive, so to traverse it with the lowest score your game better be on point.

That was the case for Anthony Kim in 2010 who made up for a very weak driving performance (he hit just 23 of 56 fairways) with a parade of par saves and birdie putts to finish regulation play tied with Vaughn Taylor and then par the 1st playoff hole for his 3rd career PGA Tour victory.  Until that time only three winners of official PGA Tour events had hit fewer fairways and still gone on to win.  Kim had been the 54-hole leader.  Both players shot 12 under par in regulation.

Even as the defending champion few would pick Kim to defend his title successfully.  Immediately after his Houston win in 2010 is followed up with a tie for 3rd at The Masters and a tie for 7th at the Wells Fargo Championship but bowed out at The Players due to a left thumb injury.  After undergoing surgery to repair a partially torn ligament in May at the National Hand Center in Baltimore he returned at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, but best finish in his final six starts of 2010 was T48 at the BMW Championship. His best finish so far in 2011 is a T6 at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Even with sagging play of late the headliner in Houston is Phil Mickelson as he preps for his 2010 Masters title defense. Other names of note in the field include recent world No. 1 Lee Westwood, Steve Stricker, Padraig Harrington, Hunter Mahan, Francesco Molinari and Jhonattan Vegas, who claimed his first TOUR win earlier this year in a playoff at the Bob Hope Classic. Molinari will be making his first start in the event while Vegas will make his second after missing the cut as an amateur in 2003.

In total there are 29 of the top 50 players in the FedEx Cup standings starting the Shell with six of the top ten ranked players in the world set to play.

The Redstone Tournament Course is a favorite for players, especially those prepping for The Masters with minimal rough and course conditions tuned to help players gear up for those they will find at Augusta National.

Keep an eye on the 18th hole all week long as it has proven to be a bear through the years.  The par-4, 488-yard 18th hole ranked as the 20th-most difficult hole on the PGA TOUR in 2010, with the field averaging 4.317. In the five years the event has been contested on the Tournament Course, only one champion (Johnson Wagner/2007) has played the 18thhole under par for the week.

Since 2006, 265 balls have found the lake on the left side of the 18th hole (not including J.B Holmes in the 2009 playoff). Included in that total were 53 balls in the water last year (24 in the first round, 18 in the second round, four in the third round and seven in the final round).

As for my pick of the week, it will be hard to top my choice of Martin Laird who went on to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week but I’ll take Ryan Palmer for this week.  He’s had some rest since last playing at The Transitions, he’s in his home state of Texas, and he’s fired up for Augusta which means he has his game in focus.

If given a backup I would put my faith in Hunter Mahan who already has four top tens in his eight starts on the tour in 2011.

Canadian Notes: David Hearn of Brantford, Ontario is the only Canadian in the Shell Houston Open field.  As of Tuesday evening Matt McQuillan was third alternate with Chris Baryla even further back on the list.

Shell Houston Open

Dates: March 28-April 3, 2011

Where: Redstone Golf Club, Houston, TX

Par/Yards: 36-36—72 / 7,457

Field: 144

Defending Champion: Anthony Kim

Purse: $5,900,000; Winner’s Share: $1,062,000; Format: 72-hole stroke play

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