HUMBLE, Texas – The Shell Houston Open has gotten exactly what it wanted, three years after getting the event moved to the weekend before the Masters.
OK, the tournament still couldn’t lure Tiger Woods, who’s sticking to his usual routine of not playing the run-up event to a major.
But 15 of the top 20 players in the world rankings did come to The Tournament Course at Redstone for their final tuneup before Augusta, including Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Geoff Ogilvy and Padraig Harrington. Former top-ranked players Greg Norman and Fred Couples are also among the star-studded field, the best in the tournament’s 63-year history.
“Word of mouth has been good and important to us,” tournament director Steve Timms said. “The golf course’s reputation is growing, the players all seem to enjoy it. It’s what we hoped for.”
Organizers have tried to simulate conditions at Augusta – fast greens, light rough and fairways mowed toward the tee – and the Masters-like setup has generated enough positive buzz to lure top players from both the PGA and international tours.
A tournament-record 39 foreign-born players will play, including 21 who’ve already qualified for the Masters.
“They’ve definitely done a magnificent job preparing it, as close as it can be, from what we might see at Augusta,” said Garcia, playing in Houston for the first time. “There are definitely a lot of similarities you can find.”
Harrington, who’s won the last two majors, has made Houston an annual stop since 2006, when the Tournament Course became the host. He also appreciates the Augusta-like conditions, but said the Houston Open has gained prestige of its own.
“Nobody’s turned up this week who doesn’t want to win this tournament,” Harrington said. “The idea, when you build your schedule, is to peak for the majors. But you’re never going to complain if it happens to be this week as well.”
Vijay Singh returned after criticizing the new course in 2006 and skipping the last two tournaments. Singh won the 2004 and ‘05 Houston Opens at the older Redstone course across the street. After playing a practice round on Tuesday, Singh said the new venue had won him over.
“Surprisingly, I did enjoy the golf course,” said Singh, who’s made only six starts this year because of a knee injury. “Coming back here and looking at it from a different point of view, I think it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s a pretty decent setup.”
The Tournament Course also boasts one of the toughest finishing holes on Tour. The 488-yard par 4 was ranked as the third-toughest 18th hole in 2008, with an average score of 4.389.
A pond lines the left side of the fairway and guards an elevated green. In 2007, Adam Scott dunked his drive into the water, then holed a 48-foot par putt to beat Stuart Appleby by three shots.
“Every really good golf course should have a great 18th hole,” architect Rees Jones said. “If the event is close coming down the 18th hole, the muscles will tighten on that hole.”
Last year, Johnson Wagner led the tournament after all four rounds to earn his first PGA Tour victory and first invitation to Augusta. He hasn’t won since and has missed six cuts in 10 starts in 2009.
“Maybe every time I get in position on a Thursday or Friday to get the lead or get up close, I start thinking about winning the golf tournament,” Wagner said. “I think that’s the wrong way to go about it and I know that.”
Wagner is one of 107 players this week who must win to earn a trip to Augusta next week. Another is Davis Love III, who had a streak of 70 consecutive major-championship starts snapped when he missed the Masters last year. Love tied for second at the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship, but missed the cut at Bay Hill last week.
Norman qualified for the Masters with an unexpected third-place finish at last year’s British Open. He’s hardly played since, and is back in the Houston event for the first time since 2002.
The 54-year-old Norman played in last week’s Champions Tour event in the Dominican Republic, tying for 36th. His son, Gregory, will caddie for him this week, an ideal dry run for the Masters.
“It’s a good step for him,” Norman said. “He’s excited about it and just having him on the bag is going to be a great moment for both of us.”