Houston offers reason to play before Masters

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Fantasy Aces

Shell Houston Open

Steve Timms was walking around the clubhouse out at the Northern Trust Open in early February when a line of players moved past him. Turns out a players’ meeting was about to start, so Timms, the longtime president and CEO of the Houston Golf Association, politely stepped aside.

At about the same time, a player stepped right along with him. It was Steve Stricker and he needed to talk.

“He just wanted to tell me that he was really struggling with his decision (not to play this year’s Shell Houston Open),” Timms said. “He explained it was his daughters’ spring break (during Houston). It was very tough on him and he just wanted me to know how bad he felt.”

On the one hand, Timms felt awful, too. Besides being one of the world’s top players and a plus for any tournament field, Stricker is one of the PGA Tour’s all-star gentlemen.

But on the other hand, Timms walked away with a sense of validation. Stricker’s words confirmed what Timms preaches – that the Shell Houston Open is a stop worth making and a perfect place to be the week before the Masters.

photo

Steve Timms (left), Kevin Ingalls, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Jackie Burke at the 2005 Shell Houston Open.

“This is our fourth year (as the week leading into the Masters) and we know what to expect,” Timms said. “It’s taken a few years, but we have that consistency and it’s been very positive for the event, very positive for the sponsor and very positive for the players.”

A commitment back in 2007 to prepare Redstone Golf Club’s Tournament Course so that it’s eerily similar to Augusta National – right down to green speeds, chipping areas, fairways mowed toward the tees – has been a huge hit with players. But the HGA’s hands-on care extends even further. Because it is an association that is in business to run golf tournaments – the Shell Houston Open being its grandest, of course – “we pay close attention to competitive elements,” Timms said.

Players are extended a course in an ultra-private setting, one with a superb practice area. All the other perks to which they have become accustomed – great hotels, restaurants, transportation – are spared no attention to detail, but the greatest selling point remains the field.

Six of the top 10-ranked players are entered: Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, defending champ Paul Casey, Ernie Els, Martin Kaymer and Padraig Harrington. Go deeper and marquee name after marquee name rolls out . . . Rory McIlroy, Geoff Ogilvy, Retief Goosen, Luke Donald, Angel Cabrera, Anthony Kim, Adam Scott, Chad Campbell, Justin Leonard, Rickie Fowler, Vijay Singh, Y.E. Yang, Lucas Glover, and arguably the most popular attraction of all, Fred Couples.

They are there, Timms believes, for a principal that is not lost on the HGA.

“At the end of the day, these guys are competitors,” he said. “That’s what drives them – competition. A good field on a good course.”

Due diligence by Timms and the HGA should be applauded, because it also has helped put a ferocious dent into a way of thinking that is detrimental to the PGA Tour. That is, if you don’t have a certain guy named Tiger Woods, you don’t have much of a tournament.

Timms, like so many of his colleagues (there are, after all, nine FedEx Cup tournaments Woods has ignored since turning pro, and four others he has played just once) has faced enough of the “is Tiger playing” questions to last a lifetime.

“It got to the point where people wanted to know, ‘What’s wrong with Houston?’ ” Timms said. “Well, I told them to focus on that there’s a lot right with Houston.”

It starts with a sponsor, Shell, that has supported this tournament since 1992, and continues through to a rich history as the 10th-oldest Tour stop, and includes the commitment to groom Redstone like Augusta National. Maybe it’s more than coincidence that each of the past two winners of the green jacket (Cabrera, 2009; Trevor Immelman, 2008) played the Shell Houston Open the week before.

That’s a combination that has not only allowed the Shell Houston Open to survive in that week before the Masters, but to thrive.

“There are obviously different schools of thoughts players have,” Timms said. “Some want to be off the week before a major, but to those who want to play, we’re trying to provide them the best possible platform for that preparation.”

Consider it mission accomplished.

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