By Doug Ferguson
AP Golf Writer
Tiger Woods has never played the week before the Masters, and it’s hard to argue with the results. He has won it four times.
Then again, he was better than everyone else.
Phil Mickelson is the opposite. He prefers to play the week before the Masters to get into a competitive spirit, and it has worked out pretty well for him, too. Along with his three green jackets, Lefty has six other finishes in the top three.
There is no magic formula for getting ready for Augusta National.
Steve Timms was aware of that 10 years ago when the Shell Houston Open was offered the chance to move away from its late April date and take the week before the Masters. Timms is the tournament director. For him, the tradition unlike any other was getting asked by local media if Woods was coming to Houston.
Move to the week before the Masters, and the answer would be pretty clear.
And that’s what they did.
“We had the date two weeks after the Masters, and we had some indifferent field qualities,” Timms said Tuesday, finding a gracious way of saying that fans needed the pairing sheet to figure out who was coming up the fairway. “It’s ‘no man’s land’ after Augusta. So whenever we were approached, we felt like that gave us a fighting chance to be a week before Augusta. Some guys like to play their way in. We were thinking specifically about Phil.
“Tiger and Phil, those were the needle movers.”
It’s worked out well. Generations change, and so do playing habits. Woods still doesn’t play the week before the Masters. Right now, he’s not playing at all. Mickelson, who won the Houston Open in 2011, is 45 and still going strong. He already has a trio of top 5s this year and remains wildly popular.
But it’s no longer just about Mickelson.
Also playing at the Golf Club of Houston this week is Jordan Spieth, no longer No. 1 in the world, but still recognized as the 22-year-old Texan who is the reigning Masters and U.S. Open champion. The field also includes Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson.
Playing the week before worked out well for Spieth in 2015. He lost in a three-man playoff at Houston, then went to Augusta National and was so dominant in his wire-to-wire win that he became the first player in more than 60 years to never let anyone closer than three shots after the opening round.
For the Houston Open, however, it was more than just a change in dates.
Timms got together with agronomists and the PGA Tour staff to try to create something unique, with Augusta National in mind. No one will ever confuse Golf Club of Houston with Augusta National (one serves brisket, the other pimiento cheese). But there were enough characteristics to make it an ideal place for those who wanted to compete.
The banks and mounds around the greens were closely mown. The rough was shaved down. The fairways were mown from the green to the tee so that the grain is into the player, just like at Augusta. The greens are firm (weather permitting) and fast, estimated at 12 on the Stimpmeter.
“Now it’s become our identity,” Timms said. “And we’ve had the good fortune of having a number of players that have played here and won the next week.”
Angel Cabrera (2009), Mickelson (2010), Charl Schwartzel (2011) and Spieth (2015) all played Houston the week before slipping into a green jacket.
Houston’s field used to be so weak that the winner received 22 world ranking points in 2006 when it was two weeks after the Masters. The first year after changing dates, the winner received 46 points.
And then came the biggest break of all. The Masters restored its tradition that PGA Tour winners (except opposite-field events) would get into the Masters starting in 2008. That gave Houston another layer of drama, with players such as Johnson Wagner and Matt Jones getting into Augusta at the last possible minute.
Since then, the winner has received an average of 54.5 points. One year, the Shell Houston Open had a stronger field than any regular tour event on the Florida swing.
Still, it’s a player’s choice. Jason Day was headed to Augusta National later this week to start preparing. So was Adam Scott. Both play a limited schedule, anyway.
“My argument is if you really wanted to practice for the Augusta setup, why don’t you just go to Augusta?” Schwartzel said.
Those playing in the Shell Houston Open want that last chance to get into the Masters, or they’re already in and want to get sharp.
“They want to practice their competitiveness,” Schwartzel said. “You’re not looking to find some sort of game. It’s too late to find a game now.”