With the Masters a week away, the eyes of the golfing world inevitably wanders to Augusta and what promises to be the best battle for the green jacket in recent memory. However, before we head down Magnolia Lane, we have the small matter of the Houston Open to decipher, with a few of the games true stars looking for a final tune up before the big dance and some of the lesser lights looking for the win that will allow them to take their place amongst the azaleas.
The imaginatively named Golf Club of Houston plays host this week – as it has every year since opening in 2005 – and is set up to try and mimic the tests that those heading to Augusta will face next week, with shaved run off areas and very tightly mown greens reading around 13 on the stimpmeter necessitating a sharp short game for those looking to contend.
Allied to this, the course superintendents strip the rough right back and purposefully keep it short, playing into the hands of the Tour’s longer players who like to grip it and rip it.
Given the way the course is set up, the formula is pretty simple, smash the ball miles then scramble relentlessly, which is pretty much exactly how Jamie Lovemark described the test in 2016, “I would love to hit driver on every hole. I might hit 11, 12 drivers around, just hit it hard and find it to hit it again. No rough. Perfect conditions. Be aggressive.”
In attempting to set the 7441 yard par 72 track to play like Augusta, the tournament sometimes suffers from the fact that those already qualified for the following week take the opportunity to play some shots which they know they’ll need in their locker for the Masters, rather than addressing the shot on merit.
Phil Mickelson, who won here in 2011, said last year “I’m more focused about hitting shots for next week. I love playing the week before because you get competitive. My course management for this course isn’t going to be great. The shots that I was playing this week are going to set up a lot better next week.”.
Given this mindset, the event can be trappy for punters and therefore I prefer to ignore the claims of those at the head of the market in favour of those with more motivation on the week.
With that said, outright favourite Jordan Spieth might be more focussed than usual given his form this year has been below par by his lofty standards, with no finish better than 9th in 2018 to date.
In ignoring Spieth, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Mickelson, I am keen to start my staking plan at the head of the next rung down and side with Daniel Berger.
Already in his fledging career, the 24 year old Floridian has marked himself out as a horse for a course as demonstrated when he secured back-to-back victories at TPC Southwind, home of the FedEx St Jude Classic. His course form here features successive 5th placed finishes in 2016 and 2017 after a top 25 on debut in 2015, and whilst he’s still seeking his first top 10 of 2018, he’s been ultra-consistent lately with four top 14 finishes in his past six starts. In his latest strokeplay start at the WGC – Mexico Championship, he finished 14th after a 3rd round 72 stalled his progress, but he ended the week T6 for strokes gained around the greens and 4th for strokes gained putting so his short game is clearly in good order.
His driver let him down there but at a more forgiving venue that’s less of a concern and at this point of his career, he’s less likely than those above him in the market to be using this event to tune up for Augusta. Odds of 29.0 are very fair and I expect a seasons best performance this week.
My next best bet is Byeong Hun An, who makes his tournament debut this week.
Usually I like to look for a little course form to work with but in An we have a player who has shown some excellent general play throughout 2018, with top 6 finishes in Dubai and at the Honda Classic, plus a 23rd placed finish in Phoenix and a 14th place last time out at Bay Hill, where he sat in the top 5 at half way before fading over the weekend.
During that week, the South Korean ranked 2nd for strokes gained off the tee and 6th for greens in regulation and those stats are pretty well indicative of how his year to date is playing out, as he ranks 9th in strokes gained off the tee and 17th in strokes gained approaching the green.
I always prefer to back excellent ball strikers over those that rely on the putter to get them through as you know you are going to get a real run for your money if the player has even a slightly above average week with the flat stick and at juicy odds of 51.0, I think An could go very close at a venue which should suit.
My final bet is another player who falls into the bracket of world class ball striker, rubbish putter – Keegan Bradley. Still only 31 despite seemingly having been around forever, the 2011 PGA Championship winner has been less successful since the long putter was banned, but still has his weeks as evidenced by his 5th placed finish at Torrey Pines earlier this year and his runner up finish at the CIMB Classic before Christmas.
Quietly consistent all season, Bradley has missed just one cut this year and has previously spoken for his love of a course where he has three top 10s in seven visits, stating, “It’s a big golf course. All the par-5s are reachable for the most part for the longer players. Shorter players can’t really get to these par-5s. Lot of drivers, big greens. Good ball striker out here is going to make some stuff happen.”
Currently ranking 7th in strokes gained tee-to-green on the season, if he putts even averagely then he’ll once again be bang in the mix in Texas, the state where he bagged his first PGA Tour victory at the Byron Nelson in 2011. At current odds of 71.0, and without an entry in the Masters as it stands, he is well worth chancing.
- Daniel Berger – 1 point win @ 26.0 (lay 3 points @ 6.0)
- Byeong Hun An – 1 point win @ 51.0 (lay 3 points @ 11.0)
- Keegan Bradley – 1 point win @ 71.0 (lay 5 points @ 11.0)