2014 brings a familiar feel back to the golfing calender as the Shell Houston Open takes centre stage in the week preceding the US Masters. A strong field will tee it up in Texas with a number of golf's elite looking to shake off some rust and get competitive juices flowing before the biggest week of the year so far.
Rory McIlroy 12.00 leads the betting at and tees it up for the second year running here. Henrik Stenson 19.00 - a big fancy for the Masters - came close at Redstone GC (now Golf Club Of Houston) a year ago and bounced back to form at Bay Hill where he registered a top five, and he could prove a big factor. Former Houston Open champ and fan favourite Phil Mickelson comes in at 21.00 and he'll be looking to put a bad week behind him as he warms up for yet another green jacket bid.
The Course - Golf Club Of Houston
Playing 7,441 yards to a par of 72, the Golf Club Of Houston, as I say every year, will be set up to simulate conditions and the test awaiting the players at Augusta National. Emphasis will be predominantly on length off the tee, with fairways leaving a little room for manoeuvre; however, excessive wides will be punished by water lurking in the vicinity. Large, undulating green surfaces will be running like snooker tables leaving tough scrambles for errant approaches. Premium will be on approach shot accuracy and holing out from the less than 10' range.
Three from the pack
While Stenson will be attracting plenty of money, it could be Keegan Bradley 26.00 that proves the man to beat this week. Bradley kicked back into top gear at the fast and firm Bay Hill last time out, carding a runner up spot. The American said he'd been playing well all year but just couldn't get the putter going as it was in 2013. He mentioned a chat with his good friend Jon Curran - fresh off a Webdotcom tour win - about his performance on the greens, and that seemingly put things right. A form line of 10-4 in his last two appearances at the Houston Open suggests this track is a fit for Bradley who, not unimportantly, ranks 23rd in total driving.
Chris Kirk 51.00 has had a win and a 2nd already this season and he looks to be rounding back into form. A closing 78 at Bay Hill can be forgiven but that final round has him somewhat off the radar on a course where he's gone 2-22 on two visits. Kirk took to Twitter the other day to say how happy he was for two of his good friends "Matt Every and Bowdo" winning the last two weeks and he will be eager to try and emulate their successes. An interesting stat I took note of re Kirk is a ranking of 16th in approaches from 150-175 yards - the length players will have a lot of shots from this week into those super-fast and generally firm greens.
Geoff Ogilvy had been off the radar for quite a while until a reappearance on the leaderboard in Texas last week. The Aussie posted an 11th place finish and he's visiting one of his favourite stops on tour. Geoff carded four out of five top tens in his best years here from 2003 - 2009 and being renowned as one of the best fast green putters around, and with some forgiving tee shots at Redstone for the sometimes erratic Ogilvy, it's no coincidence. The major winner trades at 91.00.
Another off the radar player this week that gets my attention is Jonas Blixt. Memories of combined long, straight driving and aggressive putting in the 2013 Nordea Masters is the main reason for this. Bro Hof Slott is another beast of a course featuring "fast and true" greens and it is not too dissimilar to the challenge awaiting at Redstone GC in my opinion. Blixt has been simmering in 2014 - form that includes a notable 66 in the final round at the Cadillac and he's already hit two wins on the PGA Tour. The Swede could be a dark horse factor this week at 126.00 in the betting.