Phil Mickelson set to defend in Houston as pros make final push to Augusta

Phil Mickelson is the defending champion this week in Houston.
Fred Vuich / SI

HUMBLE, Texas -- Peter Hanson, the Swede who accepted temporary membership on the PGA Tour earlier this week, was thinking aloud about Redstone Golf Club’s 7,457-yard, par-72 Tournament Course.
 
There are no big tricks, he said. There’s some water, but it’s not like it jumps out at you. What you see is what you get.
 
“You could almost get by without a practice round,” Hanson said.
 
Defending champion Phil Mickelson will put that theory to the test. Mickelson spent Monday and Tuesday with pals Keegan Bradley and Brendan Steele at Augusta National, and planned to fly to Houston in time to attend a dinner for Shell executives Wednesday night.
 
He’ll tee off with Fred Couples and Charl Schwartzel at 1:40 p.m. ET on Thursday.
 
“We had Kyle Stanley as our fourth Monday, and then Kevin Chappell on Tuesday [at Augusta],” Steele said. “We had a lot of fun -- a little trash talk and some good bragging rights going back and forth. We had perfect weather. Keegan and I always team up. Phil beat us the first day, we beat him the second day. It’s not often we get on the winning side of that. It was best-ball, and Keegan and I best-balled probably eight or nine under [Tuesday]. We each had four or five birdies and didn’t cover each other. The day before was not as good.”
 
Steele’s only victory came at the Texas Open the week after the Masters last year. He finished T51 at the Shell, the week before the Masters. But who cares? C’mon, Brendan, give us the inside dope! Who played well at Augusta?
 
“Kyle played really well on the back nine the first day,” Steele said. “I was really impressed. Phil’s got all the shots, though, so if you’re asking who’s going to play the best next week, I’d say Phil will. Strategically he understands where you need to be with whatever the pin placement is on any given hole. That’s what we’re really trying to learn. We talked a lot about where they’ll put the pins.”
 
Mickelson best exemplifies the divided attention of players and fans at the 156-man Shell Houston Open at Redstone, the last chance for Ernie Els and others to win and punch a ticket to Augusta. Redstone employees are told to prepare the course with as many Augusta National touches as possible. The greens are fast. The fairways are mowed from green to tee.
 
The Shell boasts three of the top 10 ranked players in the world, including Lee Westwood (3), Steve Stricker (5) and Charl Schwartzel (7), in addition to Graeme McDowell (13), Hunter Mahan (14) and Mickelson (15). All of them plus others will be here in body while their thoughts veer toward Augusta.
 
“Taking nothing away from the Houston Open,” said McDowell, who is making his first start in Houston since 2006 (T54), and who also played as an amateur in ’01 (MC), when the Shell was at TPC Woodlands. “I want to compete and win here. Of course, we’ll have kind of one eye on next week as well.”
 
Ben Crane was wearing one of his Masters outfits, green-and-white Hugo Boss from head to toe, as he stood outside the player locker room at the Shell. He learned from his agent, Tommy Limbaugh, on Sunday night that he would be making his fifth Masters start next week. It was a suprise because he was ranked 48th in the world going into the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he missed the cut. The Masters takes the top 50 in the ranking published the week prior to the tournament, i.e. this week, and Crane only fell one spot to 49th.
 
“I wasn’t sure how many guys were going to pass me,” said Crane, still smiling at the news. “I went home to Dallas, and my wife and I were out playing golf at Vaquero at about 6:30 Sunday night. She was about to tee off the seventh hole, and my phone went off. I said, ‘Wait! Tommy says we’re going to the Masters!’ And then we had to start figuring out the tickets and all that. My caddie, Joel [Stock], was there, and he was almost more excited than I was.”
 
It’s not that Crane hasn’t played in the Masters. He has -- four times. That’s not dimming his enthusiasm, though, which surprised his wife, Heather.
 
“She said, ‘You’re kind of getting a little excited about this,’” said Crane. “I said, ‘Hey, it’s the Masters!’ I always want to play in it, ever since I was a kid.”
 
The Shell continues to set up Redstone as a sort of Texas version of Augusta National. There’s no rough. There are run-off areas around the greens.
 
“Although the grasses are different on the greens,” Mickelson said at Bay Hill last week, “the speed [at Redstone] is very similar to the Masters, and the grass in the fairway and the first cut of rough is set up very similar to Augusta.
 
“Unfortunately,” he added, “the fairways are not wide enough in the landing area, so you’re not able to swing hard at drivers like you can at Augusta.”
 
Of course that didn’t stop Mickelson from hitting driver and going for the green in two on 15 of the 16 par-5s he played at Redstone last year. It paid off handsomely as he went 14 under par on those holes. He birdied 18 of his last 36 holes to shoot 63-65 on the weekend. Looking back, though, the accomplishment must be bittersweet. Mickelson peaked a week early.

 

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