For players in Houston, it's hard not to think about Augusta

Paul Casey has four top 10s in four starts this season.
David Walberg/SI

By the end of March, with the NCAA basketball tournament all but over and new dispatches every 12 hours or so from yet another world-class player's scouting trip to Augusta National, resistance is futile.

Seemingly no one, and certainly not the players that make up the strong field at the Shell Houston Open at Augusta-like Redstone Golf Club this week, can keep from thinking about the upcoming Masters.

"I don't want to call it a warm-up for the Masters," Lee Westwood said at Redstone on Tuesday, "but it is reflective of next week's golf course."

Perhaps the only people in golf NOT thinking about the Masters are playing the actual first major of 2010, the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Brittany Lincicome defends her title amid a deep field that is expected to include 28 of the top 30 players in the world.

The European, Champions and Nationwide tours are dark this week.

Houston's Redstone is a sort of facsimile of Augusta — faux-gusta, if you will. Its greens are lightning; its rough is practically non-existent. As Paul Casey pointed out, you can't lose a ball in it. But water hazards and other potential scorecard-wreckers abound.

Sound familiar?

And so the Shell has attracted a deep list of marquee names, each with one eye on the Houston hardware and the other on the Masters.

Rory McIlroy, who recently spent three days at Augusta with friends, will play Houston with hopes of picking up his first Tour victory.

Anthony Kim is in Houston, as are Ernie Els (the Tour's only two-time winner in 2010), Padraig Harrington, Martin Kaymer and the European Tour's Race to Dubai leader Charl Schwartzel. (It's shaping up to be a big year for South Africa, what with Els's recent victories in Florida; Louis Oosthuizen's W last weekend on the Euro circuit, salting away his Masters invite; and the impending 2010 World Cup of soccer.)

Phil Mickelson, still trying to find his game after spending much of his recent time on wife Amy's ongoing cancer treatment — he showed up to both Bay Hill and Doral on Wednesday night, forgoing practice — will try to string four rounds together at Redstone.

Fred Couples, who became the first to win three of his first four starts on the Champions Tour, will see if his skills still translate to the big-boy Tour in his old college hometown before heading to the sacred sod two hours east of Atlanta.

Then there's the Shell's defending champion Paul Casey, whose coach Peter Kostis asked him ever so politely if he wouldn't mind conserving his energy for Augusta.

"I said, 'That's fine, But I'd love to be in the same position,'" Casey said. "I'd love to have a win under the belt and be teeing it up next week. If that's the case, hopefully I deal with it a little bit better and stay a little bit fresher."

Casey tied for 20th at the Masters last year, a week after getting his maiden victory in Houston. Kostis has said if the 32-year-old Englishman doesn't end his career with multiple major titles, he, Kostis, would be very disappointed. So would Casey.

A few years ago, while being interviewed at Doral for a Golf Magazine feature, Casey was asked what could possibly top 2006, when he beat Shaun Micheel 10 & 8 in the final of the HSBC World Match Play, then went undefeated (2-0-2) in the Ryder Cup at the K Club in Ireland, where Casey also had a hole-in-one.

"What could top that? Winning a major could top that," Casey said. "Don't you think? Majors are what I'd like to have on the C.V. They're what everyone wants to have on the C.V. It's like when they flash that graphic up under you name, it's nice to have it say, 'Two-time Ryder Cup player,' or 'Eight-time winner on the European Tour.' It would be even better to have it say, 'Masters winner' or 'Two-time Masters winner.'"

While Casey in the majors has been an enigma, his potential mostly unrealized, he's been relatively steady at Augusta, where his high ball flight is a valued commodity.

He entered the final round of the 2004 Masters, his first, just a shot behind co-leaders Chris DiMarco and Phil Mickelson, and shot 74 to finish T6.

His game left him in 2005, when he missed the cut by a mile, and '06, when he didn't play the Masters, but Casey finished T10 in 2007, T11 in '08 (done in by a final-round 79) and T20 last year. And that's it: five starts, one missed cut, four top-20s. At Houston it's been one start, one win.

After a rib injury sidelined him for the second half of 2009, Casey is back on form, having quietly amassed four top-10s in four starts in 2010, including a runner-up finish for the second straight year at the WGC-Accenture, this time to Ian Poulter.

"I've been scoring, very, very well," Casey said in Houston on Tuesday.

That's been a pleasant surprise after taking so much time off in '09. Still, he's not satisfied. He passed on an early trip to Augusta this year to try to conserve energy, he said, and he's been tinkering with his swing with Georgia on his mind.

"I've been working pretty hard the last couple of weeks trying to get the club in a more neutral position," Casey said. "Wasn't able to hit a draw the last few weeks in Florida which is obviously something which I'm going to need to do this week and I'm going to need to do it next week as well if I want to contend."

 

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