Mickelson, Westwood prep for Augusta in Houston; Wie headlines LPGA's first major and more to watch this week

Mickelson, Westwood prep for Augusta in Houston; Wie headlines LPGA’s first major and more to watch this week

Phil Mickelson only has two top 10s this season.
David Cannon/Getty Images

Sandy Lyle (1988) and Phil Mickelson (2006) won a regular Tour event the week before winning the Masters — Lyle the Kmart Greater Greensboro Open and Mickelson the BellSouth Classic (at 28 under par, no less). Clearly, how you play the week before a major means everything.

And it means nothing. Angel Cabrera (2009), Trevor Immelman ('08), Mike Weir ('03) and Jose Maria Olazabal ('99) are among the legion of players who missed the cut the week before slipping on the green jacket.

Then there's Tiger Woods, who doesn't play at all the week before a major, and has won 14 of them.

For reasons that remain up for debate, this week's Shell Houston Open at Redstone G.C. is a 72-hole practice round for the Masters — hold the pimiento-cheese sandwiches and $1 million to the winner. Embracing their table-setting role, SHO officials primp Redstone to resemble a Lone Star Augusta National, with tight lies and lightning-fast greens.

"I like to be competitive going into the week of a major," said No. 2 Lee Westwood, who is the highest ranked player in the field and who will try a new putter this week in an effort to find some magic. "… Like if I come into it, have another couple off-weeks, I could be rusty for even nine holes and that's too much in a major championship."

Several other players will be looking to catch fire just days before they roll up Magnolia Lane, including Mickelson, who is coming off a T24 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Bay Hill was so hard — Paul Goydos shot a final-round 85 — Mickelson said his result did not reflect how well he played, and he may be right. His distance control with his irons, a must at Augusta, looked sharp Sunday. And keep in mind Mickelson tied for 35th at the 2010 SHO and hadn't done a thing all year before winning last year's Masters.

There's no telling what to expect from defending SHO champion Anthony Kim, either. He tied for sixth at Torrey Pines; he shot an opening-round 80 at Doral. Kim, who set the record for most birdies (11) in a single round at the 2009 Masters and finished third at Augusta last year, has been wildly inconsistent since thumb surgery last spring.

Tenth-ranked Steve Stricker also hasn't done much this year and will try to get on the right track at the SHO. With five top-10 finishes in seven starts this year, No. 9 Matt Kuchar is doing just fine, thank you. He will get attention at Augusta (best finish: T21 in 1998, as an amateur) no matter what he does in Houston, where he tied for eighth last year.

Angel Cabrera, Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Louis Oosthuizen are among the others in Houston trying to find some form for next week. Others still are just trying to get into Augusta at the 11th hour.

Johnson Wagner, who did just that by winning Houston in 2008, is still not in this year's Masters despite winning the Mayakoba Classic last month. (The Mayakoba is an opposite-field event, the week of the WGC-Accenture, and a victory does not bring an automatic invitation to Augusta.) Vaughn Taylor, who finished second to Kim in Houston last year, said he won't go to the Masters if he fails to get into the field, despite the fact that he lives in Augusta and represents Augusta-based E-Z-GO. Charles Howell III, another Augusta native, also needs a win this week to get into the Masters.

Westwood wears the onerous label of being the best player without a major, and he's already been answering questions about it in Houston. He finished second at the 2010 Masters and British Open before missing the PGA with a calf injury. He notched T3s at the 2009 British Open and PGA Championship. In short, Westwood is a big-game player who nonetheless had not actually won the big game.

"If you keep getting close, then, you know, the law of averages," he said. "Sooner or later the door will open."

On the plus side, he's not as swamped with interview requests after giving up the No. 1 ranking to Ryder Cup teammate Martin Kaymer. The 2010 PGA champion, Kaymer will try to make it two majors in a row next week. Having missed the cut in his only three starts at Augusta, he's trying the Tiger approach. Kaymer is taking this week off.

Wie tries to remember her youth
She's still only 21, but something about being a kid freed up Michelle Wie to play well at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, the first major of the year on any tour. She finished T9 at age 13, 4th at 14, T14 at 15 and T3 at 16 in 2006. The course suits her.

But she's done less well as a grown-up (she will graduate from Stanford next March), finishing T67 and T27 at the 2009 and 2010 tournaments, respectively, at Mission Hills C.C. in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Which Wie will we see this week? Although she didn't play for a month while taking finals in Palo Alto, she knocked the rust off with a T7 at the Kia Classic last week.

Of the two most recent winners of the Kraft Nabisco, Yani Tseng (2010) would have to be this week's favorite, but she's coming off a T29 at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders. Brittany Lincicome (2009) is coming off a tie for second.

Oldies showing their age
Bernhard Langer will be on the shelf for eight weeks, including next week's Masters, after having his left thumb operated on last week. He injured it in a bike accident.

Scott Hoch makes his 2011 debut at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in Biloxi this week after a long recovery from injuries to his left wrist (chronic) and also a broken collarbone (as with Langer, another bike accident).

David Eger beat Tommy Armour III by a shot last year.

Newly minted seniors Mark Brooks and Jim Gallagher, Jr., make their debuts on the Champions circuit this week.

Brooks, who won the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club, will get a chance to defend, sort of, when the Senior PGA Championship comes to Valhalla, May 26-29.

European Tour struggles through lean times
The biggest thing to come out of Wales since Ian Woosnam, Rhys Davies defends at the Euro Tour's Trophee Hassan II at Morocco's Golf de L'Ocean.

His 25-under total was the lowest score on the tour last year, but he shot it on a different course, Dar Es Salam Golf Club in Rabat. Louis Oosthuizen, whom Davies beat by two, is playing in Houston this week, leaving Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke as the biggest names in this week's field.

The tour is bogged down in its weakest stretch of 2011, with Europe's top players away in the States, preparing for the year's first major. Euro tour fields have been so thin of late it makes the Bob Hope Classic look like a major.

DeLaet to start playing again soon
The Shell Houston Open, where Graham DeLaet tied for third last year, reminds us how fast fortunes can flip. He is not in this week's SHO field, and hasn't played all year. The long-hitting former Boise State star knew there was something wrong with his back by the end of 2010.

"I'd gotten to the point where I couldn't live a normal day," he says, "much less play golf."

After spending most of December lying flat on his back, DeLaet had microdiscectomy surgery in Boise on Jan. 3, and began a long rehabilitation. At first he could only take walks, but he and his wife have been renting a condo in Phoenix in order to continue his rehabilitation at Athletes' Performance.

"They want to fix the problem that got me into this in the first place," he says. "It's more core work, more core flexibility, especially in the hips. It's been perfect weather, but I don't have the go-ahead to play any golf yet."

Instead, DeLaet has been texting his friends on Tour, keeping them updated on what ever became of the long-hitting Canadian who racked up eight top-25 finishes and made nearly $1 million in his rookie season. He'll be in Phoenix through April and rejoin the Tour sometime after that. He said he will take a medical extension in 2012 if he fails to crack the top 125 on the 2011 money list.

"I really want to get back out there," he said.

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