HUMBLE, Texas (AP) – Stuart Appleby set a course record in the first round, broke 70 on all four days and finished 19-under-par to win last year’s Houston Open.
He thinks he’ll have to go even lower to lift the crystal trophy this time.
The Houston Open is back at the Tournament Course at Redstone that drew mixed reviews from the players in its debut a year ago. (Go to Leaderboard)
The tournament was moved from late April to the week before the Masters and organizers have tried to mimic the conditions at Augusta, speeding up the greens, trimming the rough and shaving down slopes around water hazards.
However, unless a stiff south Texas breeze blows all weekend, Appleby thinks the tournament will look more like the Las Vegas Invitational than a major championship.
“If this course stays soft, it will be very easy, which is not Augusta,” said Appleby, who hasn’t won since last year’s event. “If it plays firm, fast and windy, it will make us think more Augusta thoughts.”
Tournament officials were hoping the new date and their attempts to mirror Augusta would draw an A-list field.
Instead, most of the top players bypassed Houston and headed straight to the real thing, while the Houston Open was once again left without stars such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and, now, even three-time champion Vijay Singh.
PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the Houston Open was chosen as the event before Masters week because of the course’s similarities to Augusta. It’s slotted as the Masters warmup through 2012 and Finchem expects the fields to get better as word gets out about the quality of the course.
“It’s going to take another year or two for the impact of the golf course to sink in,” Finchem said.
Though many of the big names stayed away, the new date lured many of the international players who’ll play at Augusta. Former Masters champions Jose Maria Olazabal and Bernhard Langer are here, along with Argentinian Angel Cabrera, Irishman Padraig Harrington and Englishman Lee Westwood.
The highest ranked player in this week’s field is Adam Scott, who’s trying to become the sixth Australian to win in Houston. Along with Appleby, and Bruce Devlin, Bruce Crampton, David Graham and Robert Allenby have also won the event.
Like Appleby, Scott thinks the Tournament Course is there for the taking this week. He projected the winning score at 20-under or better.
“I think there are going to be a lot of birdies this week,” Scott said. “The wind is the only thing preventing it. But still, even if it’s windy, it’s going to be 20-under, something like that.”
Appleby would still take the score he had last year. He missed two cuts this year and his best finish was a tie for 13th at Kapalua, where he’s won three times.
“I haven’t played any good all year,” Appleby said. “I haven’t moved with the herd, you know? Stuck out of the back with the dog nipping at my heels. I’ve got to get moving some.”
While the Houston Open was the highlight of Appleby’s 2006, it kick-started Steve Stricker’s campaign.
Stricker played only three tournaments before finishing third in Houston last year. He rode the momentum to top-10 finishes at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship and finished the year with $1.8 million in earnings, a career high.
“I just started feeling some good things in my swing,” Stricker said. “I was working hard at home and feeling those good things and finally, I started to see it in some of the tournaments I was playing. It just kind of steamrolled.”
Stricker and Appleby were two of 53 players to finish under par last year.
Course architect Rees Jones, who oversaw the changes, hopes the Tournament course isn’t too easy. He said the alterations were done to force players to make more creative shots – like the ones they’ll face at Augusta.
“They’re going to have to lob shots or pitch shots into slopes,” Jones said. “They’ll have a lot of options.”
Like Finchem, Jones said he hopes the majority of players will eventually embrace the Redstone course.
“When they play it, they’re going to talk to one another, about how they liked it,” Jones said. “And then, more will play it and more will come. The word will get out.”