Prep Course: How Shell Houston Open fared as Augusta Lite

Prep Course: How Shell Houston Open fared as Augusta Lite

You’ve read the stories and heard the sound bites on Golf Channel telling you that the once struggling Houston Open has saved itself and provided a service to Tour players and golf fans everywhere by embracing its pre-Masters date and replicating as nearly as possible the conditions at Augusta National. Closely cut areas around greens that run 14 on the Stimpmeter. Light rough. Fairways mown toward the tee box. They’ve got everything but the twittering songbirds and a whispering Jim Nantz.

“That’s why you see such a good field here,” says last year’s winner, Johnson Wagner, “because people have heard how well it prepares you for [the Masters].” Wagner is right, sort of. Eight of the top 10 and 12 of the top 15 players in the world turned up in Houston last week to watch Paul Casey (11-under 277) get his first Tour win by beating J.B.

Holmes in a playoff. But there’s no proof Houston actually helps these guys. Since 2007, when Redstone Golf Club in Humble, Texas, went Augusta Lite, playing well there has not necessarily presaged success in northeast Georgia. In ’07, 23 players teed it up in both Houston and Augusta, but only Stuart Appleby finished in the top 10 at both events, tying for second in Houston and tying for seventh at Augusta. Next best was K.J. Choi, who finished 19th and 27th. In ’08 there were 28 guys who doubled up, led by Phil Mickelson, who came in 23rd in Houston and then tied for fifth at the Masters, while our old friend Appleby went from 23rd to 14th. Perhaps, though, the most damning evidence is last year’s Masters champ, Trevor Immelman. In ’08 he missed the cut in Houston.

• He says it was planned all along, but it sure had the feel of an emergency summons when Butch Harmon showed up in Houston as his star pupil, Phil Mickelson, was imploding with a 77-76 to miss the cut. Harmon called the first-round blowup a “surprise,” and he met with Mickelson in the players’ parking lot while it was still dark on Saturday morning. After Mickelson finished the wind- and rain-delayed second round, the two worked on the range for a few hours that afternoon. “I was always planning to be here for the weekend,” Harmon said. “We are still working for Augusta, working on shaping his shots and getting the swing more consistent.” Clearly…. Seems that K.J. Choi is one player who’s getting on board with commissioner Tim Finchem’s request for fan outreach. Last week the five-time Tour winner, who lives in The Woodlands, near Houston, donated two of his Masters player passes to an auction at The Woodlands Christian Academy, the private school his kids attend. They sold for $4,001.

Does sibling rivalry come into play between a 26-year-old who’s in his fourth pro season and his 14-year-old sister? Maybe. Even as Alexis Thompson was shooting a 72-72-77-69 at the Kraft Nabisco to make her first cut in an LPGA major and share the title of low amateur (21st, with Tiffany Joh), her bro, Nicholas, seemed determined not to be outdone. He took the lead in Houston with a first-round 65 and held on to finish 11th.