By Dan Reardon
What does a golfer’s performance at the Shell Houston Open predict about the winner at the Masters a week later? If history is any indicator, not much. For many players, Tiger Woods created the template. Woods, who played a select schedule annually, rarely made a tournament appearance the week before any major. Ireland’s Rory McIlroy follows the same routine as did Jack Nicklaus through much of his career.
The unique layout at Augusta National makes it difficult to hone your Masters game on another PGA Tour course. In both contour and conditioning, the green complexes at Augusta are like no others in professional golf. Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, following his final round of a solid week in Houston, said he forced himself to use the driver more with an eye toward the Tiger-proofed length at Augusta. “My course management was different than if I was more focused on winning this week instead of next.”
In the last 10 years, a positive Tour outcome the week before the Masters has produced a green jacket in Georgia only twice. In 2015 Jordan Spieth, playing in his native Texas, made it into a three-way playoff on Sunday. He eventually lost to J.B. Holmes who went on to be a non-factor all four days at the Masters. Ten years ago Phil Mickelson won the Bell South Classic in Atlanta and then went on to win his second Masters.
That’s it. Two players used the PGA Tour to successfully tune up for the season’s first major. In fact, if you look at the roughly 100 players who finished in the top 10 at Houston, Valero and Atlanta over the last 10 years, no one else posted a Masters win.
This year’s Houston winner and Masters qualifier, Jim Herman, has the opposite profile of what is traditionally thought it takes to win at Augusta. He ranks 86th in driving on the Tour this year, although he counterbalances that with a top-20 ranking in driving accuracy. More than length, Herman’s stats on the greens suggest a short week at the Masters. He ranks 208th in strokes gained putting and, more revealing, 208th in three-putt avoidance.
Houston runner-up Henrik Stenson ordinarily would be buoyed by four rounds under par including a 10-under total on the weekend. But Stenson now has now recorded eight second-place finishes in the last two years to go against no wins. The #6-ranked player in the world has surprisingly never had a top 10 in the Masters, but he has been in the top 20 each of the last three years.
Dustin Johnson, ranked eighth, finished solo third in Houston, squandering his chance to win with a double bogey early on the back nine. He is still an A-list possibility to win any major. Despite his enormous talent and length off the tee, however, Johnson is still shut out in these events. His best-ever showing in the Masters — T6 in 2015 — will give him confidence going into this week in Georgia.
One other oddity from the Houston leaderboard, the top 10 featured two Augusta natives. The 10th-ranked Patrick Reed (T10) will have family and friends in his galleries, as he has in the past. Reed (T22 in 2015) will be enjoying home cooking at the Masters for only the third time in his career. Charles Howell III (T7) will be outside the ropes. He hasn’t been in the field since 2012 and has played fewer times at the Masters than in the other two American majors.
Then and Now
Current Masters champion, Jordan Spieth, played well at Houston with some struggles on Sunday. But his numbers will tell the story if he is to repeat. Spieth ranks nearly the same off the tee as he finished his remarkable year in 2015. He dropped 16 spots in the putting rankings, but is still in the top 25 and fourth in avoiding three putts. The number that needs to change for Spieth is from the fairways. A year ago he gave himself three times the birdie opportunities he now sees. He was 49th in Green in Regulation in 2015, but is 153rd this year.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.