HUMBLE, Texas — Phil Mickelson might make the Houston Open an annual stop as long as it’s the event leading up to the Masters.
He likes playing the week before a major and he’s sold on the Tournament Course at Redstone, where organizers have tried to simulate the conditions players will find at Augusta National.
“It is tremendous,” Mickelson said after the pro-am Wednesday. “The greens are fast. The fairways are perfect and tight. They even mowed the grain into you in the fairways, just like Augusta does. There is no rough. The first cut is like Augusta.
“It’s a great place to get ready for next week.”
When the PGA Tour reshuffled its schedule before the 2007 season, the Houston event was moved to the week before the Masters out of its moribund regular spot in late April, when many of the big names take time off.
The course, designed by Rees Jones, hosted the tournament for the first time in 2006, then drew raves in its debut as a Masters tuneup last year. Word of mouth spread and this year’s field is among the strongest in the tournament’s 62-year history.
Six of the world’s top 12 ranked players are playing, including Mickelson, Steve Stricker and defending champion Adam Scott. Ernie Els (No. 3) also was going to come, but withdrew due to an illness.
“The word got around after last year’s event of the quality of the golf course and the condition and the way they set it up,” said Scott, who sank a 48-foot putt on the final hole to win last year. “That certainly could’ve changed some guys’ minds on playing here this week before Augusta.”
Stuart Appleby finished 14 under in 2007 and finished tied for second. A week later, he led the Masters after 54 holes, shot a 75 in the final round and tied for seventh.
Appleby traced his Masters performance more to how he was playing at the time than the course providing the perfect preparation. After all, there’s only one Augusta.
“They’re two very different golf courses,” said Appleby, the 2006 Houston winner. “They try to make it like Augusta. It’s an attempt, that’s all it is. Thank God, they make the attempt.”
Like Appleby, Stricker questions how much the Redstone course will get anyone ready for the Masters. Stricker is here more for the competition and thinks most of the players feel the same way.
“Just playing in general prepares you,” Stricker said. “You get to be under the gun for the four days leading up to the event and you get to work on your short game and your putting. They try to make it like Augusta but it’s guys that are here that just want to play and keep their games as sharp as they can leading up to Augusta.”
The Tournament Course and the Houston Open will still always have special meaning for Stricker. He came here two years ago on a sponsor exemption, ranked 331st in the world, and searching for any hint that his playing career still had life.
He opened with an even-par 72, dropped two shots off his score each day and finished third, his best result since 2001. Two months later, he tied for sixth at the U.S. Open and earned five more top-10s before the end of the year.
In 2007, he finished in the top five six times, including a win at the Barclays, the first event of the FedEx Cup. He was the runner-up to Tiger Woods in the final playoff standings, nabbed a spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup team and earned more than $4 million, nearly four times more than he made in any previous year.
“It all got started here and it kick-started my good play,” said Stricker, who has four top-10s in eight starts in 2008. “I gained a lot of confidence from this event a couple of years ago and have kind of rolled with it since. This place means a lot.”
Davis Love III is looking for the same kind of spark. He needs a victory to qualify for the Masters and stretch the longest active streak of major championship appearances to 71.
Love tore ligaments in his left ankle when he stepped in a hole playing golf last September and he’s struggled since returning to the tour this year. He hasn’t played in Houston since 1992.