For the second straight week on the PGA Tour, some players will be playing a tournament within a tournament.
For those already exempt for next week's Masters, this week's Shell Houston Open is one final chance to prepare for the season's first major. The Golf Club of Houston is a great place for it, too, as the conditions mimic those of Augusta National.
And for those players not exempt for the Masters, this week provides one last opportunity, as the winner punches the final ticket to Augusta. Aussie Matt Jones did just that last year.
So Houston will be interesting. While some top players will be looking to find some form, others will be hoping to be the one who joins those top players in Georgia a week from now.
Here are five players to keep an eye on.
5. Matt Jones
Best finish in 2014-15 season: Third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Reason to watch: After a missed cut in his first start of the new season back in October, Jones has been incredibly consistent, advancing to the weekend in each of his last 10 starts. He returns to Houston this week as the defending champion after dramatically defeating Matt Kuchar in a playoff a year ago by holing a pitch shot to set up the win (Kuchar missed his chance for birdie to advance the playoff). That victory also earned Jones the last spot in the 2014 Masters. Like this time last year, Jones is not yet in the Masters field. This is his last chance and he needs a win. Can he find the magic again this week and repeat at the site of his first Tour win like Matt Every did a few weeks back at Bay Hill?
4. Phil Mickelson
Best finish in 2014-15 season: T17 at the Honda Classic
Reason to watch: A slumping Phil Mickelson (by his standards, that is), limps into the Shell Houston Open without a single top-10 this season. If you remember, Mickelson's first top 10 in 2014 didn't come until his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship. The man is all about winning majors. He missed the cut at the Masters for just the second time in his career last year. Many players -- Mickelson, most notably -- feel that the Shell Houston Open is an excellent tune-up for Augusta National because the conditions on the course are very similar. Mickelson needs some good vibes before trying to chase down a fourth green jacket, so how about this week at a place where he won in 2011?
3. Justin Rose
Best finish in 2014-15 season: T48 at World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: It's been a quiet, downright poor, season thus far for Rose. Then again, the 2013 U.S. Open winner hasn't been playing a whole lot either. Like Mickelson, Rose is going to need a boost to gain some confidence before next week. He knows it, too, based on the fact this is his first Shell Houston Open start since 2010.
2. Sergio Garcia
Best finish in 2014-15 season: T4 at Northern Trust Open
Reason to watch: Garcia finished third in the Shell Houston Open one year ago. Over the last couple of years, the Spaniard has been incredibly consistent. Sure, he's always been a spectacular player, but in the last couple of seasons we've seen him pile up top 10s the way he did back in the mid-2000s. For top players like Garcia, Houston is preparation for next week. He'll approach it as such.
1. Matt Kuchar
Best finish in 2014-15 season: T2 at Humana Challenge
Reason to watch: OK, aside from the fact that he was the runner-up in this tournament a year ago, Kuchar is No. 1 on this week's list for one reason and one reason alone -- something's got to give. Do you realize he's gone four consecutive tournaments without a top-10 finish? Kuchar is the PGA Tour's modern day Scott Hoch -- a human ATM machine. Since 2010, he's had no less than eight top-10 finishes per season. He's got two so far this year. During this same stretch of three tournaments last year, Kuchar finished second in Houston; tied for fifth in the Masters and won the RBC Heritage. He's about to hit his stride.
Here's how my five to watch fared at last week's Valero Texas Open:
5. Ben Curtis -- Missed cut
4. Ryan Palmer -- T6
3. Zach Johnson -- T20
2. Jimmy Walker -- Won
1. Jordan Spieth -- 2
The calendar must be lying. At least that's what golfers in the northeast must be thinking.
The calendar says it's spring, but one look at the snow-covered ground out the frost-coated window and it's clear that golf season isn't nearly as close as it should be.
"I don't remember anything like this and that's borne out by the record totals," said PGA Professional Leigh Bader, co-owner of Joe & Leigh's Golf Shop, 3Balls.com and Pine Oaks Golf Course in South Easton, Mass. "This weather just keeps throwing eye-high fastballs at us, one after the other."
Bader's businesses are located roughly 30 miles south of Boston, which -- through the end of March -- had seen its snowiest winter on record with 110.6 inches of the white stuff.
"It's been aberrational this year, weather-wise," said Bader, who also set pricing standards on used clubs for the PGA Trade-in Network. "In addition to record inches of snow cover, it's a thick blanket, and the record low temperatures haven't helped either. I read the other day we're on pace for two 30-day runs with temperatures at least five degrees below average. It's just depressingly long, gloomy, gray days.
"We see cabin fever hit every year," Bader added. "This year people have gone from cabin fever to total depression, chin down on the chest. They walk through the golf shop and they look like they need a hug, not a new golf toy."
Jeff Martin is the PGA Head Professional at nearby Norton Country Club, where he says as recently as last weekend, the club's superintendent measured 18 inches of snow in the middle of the fairway on the par-5 14th hole.
"It's even worse here than a lot of places because I don't think we have one fairway that's exposed to the sun," said Martin, a three-time PGA Championship participant and a regular in the PGA Professional National Championship. "We're still a ways away from opening. It'll be at least two weeks, maybe. Opening after the Masters is played up here is almost unheard of. I remember when I started at Norton a few years ago. We were open in mid-February. I don't recall anything like this since moving to Southern New England. This is as late a start as I've ever seen."
Here's a video of Martin on the par-4 first hole at Norton Country Club from Feb. 17, emphasizing just how brutal the winter has been:
All of this snow has a trickle effect... and not just when it finally starts to melt.
No golfers means no income for golf-course owners. It also means delayed product orders for pro-shop owners.
Bader is getting hit on both sides. Along with owning a course, his 3Balls.com business specializes in the secondary equipment market. With fewer golfers playing at the moment, there isn't much of a secondary market.
"There are less used clubs going through the flow right now," Bader said. "It slows down everything. It makes everything go in slow motion.”
Bader is optimistic though.
“It might not seem like it now, but mark my words -- the calendar will win," he said.
Eight miles north of Boston is Winchester Country Club, a classic Donald Ross design. A private golf club, Winchester typically doesn't open until the first weekend in April -- later than most places in the area.
"It's definitely going to be a lot later this year," said PGA Head Professional Jim Salinetti. "We still have a foot-and-a-half of snow in a lot of spots. We're two weeks behind at best -- more like three. It's been a long winter."
At Winchester Country Club, Salinetti has an indoor facility for winter lessons and club fittings. Needless to say, that's been awfully slow lately.
"We usually get really busy in there at the end of February and definitely by the beginning of March with lessons and club fittings," he said. "Since the weather has put everything so far behind, it's delayed the fittings and lessons.
"It's been a little frustrating," Salinetti added. "But I'm at a facility where as long as it's nice in the late spring and summer, we'll make up for it. Other facilities aren't as lucky."
So what can players in the northeast do to ready themselves for a new season once this weather finally breaks? It will break… right?
"Don’t try to do much early on," Martin advises. "Try to work on fundamentals. Work on grip, posture, aim and spend a lot of time on your short game -- you can putt in the house if you need to. Early in the season you're not going to be making good golf swings, so spend time on your short game. It makes up for a lot of sins. It sounds silly, but lower your expectations and you'll be surprised how well you actually play."
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