The first major of the 2012 season is so close we can almost taste it. However, before all eyes turn to Augusta National for the Masters, some of the world's best players are focused in on the Redstone Tournament Course in Humble, Texas, for this week's Shell Houston Open.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson is in the field, as are three of the four reigning major champions - Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley.
So how does Houston draw such a spectacular field the week before a major? Look no further than Redstone superintendent Randy Samoff and his staff, who try to provide the players with conditions similar to those they will face at Augusta National.
Before the tournament teed off, we caught up with Redstone Tournament Course PGA Head Professional Marci Bozarth for a little Q&A about the event.
PGA.com: Thank you for joining us, Marci. Phil Mickelson will be back to defend in Houston this week. He already has a win in 2012, along with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Tiger Woods. Can you remember a better start to a PGA Tour season than the one we've seen so far in 2012?
Bozarth: I would definitely say the Tour is off to an exciting start! Tiger's win last week was great for golf and created lots of media attention. Luke and Rory are battling for the No. 1 spot in the World Rankings. And of course, we are excited here in the Houston area this week for the Shell Houston Open which jump starts our golf season.
PGA.com: Many players love to compete in Houston at Redstone the week before the Masters. The reason, many say, is because the staff at Redstone does its best to mimic the conditions the players will face a week later at Augusta National. Lightning fast greens, closely mown collection areas around the greens, etc. -- Redstone truly fits the bill for great Masters prep. How important is that to drawing such a stellar field each year?
Bozarth: First of all, Randy Samoff, our superintendent, and his staff do a fantastic job creating some of the best playing conditions on Tour for the Shell Houston Open. Of course players tend to choose courses that fit their games, but there is no doubt that having similar playing conditions to Augusta National the week before the Masters certainly helps. We have three of the four current major championship winners in the field this week: Charl Schwartzel, Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley and you know they are sharpening their games for the Masters!
PGA.com: I feel like whenever I talk to anyone in the Houston area about golf, we touch on area favorite and former University of Houston star, Fred Couples. Of course, Couples heads to Houston this week on the strength of a Champions Tour victory Sunday. How do you like his chances at Redstone?
Bozarth: Freddie is always a crowd favorite here and with winning the 2003 SHO at Redstone on the Member Course, we are always pulling for him to win one the Tournament Course. You know his confidence will be high coming off his win last week and this week will be a homecoming of sorts for him in Houston which is always fun.
PGA.com: What facet of a player's game is essential to having success at Redstone?
Bozarth: Great putting and a creative short game. As you referred to the closely mown collection areas around the lighting fast greens, posting four good scores will not be possible if you are not sharp around the greens.
PGA.com: Final question for you, Marci. What is it that you're most looking forward to about tournament week?
Bozarth: We have been watching the transformation of our golf course for two and a half months now getting ready for the arrival of the PGA Tour and it's really exciting that it's finally here. Our membership can't wait to see how the players fare on the course and they will be telling stories for weeks comparing their games to the pros. Of course, we are looking forward to crowning the champion on Sunday!