Unlike last year, the Shell Houston Open is back in its traditional spot on the PGA Tour schedule -- one week before the Masters.
In 2013, the Valero Texas Open was played the week before the season’s first major and the Shell Houston Open was two weeks before.
With all due respect to the Valero Texas Open, it’s better this way for players and fans.
The main reason has to do with course set up. Golf Club of Houston (formerly Redstone Golf Club until a recent sale) is prepared for this tournament to closely resemble the turf conditions players will face at Augusta National next week. That’s why -- even the week before a major -- the Shell Houston Open is able to assemble a field featuring stars the likes of Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els.
Also making this week a special one, is the fact that there is one more Masters invitation up for grabs that will go to the winner if he is not otherwise exempt – a tournament within the tournament, so to speak.
Before the tournament got under way on Thursday, we had a chance to catch up with Golf Club of Houston PGA Head Professional Tommy Wolfenberger for a little Q&A about the course, the tournament and more.
PGA.com: People might be a little confused this year when they see "Golf Club of Houston," which looks exactly like the venue we've come to know as Redstone. The reason is the course is the same but the name has changed. What was the reason behind the name change?
Wolfenberger: That's right -- the course is the same. The reason for the name change is just because it was a part of the sale agreement between Redstone Properties and Escalante Golf, the new owner. The name change also makes a lot of sense because along with being the home course for the University of Houston golf program, we're also the home of the Houston Golf Association (HGA). It was fitting that this facility became Golf Club of Houston.
PGA.com: If there's one thing the players always rave about at your venue, it's the course conditions, which -- some feel -- are made to mimic what players will face next week at Augusta National. Can you talk a little about the plush conditions?
Wolfenberger: You're right -- course is in excellent condition. Steve Timms, the president and chief executive officer of the HGA, along with our superintendent Mike Mefford do an incredible job of getting Golf Club of Houston to emulate the conditions players will see next week in Augusta. Everything from the green speeds to the fairway patterns to the length of rough will be similar to next week. I think that's certainly a factor when players decide to play in the Shell Houston Open.
PGA.com: As usual, you have a solid field of competitors -- which is saying something the week before a major. Can you tell us a little about the field?
Wolfenberger: As of right now, Phil Mickelson is in which certainly adds to the field (Editor's note: Mickelson's status has been up in the air since he withdrew from last week's Valero Texas Open with an oblique muscle strain). It looks like this will be one of our strongest fields ever. We have 22 past major winners and 46 of the players here already have invitations to the Masters. There will be 99 players vying for that final Masters spot, which makes this a tournament within a tournament and that's a lot of fun. Each year out here part of the buzz is the guys gearing up for a chance to get to Augusta, which is every golfer's dream. This is the last chance to play in 2014. We've seen it with the amount of practice from Sunday afternoon right on through to now. There's a lot of grinding going on out on that practice range.
PGA.com: What's your favorite hole at Golf Club of Houston and what makes it so special?
Wolfenberger: I have a bunch. There are a lot I really enjoy, but my favorites are No. 10 and No. 12, which are both short par 4s that offer variety of club selection off the tee depending on the day's conditions. If you want to be aggressive, you can pull the driver for the risk-reward factor. You can see anything from a 5-iron to a driver off both those tees. Nos. 10 and 12 are our two smallest greens out there too.
PGA.com: Can you tell us how different tournament week is compared to a normal week in terms of your duties at the Golf Club of Houston?
Wolfenberger: This is the one weekend a year where our members are gracious enough to move out, so to speak, and we entertain 144 of the world's best players. We get to see a lot of the best players in the world. It's a week where we really get to showcase what we have out here -- the course, practice facilities, amenities around the facility. And it's nice to know what we're doing out here is appreciated. We get compliments from the best in the world. It's nice when a guy like Steve Stricker walks in the shop last Sunday and remembers your name from the year before. It's a cool experience most golf professionals don't get to experience.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.