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Shell Houston Open preview

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A strong field has assembled for the penultimate event before the first major of the year, The Masters. Four of the top-10 are in the field here, originally five were making the trip but Dustin Johnson withdrew Monday afternoon.

Whilst this is a tune-up event for those heading to Augusta, it also presents the last chance for the winner to secure the final spot available next week, should they not have already qualified.

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Given the extra motivation that the Masters invite supplies, it is perhaps no surprise that the winners list is littered with the names of those that, until they hoisted the trophy here failed to make the limited field at Augusta.

If someone was to do just that again this year, they will be the fourth in the past five years with, Jim Herman (2016), Matt Jones (2014) and D.A Points (2013) all doing in recent history.

There is also the old adage that players don’t like winning the week before a major. J.B Holmes won here in 2015 before missing the cut at his second Masters. Roll on a year and this time he chose to skip this event and went on to finish T4 in what was his third and most recent start at Augusta. Make of that what you will but it is far from black and white as to whether playing here is a positive or a negative, with every player’s preference different.

Phil Mickelson for example loves playing the week before a major and did the double in Scotland back in 2013, winning the Scottish Open a week before his Open victory at Muirfield.

I wouldn’t rule out those that are in the field already next week, I just think the extra motivation for those that aren’t is a huge factor, and one that features predominantly in my thoughts for this event.

The Course and what it will take to win here

Golf Club of Houston, 7,441 yards, Par 72

This course is setup to best replicate Augusta, in order to attract a strong field. As a result the greens will run at 13+ on the Stimpmeter, whilst collection areas have also been created around the Bermuda putting surfaces.

The rough is down, giving players a license to bomb it off the tee, and therefore driving stats can almost be ignored. Two completely different drivers of the ball, one long (J.B. Holmes) and another short but accurate (Jim Herman) have won in the last two years.

Given that they try to set it up as close to Augusta here, it makes sense that one stat remains consistent in every winner – good Greens in Regulation numbers and each of the last five winners have finished inside the top-10 in that category for the week. Although relatively easy to hit, you do not want to miss them, given the collection areas around the green. Rickie Fowler finished 10th here last year, thanks to leading the field in Greens in Regulation, hitting 79.17% of greens here at Golf Club of Houston. Four players; Rafa Cabrera Bello, Charles Howell III, Charl Schwartzel and Justin Hicks all tied for 2nd behind Fowler, hitting 77.78% and finished, 4th, T7,  T13 and T57 respectively, on the leaderboard.

Other than that, it is a case of going really low (-15 or more kind of low) and being efficient around the par-4’s. This course features four par-4’s over 450 yards in order the best prepare those playing Augusta next week, which features seven par-4’s of this kind.

As a result, any player ranking highly in both Greens in Regulation and Par 4 efficiency 450-500 yards will be in with a shout this week.

There are not the most difficult greens to putt on, by any stretch, but those that are comfortable on Bermuda greens are worth nothing also.

With all this taken into consideration, here are my picks for the 2017 Shell Houston Open.

Billy Horschel 50/1 (Ladbrokes) 1pt e/w

I am currently in danger of backing Horschel off a cliff this year, but such is his good play of late, I cannot ignore his chances – especially given the circumstances this week.

Horschel, who never seems to lack motivation, is one of the players that has the extra incentive of a Masters place to play for this week.

The 2014 FedEx Cup champion will be desperate to return to Augusta, where he posted a career-best T17 finish last year. In three starts at the Masters he has now posted finishes of T37-MC-T17, and with the form he is in right now, could improve once again should he make it.

Horschel has played here in Houston on two occasions, finishing 2nd in 2013, two years after missing the cut on debut. A return to this course after a three-year absence highlights his intentions to punch his spot into next week’s field and that may be enough to improve on his runner-up showing last time out. Despite playing here just twice, Horschel does have other previous in Texas, twice finishing inside the top-5 at the Valero Texas Open. He finished T4 last year, and backed up his T2 here in 2013 with a T3 at the Valero on his next start.

Horschel currently ranks 4th in Greens in Regulation and 9th in Par 4 Efficiency 450-500 yards, so he looks a great fit statistically. What is interesting is that Horschel has 108 attempts on par-4’s in this range this season, significantly more than any player ranked above him in this category, and still averages under par (3.972).

He also finished T13 at Bay Hill last time out, where his putter finally started to play ball (16th Strokes Gained – Putting) and as a result, he looks the perfect play. This will be the third stroke-play event in a row I have gone for “Alligator Billy”, so I hope he repays the faith this week.

Another player that fits the same mould as Horschel is Russell Henley, who is also somewhat of a course specialist. Henley has finished 5-4-7 here on his last three starts and ranks 13th in Par-4 Efficiency 450-500 yards and 20th in Greens in Regulation. Whilst he fits the bill, at 40/1 I thought Horschel represented better value than the Georgia alum and as such, Henley goes straight in my “those I do not want to win category”.

John Peterson 250/1 (Betfair, PaddyPower & Boylesports) 0.5pt e/w:

I am going to take a chance on Texas native, John Peterson at a very appealing price.

As Peterson spent the majority of last season shut down due to injury, he is now playing on a major medical extension. In his next 16 starts he needs to earn over $400,000 to keep his card so making plenty of cuts will be essential. Of course he could wrap up his card with a win here, or earn the prize money he needs, with a solo 3rd or better finish.

Whilst optimistic, given the 27-year old is still looking for his first PGA Tour victory, Peterson’s love for Texas may just pull him through this week. If you follow John on social media platforms, namely Snapchat and Twitter, you will know he is very vocal in his admiration for his home state.

Whilst he missed the cut on his sole start here, back in 2014, the Fort Worth resident finished T11 at the Valero Texas Open one year later and he can feature atop a Texas leaderboard once again, this week.

Statistically, Peterson looks good in the right areas for this event. Although these stats will be slightly inflated due to his limited starts (8), they are impressive, nonetheless. He ranks 6th in Scrambling, and also ranks a very respectable 17th on Tour in Greens in Regulation, and performing well in both is a recipe for success. Should his putter heat up (177th in Strokes Gained: Putting) as it did when shooting a third round 66 last week in Puerto Rico, he could be in line for a great week.

Peterson finished T24 last week, bouncing back from a missed cut at the Honda Classic. Even at PGA National he showed promise, opening with a round of 68, before shooting a second-round 74 to ensure a weekend off.

Much was expected of Peterson after finishing T4 as an amateur in the 2012 U.S. Open, but unfortunately he has failed to kick on. He seems a bit more focused following his return from injury and three top-24 finishes in 8 starts this season suggest he is heading in the right direction at least.

Total Points staked this week: 3

Profit/Loss for 2017: – 36

I have purposely kept stakes to a minimum this week, as I didn’t want to get too involved in this event. Horschel was too obvious to ignore, whilst I have been looking for a chance to back Peterson, and Texas is as arguably the best place to get him on side. Ross Fisher looked like giving us a run for our money last week, only to be knocked out by Hideto Tanihara in the quarter finals. Tanihara put it in a valiant display all week, so it was hard to feel too aggrieved.