Excitement is building, as the start of the first major of the year, the Masters is just nine days away, and this week we head to Humble, Texas for the Shell Houston Open, as players look to hone their games, whilst others try to punch their ticket to Augusta in last minute fashion.

The Shell Houston Open has been held at the same course since 2003, and despite a name change, from Redstone GC to, Golf Club of Houston, the test remains very much the same here, and it still sets up as a great course to prepare for the Masters.

The Course: Golf Club of Houston, 7,441 yards, par 72. This course has been set up to give players a chance not only to shoot low numbers, but also as aforementioned, gives players a chance to tune up their game ahead of the Masters in a week’s time. Both courses feature wide fairways, with little rough, however greens will need to be hit in order to stand a chance of scoring well.

As well as the generous fairways and lack of rough, there are shaved banks and collection areas, which again are there to mimic Augusta and attract the best possible field, despite being just a week before a major.

What is key to remember is, there are players that will be treating this as “just another event on Tour”, so what will those, and the guys heading to Augusta next week, need to do well, in order to win here in Texas?

As touched upon, Greens in Regulation will be very important, as you cannot shoot mid-teen under par scores, if you’re not hitting plenty of greens, and putting well when you do find them. A lot has been made about Driving Distance this week, but considering players like Hunter Mahan, Johnson Wagner and Stuart Appleby, who all rank fairly low in terms of distance, have won here in the past I’m less inclined to consider this a factor.

Market Leaders: Rory Mcilroy (10/1), Dustin Johnson (14/1), Henrik Stenson (20/1), Sergio Garcia, Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Matt Kuchar (25/1)

Mcilroy is the favourite, just ahead of Dustin Johnson, both of whom will be well fancied next week at Augusta, especially now it’s been confirmed Tiger Woods will miss the Masters due to back surgery. Next up is Henrik Stenson who has some great course form here, and was greatly improved on his last start at Bay Hill, coming T5.

After those three, there’s a whole host of players at 25/1 and all of them will have to be respected here, so at the head of the market it really does look wide open. Only Vijay Singh has won at this course on multiple occasions, and although Stuart Appleby has also won the event on two occasions, he did it once here, and once at a past venue, so it will be no surprise to see a new winner here, once again at, Golf Club of Houston.

Here are my picks for the 2014 Shell Houston Open.

Henrik Stenson 20/1 (Betfred, Coral, ToteSport) 2.5pts e/w: Henrik Stenson, up until his T5 at Bay Hill, had struggled to show the same form  he enjoyed late last year, and for me that was no great surprise. Stenson, on his day is a fantastic player, no doubt about it, but he has struggled with consistency all his career.

With that in mind, plus the fact it was almost impossible to keep playing the way he was, when he won both the FedEx Cup and the Race to Dubai last year, it’s not surprising his form staggered in 2014.

What he has done though is bounce back in a big way at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Although he didn’t win, he finished in the top-5, which is his best finish so far in 2014 and played some very good golf in the process. He showed signs, two weeks before at the WGC-Cadillac, when he finished T16 and led the field in birdies for the week, and these two finishes make me that more confident that he is the man to beat this week.

Not only did he finish near the top of the leaderboard, but Stenson also led the field in Greens in Regulation and Driving Accuracy, at Bay Hill, proving he is striking the ball very well once again.

Stenson has played the Shell Houston Open on three occasions, and has finished no worse than 21st, a good omen for the Swede this week. His most notable finish came 12 months ago, when he did his very best to hunt down D.A Points, who in the end held on well. He finished 2nd last year, and that was after coming 21st in 2012, and 3rd in 2009, which was his debut in this event, so he will certainly fancy his chances this time around.

If Stenson does what we hope he will, and gets the win here, he will rise to #1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, for the first time in his career, and dethrone long-term leader, Tiger Woods. Adam Scott had a great chance of doing the same, when he held the 54-hole lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but he struggled in the final round, and therefore left the door open, for Stenson to leapfrog both players.

Although at this moment in time, I don’t think Stenson should be backed for the Masters, he will head to Augusta with I imagine the most confidence he’s ever had going into the first major of the season. It would be naive to write him off, considering the form he’s shown in the last year, and if you can think he can do it, he is available at 22/1.

At 20/1 I think he is a better bet to win here, than he is to win the Masters, and I hope he feels the best preparation for next week is to get the win here.

Keegan Bradley 25/1 (General) 1.5pts e/w: So I tipped Keegan Bradley on his last start, at a similar price (28/1) and he fell just short of getting the job done, finishing one stroke behind eventual winner Matt Every, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

As mentioned two weeks ago, Bradley is one player I like to get on side, and often. I think he is a superb player and he has shown, early in his PGA Tour career that he has the winning pedigree, something I only see continuing.

Bradley receives a lot of criticism for his pre-shot routine, and sometimes it can be frustrating, but at the same time these guys livelihood is at stake, and I think it’s often blown out of proportion in Bradley’s case. It’s something that’s natural to him, and if he has to do it, in order to feel comfortable over his shot, then so be it.

Due to his pre-shot routine, it often looks as though he is overly nervous, and whilst I don’t for one minute think he plays without nerves, one thing he has proved so far in his career is that he thrives under pressure, and seems to play his best golf under such conditions.

He won his first PGA Tour event, the HP Byron Nelson, in a play-off against Ryan Palmer, and also won the PGA Championship, beating good friend Jason Dufner, again in a play-off, so he really ups his game in these situations. Add to that, the way he played some in the 2012 Ryder Cup, despite it being his first appearance in the event and you have to think he wins plenty more in the future.

A place on the American team at Gleneagles is still not a given, there are too many players playing well, and he will be keen to do everything he can to get his way into that Ryder Cup team again, this time avenging the loss at Medinah.

His form here is very good, as it seems to be in most events early in the season, so hopefully he can keep that up here, and head to Augusta, with a win under his belt. In three appearances here, he has made the cut on all three occasions, finishing 51st on his first attempt in 2011, followed by successive top-10s, finishing 4th in 2012 and 10th in 2013, so he can definitely navigate this course successfully.

He will be keen to improve on his showing at Augusta last year, as he struggled, finishing 54th, and a win here will give him the confidence he needs to do just that. If Bradley can put together another good week here, he should be able to keep the streak going at the Masters, and he may well be one to keep an eye on, if the price is right.

I can definitely see him improving on his 4th and 10th place finishes here, and get the win he’s been looking for since winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in, August 2012. 28/1 is not overpriced, but he was the same price two weeks ago, an he finished 2nd, so on a course he has shown a liking for, I couldn’t resist going in again.

Chris Kirk 50/1 (General) 1pt e/w: Kirk was amongst the group of players, who started the 2013-14 season strongly, alongside the likes of, Harris English, Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed, and he will be hoping to find that form again this week, ahead of his first appearance at the Masters next week.

Kirk won the McGladrey Classic, back in November, which sealed his Masters fate, and that will no doubt of stayed in his mind ever since. This may of been a distraction, as he tries to digest the fact he will be teeing it up at Augusta for the first time in his career, which may of led to his inconsistent play since.

That is a guess, and there is no doubt there are some weaknesses in Kirk’s game, that will of also been big factors, most notably his putting. His putting especially is something he will need to sharpen up on quickly, if he has any plans to contend next week.

After his win at the McGladrey, he did come 2nd at the Sony Open, and 12th at the Honda Classic so the putter has behaved on given weeks, so I am sure he can put it together on any given week.

There was no better way, in my opinion for Kirk to prepare for next week than to play well here, and given his performances on the last two occasions he’s teed it up here, I would not be surprised if does just that.

When making his debut here, back in 2011, Kirk finished runner-up to Phil Mickelson, ending the week three strokes behind his now, Callaway team-mate. Kirk’s score of -17 would of been good enough for a victory, on five occasions and would of seen him in a play-off with Adam Scott once, since this course first played host in 2003, so he played extremely well that week.

He may feel hard done by, as Mickelson was unbeatable that week, finishing the week on -20, but it will no doubt be a fond memory of the course, and he followed that up with another respectable finish here in 2o13. He finished 22nd here in 2013, so again he played solidly around this course, and I have no doubt he can do it again this time around.

After two disappointing weeks at Doral and Bay Hill, he will be relieved to return to a course, where he’s enjoyed relative success and he will be keen to ensure he plays well, before what could be considered the biggest week of his career so far.

I feel 50/1 about a player who has won, finished runner-up and has also not missed a cut all season, is pretty big, especially when you consider his course form, and I expect him to return to form this week.

Geoff Ogilvy 100/1 (General) 1pt e/w: Considering this year on the PGA Tour, every winner has either been American or Australian, it seems logical to get an Aussie on board, and this week I am willing to give Tour veteran Geoff Ogilvy a chance, at three-figure odds.

Before writing this preview, I fully expected Ogilvy to be a popular pick this week, and was expecting to come in slightly shorter than he has, especially considering his performance in the Valero Texas Open last week.

Ogilvy finished T11 last week, a great performance considering he’s missed five cuts, and finished 29th on two occasions so far in 2014, so hopefully he can keep up that form whilst he’s still in Texas. He has some fond memories of the course this week, and hopefully that is enough to see him repeat his good play, for a second consecutive week.

The 7-time PGA Tour winner has posted four top 10s here, at Golf Club, Humble in the last decade, and despite missing his last two cuts here, in 2013 and 20010, he should fancy his chances of playing well again this time around.

His most notable performance, was when he finished runner-up to Johnson Wagner back in 2008, but he also followed that up with a 6th place finish in 2009, proving it was no fluke. His 7th and 10th place finishes in 2003 and 2004 carry a bit less weight as they were some time ago now, but it still proves it’s a track he likes, and hopefully he can take confidence from last week, and turn it into another good finish here.

He has won a U.S Open, and three WGC events, so no event is too big for Ogilvy, and if he can play well again this week, he will take some momentum into next week at Augusta, where he has finished as high as 4th, back in 2011. Simply put, on his day Ogilvy is not a 100/1 golfer, and although he’s not won since 2009, I still believe there is still plenty of fight in him yet, to get the job done on the PGA Tour.

He hasn’t featured consistently at the top of the leaderboards for a while now, but he proved at last year’s Honda Classic, when coming 2nd, that he can still feature, even when not playing well. Apart from his 2nd at the Honda, his best finish last year was in his first event, when he finished 27th in the Humana Challenge, so he’s not a player that necessarily needs to be at the top of his game to have a good week.

With that all in mind, plus a good showing at the Valero last week, I am more than happy to get this experienced winner on side, at what I consider an attractive price.

Total Points Staked this week: 12

Profit/Loss for 2014: + 172.45

I really thought we were going to get a boost to our Masters kitty last week, as 66/1 shot Pat Perez went into the final round with a good chance of getting the win. It wasn’t to be, as Perez managed to shoot a 77 in the final round, and fall outside the top-5. I am however very confident of good week, here at the Shell Houston Open, and hopefully one of the four above can get the job done, and give us a much welcomed boost ahead of the first major of 2014.

As ever you can get in touch on Twitter @TJacobsGolf, with any feedback or questions you may have.

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