|The course at Redstone features a par-4 488-yard 18th that leaves little margin for error. (Getty Images)|
Everything you need to know about the Shell Houston Open:
|Nuts and bolts|
|Defending the throne|
He came to the Masters last year not only as the reigning champ, but the man to beat.
Phil Mickelson won his annual pre-Augusta tuneup last year at the Shell Houston Open, putting on a weekend scoring exhibition that caused eyeballs to pop. But, as we have learned all too well with Lefty over his two decades on tour, that's not always a precursor of things to come.
The mercurial Mickelson shot 63-65 on the weekend last year in Humble, Texas, to beat Scott Verplank and Chris Kirk by three strokes, but then fell flat in his title defense at the Masters, finishing a distant 1 under and T27.
He had entered Masters week as the 7/1 betting favorite.
Mickelson offered some strange foreshadowing after the final round at Redstone, noting he had struggled to retain his concentration levels at times, victory or not. It's an issue that still bothers him, he said earlier this spring.
"I've got to maintain my focus throughout the round," Mickelson said. "There were two points out there today where I just lost focus. Next week at Augusta that golf course can be very penalizing."
No kidding. After detonating Redstone, he never broke 70 at Augusta, where in 2010 he won at 16 under in one of the most well-received, feel-good victories of the past decade.
Mickelson, who has played listlessly since winning at Pebble Beach two months ago, is in the field again this week -– and he's always worth watching, isn't he?
|Venue and you|
Redstone Golf Club markets itself as one of 11 public courses in the country to host a PGA Tour event, though the price point remains a bit steep for a daily fee track. The standard rate is $175, though after 1:30 p.m. it drops to $125. In this day and age, that's about as cheap as it gets for a tour venue. It was ranked well down the list at No. 42 among the courses in use on the tour in a recent poll of players.
|Track and field|
Ever since officials elected to make modifications to the course to as closely mirror the conditions at Augusta National as possible, the field has perked up nicely, partly among the internationals. This year's field featured six of the top 15 in the world and 17 of the top 50, virtually identical to 2011 levels. Last year featured six and 18 in those two metrics.
|Three whacks from short range|
• Englishman Paul Casey is finally back, albeit a year late, to defend his title. In an interesting gambit based on a career-long habit of falling flat the week after he's won a global event, he didn't return last year to defend his 2010 Houston win, instead electing to go to the Masters on fresh legs. A year earlier, he won at Redstone, went to the Masters as one of the perceived favorites and tanked. Coming off a shoulder separation over the Christmas break, Casey can use the extra work this time around.
• Want to watch Phil Mickelson flinch? Many have heard his criticisms of designer Rees Jones' work over the years, some of which comes across as borderline personal. But before he won earlier this year at Pebble Beach, Lefty's most recent victory had come at Redstone last year -- a Jones design. Sorry, Phil, but that's pretty humorous.
• What did event officials do to make Houston a fairly close approximation of Augusta National? Lots of things, like shaving down the collars and green surrounds, and trimming back some of the rough to allow players to go for the green. By whatever means, the event has definitely picked up more players in its pre-Masters slot since making the course adjustments, and more power to them. That's just good management, plain and simple.
|Odds and evens|
Odds on winning, via Golfodds.com and the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino:
Lee Westwood, 10/1; Phil Mickelson 12/1; Steve Stricker, 15/1;