Rory price too good to ignore
Regardless of the fact that the Shell Houston Open has moved slightly in the calendar, the PGA Tour's arrival in Texas can only mean one thing - the Masters is close.
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The timing of Easter Sunday and an agreement between Texas Open organisers and Tour officials meant something had to give, and consequently this event no longer sits right behind Augusta in the schedule.
Given that Redstone Golf Club is set up to mimic Augusta, plays to an identical par of 72 and an almost identical yardage, the switch isn't ideal. Indeed, 2011 winner Phil Mickelson is particularly upset and that's easy to understand.
- 4pts win Rory McIlroy at 10/1 (General) - Doral stats say he's close and if that's the case 10s is very generous
- 1.5pts e.w. Chris Kirk at 50/1 (General 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - hard to pick holes in profile of a man second here in 2011
- 1pt e.w. Geoff Ogilvy at 80/1 (Stan James, Ladbrokes 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - likes it here and good week secures Augusta spot
- 0.5pt e.w. Ben Kohles at 150/1 (Coral 1/4 1,2,3,4,5) - Texas native playing super golf and can go well at a price
But that aside, there's no doubt that those who have received Masters invites will be looking to this week to finalise preparations, while those yet to secure a spot have one final chance to do so at a course whose lightning fast greens and closely-mown chipping areas are very similar to those found at the end of Magnolia Lane.
One would expect those dynamics to increase the likelihood of an upset, with the elite players tinkering while the lesser-lights strive to win, but that's not really been the case.
Hunter Mahan defends having lapped 54-hole leader Louis Oosthuizen to beat regular winner Carl Pettersson 12 months ago, while looking back beyond Mahan and Mickelson, Anthony Kim and Paul Casey add further class to the roll of honour.
Indeed, only 2008 champion Johnson Wagner stands out as a big upset since the event moved to the complex in 2003, although it's worth noting that prior to 2007 a different course at the same venue was in operation.
The Tournament Course at Redstone requires aggression. That isn't to say that it's easy, but with huge greens and relatively wide fairways, it's those who point, shoot and execute with their irons and make plenty of putts who are likely to come to the fore.
I'm almost surprising myself by siding with Rory McIlroy first and foremost.
I know what you're thinking, something along the lines of he's not playing particularly well, his focus will be on Augusta, he's not got a particularly strong course record and quite possibly that I've gone stark raving bonkers.
But with faculties intact I can tell you that 10/1, in my opinion, is more than enough to make him worth chancing for reasons I'm about to explain.
First and foremost, there were hugely encouraging signs at Doral last time.
It's possible to argue that a tie for eighth owed more to one good round than a solid week, but McIlroy clearly progressed throughout the event, carding 33, 33 and 32 for his final three groups of nine holes.
On closer inspection, those scores and his movement up the leaderboard came as a direct result of improvement with just about every aspect of his game.
Rory ranked 32nd for greens hit in the first round, 29th in the second, fourth in the third and first in the final round.
He ranked 63rd for strokes gained putting in round one, 43rd in round two, eighth in round three and sixth in round four.
For proximity to the hole he went 38-34-20-15, while for fairways hit he progressed from 64th to 27th to 13th and finally to a final day fourth.
These statistics are no coincidence, and while McIlroy is clearly keen to keep expectations low, a fortnight of relaxation and practice could see him come out and remind us all that he's not to be forgotten.
As for course form, he was a solid 19th here on debut in 2009, a result which came after he'd finished just 20th at Doral, and any course which rewards aggressive irons is one on which Rory will usually be the man to beat.
I say that with further confidence having found what appears a very solid link between this layout, Congressional Country Club and Quail Hollow.
Kim and Mahan once chased home Tiger Woods at Congressional - Kim had won there previously - while Kim is also a winner at Quail Hollow, and examples of players to have played all three well are plentiful.
To be honest, I can't find any real reason why Congressional should be similar to Redstone but Quail Hollow is almost identical in yardage, also plays to a par of 72 and generally clocks a very similar scoring average.
Even without these course ties, the progress Rory made at Doral looks even more significant once the stats are sought out and therefore I've got to get with him at 10/1, especially as he has the added incentive of knocking Tiger immediately off his perch as world number one.
Away from McIlroy, there are cases to be made for Steve Stricker, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, but I'm inclined to look further afield and to Chris Kirk.
The Georgia Bulldog played superbly to chase home Mickelson here two years ago, ranking first in both proximity to the hole and greens in regulation which tends to be a particularly powerful combination at Redstone.
Given that Kirk was in his rookie season and had missed a pair of cuts coming in, I was particularly impressed with the way he stuck to his guns, sharing second with Scott Verplank and pulling fully four shots clear of fourth.
Due to the birth of his first child, Kirk wasn't able to come back last year so he'll be really relishing this return, especially as since his sole visit he's improved drastically and is now a PGA Tour winner.
So far in 2013, Kirk ranks ninth for proximity and sixth in greens despite a switch in club manufacturer, stats which suggest we can once again expect him to pepper the flags.
What's more encouraging though is the fact that he ranks sixth in strokes gained putting and seventh in the all around, having vastly improved his short game during the off-season thanks to hours of practice aimed specifically at addressing his weaknesses.
Having been runner-up earlier this year at Pebble Beach, Kirk was 16th at Bay Hill last week, improving massively on what he'd achieved there before, and that sets him up perfectly for a return to Redstone.
Finally, here's what he said two years ago when asked about how important it was that he got to play in the Masters: "That's a huge goal of mine, whether it happens this year, I'm not exactly expecting it to happen this year.
"But, I mean, down the road, that's the one tournament that I grew up watching and that I would love to play in and love to win that tournament one day."
At 76th in the Official World Golf Rankings, Kirk will need to win to get to Augusta and if Rory fails to fire, he must have every chance to do just that.
Another man with Augusta on the brain is Geoff Ogilvy, and 80/1 about this former major champion looks worth taking.
Ogilvy is a player I've a lot of time for thanks not only to his on course achievements, but the candid and intelligent nature of his off-course comments.
With that in mind, I hope he can secure a spot at Augusta and a solid week here will do it - he's currently 50th in the world, the cut-off point for those hoping for an invite, and is just four good rounds away from getting the job done.
That incentive has already helped him to a fine second in the Honda Classic and although he's not done much since a return to Redstone may well help - he has been second and sixth here in just three starts on the layout, while he also managed a pair of top 10 finishes in four starts when the event was played on the Jacobsen/Hardy Member Course.
The reason for Ogilvy's slump seems to be his putting, but having labelled these greens as the best on Tour he could well produce the goods now and if that's the case I'd expect a big performance.
Australians have a strong record in the event and a few have even compared this course to those back home. Ogilvy rates the pick of them for my money.
The last spot on my list goes to Ben Kohles, who is narrowly preferred to Lucas Glover at a similar price.
Glover has very strong ties with Quail Hollow and Congressional, and back in 2009 would've been in a play-off here had he played the final four holes of his final round in level par - as it goes, he played them in eight-over to finish 31st!
However, Kohles has been playing better golf of late and this Texas native looks worth backing to build on a strong start to life as a PGA Tour member.
The 23-year-old hit the headlines last year when winning his first two starts on the Web.com Tour but his success is no shock. As a junior, he won all sorts of accolades and despite only taking up the game seriously aged 15, he's been earmarked for stardom for quite some time.
We saw what Kohles was capable of in the Tampa Bay Championship when he finished seventh, and he impressed in following that up with a share of 14th at Bay Hill last week.
From tee to green he's been superb and the accuracy he produces with a long iron in hand reminds me somewhat of fellow youngster Bud Cauley, who was eighth here last year.
That combined with a season-long ranking of 25th for strokes gained putting suggest that it could well be worth backing him blind at three-figure prices, but this week we have the fact that he's going to be thrilled to return to Texas on our side too.