Ben Coley attempts to unravel the Houston Open, which heads to a new course and sees the return of Dustin Johnson.
Quite how we got here I'm not exactly sure, but the Houston Open is this week, the Masters is next week, and that at least feels a little bit normal. Yes, it's November, and the forecast for the Masters is currently quite bleak, but for now the sun should shine on Texas and we can all pretend it's springtime, and not the back-in-lockdown kind of springtime, but the golf-is-getting-serious kind. The normal kind.
Of course, plenty of serious golf has taken place since June, not least at the PGA Championship and US Open. Yet there was something anti-climactic or at least unsatisfying about both, a feeling I suspect is deeply personal. I can't quite put my finger on it, but a combination of the style of golf required at Harding Park and Winged Foot, the absence of fans, perhaps even two winners who felt and seemed destined to win majors and were relatively unmoved by it all... the majors so far didn't quite do what I thought they'd do.
The Masters will be different - the Masters is always different - but first we are faced with another difficult task on another new, or at least 'new', golf course. In recent weeks we've had the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek, the Zozo back at Sherwood, and an absence of tangibles which make this infuriating game a little easier. Now, we're faced with a move to Memorial Park, which last hosted this in 1963, and last year underwent a complete renovation at the hands of Tom Doak.
To take away another potential avenue of exploration, this will be Doak's first PGA Tour event, so to speak. He's had one of his courses feature on the European Tour lately, and in this pre-major slot, via The Renaissance Club in Scotland. But on the PGA Tour he has had to wait, which means it's not easy to draw lines from this tournament to others before it.
Doak's work here in Houston will be revealed in full over the course of the tournament, but it looks interesting. He's reportedly made the greens a good deal trickier than they were and brought what little water there is right into play. But it's the removal of bunkers, down from 54 to 19 (or 20, depending where you look), which will perhaps be talked about most. Consultant Brooks Koepka intimated that bunkers don't worry PGA Tour players, whereas they befuddle amateurs, so Doak did away with most of them.
With bermudagrass running throughout, this looks very different to the pre-Augusta prep that Golf Club of Houston became famous for, and that's perhaps partly why the field is not strong. Koepka was always going to be here, especially so now he needs golf. Perhaps fortunately for organisers so too does Dustin Johnson, who missed the events out west after testing positive for coronavirus, as did Adam Scott, who also plays for the first time since the US Open.
That's a heck of an absence for those two to overcome, Koepka has to prove his fitness and his ability to drive the ball on this planet, and then you're left with Hideki Matsuyama (last win 2017), Tony Finau (2016), and Tyrrell Hatton. The latter is by far the most reliable contender as a consequence and almost becomes tempting by default, which says much about the nature of the field and what we should expect.
One thing that may carry over from old venue to new is the volatility which is perhaps inherent when you're playing on the eve of golf's most iconic tournament. Champions when this was played prior to Augusta include DA Points, Jim Herman, Matt Jones, Ian Poulter (when a big price) and Johnson Wagner, the big names perhaps inclined to experiment or at least worry less about the here and now. That's another small reason to look beyond the very front of the betting.
Top of my list is SUNGJAE IM, for whom success or failure may hinge on the putter which let him down so badly last time out.
Having ranked 39th for strokes-gained putting in his first season, 55th in his second and then 155th for the current one, you could easily leap to the assumption he's developed serious issues on the greens and is regressive. I'm not sure you should.
Ultimately, Im has always been inconsistent, but what's consistent is his ability to show considerable improvement for bermuda greens. At the Sanderson Farms, the Wyndham and the FedEx St Jude Invitational, he produced really strong performances with the putter, having done the opposite the week before, and another turnaround from negative to positive helped him secure his PGA Tour breakthrough at the Honda Classic.
All four of these are events played on courses with bermuda greens and so is the TOUR Championship, where he led the field in putting in 2019 on his first try at East Lake. As with everything this is not an exact science - he has putted badly on similar surfaces and will do again - but these are ideal circumstances in which to unearth a jolt of improvement.
It should be all that's needed, as Im drove the ball well (14th) and hit quality approaches (10th) throughout the Zozo Championship, only to finish 70th of 77 in putting. His iron play - the element which powered his awesome Presidents Cup debut and that Honda win - has been good for six starts running now, and in four of his last five he's driven the ball to a high standard despite not being the longest around.
Im is a better player than his price suggests and he's playing better, too. Back under what appear to be his favoured conditions, he looks the pick of those towards the head of the market, where Scottie Scheffler was also tempting returned to his home state.
At twice his odds, however, I'll give ZACH JOHNSON another go after he finished 19th in the Shriners last time out.
Johnson is quietly putting together one of the best runs of form he's managed in years, with seventh in the Wyndham followed by a good start in The Northern Trust, eighth in the US Open, then 23-19 to start the new season.
Although he holed everything at the US Open, likely the only way he was going to finish in the top 10 at a course as long and unrelenting as Winged Foot, it's generally been improvement from tee-to-green which has underpinned his upturn. Last time out he was eighth in strokes-gained approach and that was the fourth time in five non-major starts that he's ranked among the top 10 iron players in the field.
Having also tidied up off the tee, where he'll soon give up shots if not hitting more than his share of fairways, Johnson is putting all the pieces into place and I remain adamant he'll have been inspired not just by close friend Stewart Cink ending his own victory drought, but by wins for Sergio Garcia and Brian Gay, perhaps even Martin Laird, too.
All of these veterans had been a while without winning and Johnson is now five years removed from his last triumph, which came at St Andrews in the Open. In that regard there are obvious parallels with Cink, one of his closest friends on the circuit, and he must surely be spurred on as he bids to earn the 13th PGA Tour title of a quite remarkable career.
Returning to Texas is no bad thing as Johnson has won four times in the Lone Star State, and for one reason or another he's playing in this event for the first time since 2004. Whether or not he didn't care much for Golf Club of Houston or has simply decided to switch up his major preparation, there's significance in his return and he could just be rewarded handsomely.
I have slight reservations as to the length of the course - though no monster in 2020 terms, it does boast five par-fives - but Johnson has overcome such barriers in the past. He's definitely worth another chance after doing so much right in the Shriners as he has done since the start of August.
Another small factor I thought might point towards the claims of Johnson is a possible likeness with Sawgrass. It may well prove something about nothing, but it was the first course I thought of when viewing pictures of Memorial Park, and Doak did spend some time as Pete Dye's intern, reportedly admiring his work at Sawgrass and using it to shape his own philosophy.
Although Johnson has never won at Sawgrass, he's finished second and loved the place since his first ever visit, a top-10 some 15 years ago which began with a round of 65. Perhaps he'll find this place just as suitable, and perhaps that will also be the case for SI-WOO KIM.
I can't stress enough that the angle there is speculative and should be seen as supplementary to the main arguments. In Kim's case, as in Johnson's, those arguments focus on his form on bermuda greens, and the quality of ball-striking he's demonstrated in returning to form since mid-summer.
Kim's wins at Sedgefield and Sawgrass both came on bermuda greens, and having started well in the forgotten PLAYERS back in March, he looked the likely winner at Sedgefield in August only to pay the price for some recklessness in the final round.
Still, third place there, eighth in the Shriners and then 17th in the CJ Cup give us three very solid form lines to go with 13th in the PGA Championship and at last, we're seeing this sublime talent return from the doldrums. Key to his resurgence has been the work he's done with Claude Harmon, which is translating to long-game consistency, and it was only an unruly putter which kept him out of the frame in Las Vegas three weeks ago.
Fifth there for strokes-gained approach and having driven it as well as he has in a couple of years when eighth in the Shriners beforehand, Kim has put everything in place. All that remains is to marry this long-game to a decent week on the greens (he remains excellent around them), and this move to bermuda could be the difference.
Kim lives in Texas and looked like winning last year's Texas Open before injury hit on Sunday. He could well be ready to make amends in an event, like that one, which takes place on the eve of the Masters.
The shortlist for this was surprisingly long and included John Huh, another Texas resident. He was 19th on his comeback from injury last time, a remarkable effort in which he ranked second in stroke-gained approach, and with loads of form in Texas and on the east coast was deemed worthy of a second glance at a massive 300/1.
I can't shake the idea that there was something freakish about those stats he produced in Vegas, however, and Huh is a short hitter whose best golf - including runner-up in the Texas Open and a win in Mexico - can only be found if you go back several years.
In the here and now, Robby Shelton is a much more likely winner and having won twice in Tennessee last year, the Alabama native is worth considering. He showed flashes of his enormous ability on several occasions during his rookie season, and has found some consistency of late with 34th and 21st in his last two starts.
He's the last name off the list however as I want to focus on some players capable of demolishing the par-fives, starting with WYNDHAM CLARK.
Anyone who saw the Bermuda Championship on Sunday will know Clark was most unfortunate not to win. He hit 17 of 18 greens on Sunday and was in command throughout the back-nine, only for a bogey at the 16th to be followed by a stunning birdie from Gay at the last. Clark then missed a good chance to win the tournament on the same hole, and was beaten by another birdie from Gay in the play-off where he still had a good chance to extend things.
Just how hard he takes it may shape his week but he spoke well enough afterwards, and there are plenty of examples to call upon here when it comes to players putting disappointment, even failure, behind them. Perhaps most significant in recent years was Kyle Stanley at the Phoenix Open, but just weeks ago on the European Tour we saw Aaron Rai win a week after he'd looked set to do so only to have his pocket picked.
Working out whether Clark is up to the challenge isn't really possible, though he did chase second with third during his only Korn Ferry Tour campaign. All we can do is focus on the positives of his play and second in Bermuda came on the back of 13th in Vegas, giving us eight rounds rather than four to work with.
The fact he's had a primer on bermuda greens (yes, in Bermuda) has to help and for a player whose weakness is his iron play, I thought he looked top-class with his approach shots throughout the weekend there.
Crucially, he's a massive hitter who gobbles up par-fives, ranking sixth last year (T1 among this field) and second in 2019 (1st among this field) and if he picks up where he left off on Sunday, he could go really well in his bid for immediate redemption.
There are others here with a very similar profile - Sam Burns and Cameron Davis in particular - who are also tempting, but I'm not sure either is quite big enough, whereas ERIK VAN ROOYEN could look a snip at 80/1.
Firmly ensconced within the world's top 50, the South African was 23rd in the US Open on his last start in the US, then went and finished sixth in Scotland, before fighting back really well from a nightmare start to finish 27th in the BMW PGA Championship.
That's a really solid bank of form to go with 20th in the WGC back in August, and in little more than a dozen starts on this side of the Atlantic he's already contended via third place in the WGC-Mexico Championship. To put it another way, he's currently a better player than most of those around him in the betting - Clark included as a matter of fact.
He has the long-game prowess to take care of a string of longish par-fours and those five par-fives (T21 in par-five scoring on the PGA Tour last season), and yet for some reason he's just slipped down the market a little. At Wentworth, he was shorter than Shane Lowry on the opening show despite Lowry's exceptional course record. Now, at a new course which he may prefer, he finds himself bigger, and one way or another I think he's just a little too big.
Van Rooyen also has some pre-major form having looked like he might win the Scottish Open last summer, before disaster struck early in the final round. The fact that this came at The Renaissance, a Doak design, hasn't escaped my attention and while that may be of limited significance, the impression he's made lately is not.
Austin Cook contended for this as a Monday qualifier in 2015 and was second last time out, so he's respected along with Carlos Ortiz, whose iron play has turned a corner. Ortiz went to college in Texas and one of his best friends on the circuit is Jhonattan Vegas, who knows the course well. It wouldn't surprise me were Ortiz to produce a good round at some stage and reveal to the media that he's teed it up here with Vegas in the past.
But the final two on my shortlist were Harry Higgs and WILL GORDON and I'll settle for the bigger-priced option despite his less compelling form claims.
Higgs lost out to Cink at the Safeway Open and has done precious little wrong since, even shooting 68-68 when missing the cut at the Shriners. Texas is his home, he appears to putt better on bermuda, and if he can sharpen up his approach play he may again threaten the top of the leaderboard.
Gordon hasn't done so in a while but he might just show a little improvement after four decent but unspectacular rounds in Bermuda last week. I thought it was interesting that he played the par-threes and fives poorly, because they undid a lot of good work on the par-fours, where he ranked third for the week and was beaten only by Gay and Doc Redman.
For all we're still learning about him and that his stats are based on small sample sizes, Gordon typically gobbles up par-fives owing to his prodigious driving, and he ranked fifth in par-three scoring last season. It looks like Bermuda was an anomaly and I can fully understand why he might not have taken to the course, and the fact it was windy throughout much of the week.
Here in Texas, there's not much breeze in the forecast and it may just be that his driver can put him in position to reproduce the form of his third place in the Travelers back in June. Certainly, it looks as suitable a test as he's had since then and hailing from North Carolina (and having been to college in Tennessee), bermuda greens should be a positive.
Posted at 2120 GMT on 02/11/20
We are committed in our support of responsible gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, or visit begambleaware.org.