By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
HUMBLE, Texas -- The banks have their spring buzz cuts. The greens are hard and fast and the fairways are cut to Masters specs – mowed green-to-tee, not cross-hatch. The pins are set in tempting places -- and often too tantalizingly close to water.
And the rave reviews keep finding their way into print.
Immaculate. Perfect. The best shape of any course this side of a major championship
No, we’re not talking Magnolia Lane. For the first time in seven years that’s not just around the corner. It’s around two corners.
The drive down Wilson Road is lined with young trees, not 100-plus year old magnolias and their iconic canopy that shades the drive. But there is a vibe, a buzz when it comes to this week’s Shell Houston Open.
No matter who’s in the field, no matter what the weather, the Redstone Course always manages to take center stage. And this year, with the tournament switching dates with the Valero Texas Open for a year, it’s just as impressive.
When the SHO became the lead-in to the Masters back in 2006, organizers tried to find a way to make that date work for them and they hit on it a year later with Augusta-like conditions.
Now, there is only one Augusta National and everyone knows it. But Houston Golf Association president Steve Timms and the Redstone crew have created just enough Augusta here to give players a little slice of the Masters.
“It was a huge challenge for them and they embraced it,’’ Timms said earlier in the week. “And we’ve made sure the players understood that everything would be same despite the different sequencing.
“... The players who typically like to play the week before the Masters are sticking with us.’’
The course is a ball-striker’s haven, but with the wind, players can’t always work on the higher flight they need at Augusta. But their short games get a workout.
Steve Stricker, winner of two FedExCup Playoff events but no majors to date, has streamlined his schedule and will be making only his fourth start of the year here. He’s finished runner up in two of those first three events and T5 in the other.
The goal here? Hone his short game on the firmer, faster greens.
“I tend to do a lot of chipping and putting to try to get ready,’’ Stricker said. “Try not to really do anything different with my golf game. If anything, maybe, you know, try to flight the ball a little bit higher, but this is not really a good week to work on that. We get some wind here. You end up flighting the ball a little bit lower at times. So, yeah, mainly for me it's always been about short game and putting and trying to get that ready for Augusta.’’
Defending champion Hunter Mahan agrees.
“Everyone knows how nice it is to play here and try to replicate Augusta, and no one could ever do that, but they do a very good job here,’’ he said. “I think for the -- for guys who play bermuda a lot, this is a good place to come to before, to get a little experience on some kind of -- some fast kind of bent-type of greens and low-cut grass and the first cut of rough and everything, it's pretty good and pretty similar to play out of.’’
The proof is in the field, which includes Mahan, Rory McIlroy, Brandt Snedeker, Phil Mickelson, Stricker and young gun/Texas native Jordan Spieth.
This is Spieth’s first time in the tournament, but he played the course in a junior event when he was 14 and it was, he said, too much course for him. Now, it’s just right.
“You have to drive the ball well, you have to commit to lines,’’ he said. “There's a lot of water … You have to be really confident when you step on the tee box. You can't -- there's really no bailing out, because then there's trouble on the other side.’’
And just about everywhere else.
The only real changes this year are at the 18th hole, one of the toughest on TOUR. The back of the green has been elevated and the bunkers have been narrowed to give players a bit of wiggle room.
But just a very little bit.
Especially on Sunday afternoon.