HOUSTON OPEN: While most golf enthusiasts are busy counting down the days to the most anticipated Masters in several years, there’s still business to attend to in east Texas, where a surprisingly strong field has gathered for this year’s Houston Open.
It’s difficult to view this event as anything more than a Masters warm-up, because that’s exactly what it is for much of the field. But the Houston Open has a rich history in its own right– the tournament dates back to the 1920s and has produced champions like Byron Nelson, Bobby Locke, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd, and Phil Mickelson. For the past dozen years it’s been held at the Golf Course of Houston (formerly known as Redstone), a Rees Jones-designed track that has increasingly become known as an ideal preparation ground for Augusta National on account of its wide fairways and large, super-slick greens. It’s fairly long, measuring over 7,400 yards, and water is in play off most of the tees, but minimal rough combined with large putting surfaces means players will be giving themselves lots of chances at birdies, and it’s taken 15-under or better to win this event in each of the past seven stagings.
Jordan Spieth (12.5) and Justin Rose (13.0) head BETDAQ’s Win Market, with Rickie Fowler (13.5), Phil Mickelson (14.5), and Henrik Stenson (16.5) close behind. But this tournament has not been kind to the market leaders in recent years, as you have to go all the way back to Mickelson’s victory in 2011 to find the last time a player shorter than 30/1 has won here.
Russell Henley took home the trophy last year and he’s been a popular bet over the past few days, with his price dropping to 29.0 at the time of this writing. That’s probably because his performance last year was hardly a one-time fluke– Henley had logged three consecutive top-10s in this event prior to last year’s triumph, and the confidence just oozes out of him whenever you hear him talk about the GC of Houston: “I love the greens and I feel comfortable with a lot of these shots off the tee,” Henley said of the course earlier this week. “Yeah, I really love the greens and I just feel like I can hit most of them and I’m pretty confident.”
Those remarks say it all, but I still think a price like 29.0 is a bit short for a player who rarely wins and has only found the top-15 once in nine starts this season. I think I’ll go with these three instead:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Justin Rose (13.0): Is anyone hotter than Rose right now? His third-place showing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago was his 13th top-10 finish in his past 15 worldwide starts (!), and he should be fresh and ready after opting out of last week’s match play meat-grinder. Rose doesn’t play this event much, but he’s made the cut in all four of his career appearances here and has found the top-15 twice, including a T15 last year, so he certainly doesn’t have any problem getting around the GC of Houston. And considering the course is known as a ball-striker’s layout and Rose is one of the top ball-strikers in the world, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it’s not just the ball-striking– every facet of Rose’s game has been clicking lately, and it’s only a matter of time before he picks up his first win of 2018. All things considered, I rate him as the clear favorite this week.
Tony Finau (29.0)- Finau has been playing some great golf this season, making the cut 9 times in 11 PGA Tour starts and finishing 16th or better on six occasions, including a T2 at the Genesis Open last month. He’s always been known as a bomber, but he’s really improved around the greens over the past 18 months and is now a more complete player whose success isn’t limited to “bomber’s only” courses, as evidenced by his aforementioned performance at Riviera. That being said, the GC of Houston is definitely a place that favors the longer players, as the par-5s are generally reachable in two for guys like Finau but are three-shot holes for most of the field. Finau’s record in this event is just okay– he’s made two cuts in three appearances and finished 34th last year after a final-round 68– but he’s never come into the week playing as well as he is now, so all signs point to a breakout performance. While a price like 29.0 is probably short enough to scare some folks off, I still think it’s fair value for a guy who should hover around the first page of the leaderboard all week.
Bud Cauley (104.0)- Cauley was dealing with a wrist injury a few weeks back, but he looked very sharp at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago, finishing 14th despite a final-round 73. Now he comes to a place that has treated him well in the past– prior to missing the cut last year, Cauley had finished 8th and 16th in two career appearances at this event, so he obviously feels comfortable at the GC of Houston. And why wouldn’t he? Cauley is a quality ball-striker who plays his best golf on Bermuda-covered courses, so he fits the profile of someone who should be able to succeed here. His last top-5 finish came at another Bermuda-covered Texas course– the TPC Four Seasons outside Dallas, home of the AT&T Byron Nelson (it was his second straight top-5 in that particular event). It just feels like Cauley is primed to surprise some folks this week, so if you’re looking for a “live” longshot, you could do a lot worse.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Charles Howell III (1.9) vs. Thomas Pieters (1.9)
Pieters is a rising star who fits the profile of someone who should be able to succeed at the GC of Houston, but he’s never played this tournament before, and, more importantly, he hasn’t played particularly well this year, finding the top-25 just once in his past seven worldwide starts. Howell, meanwhile, finished 14th in his last stroke play event (the Arnold Palmer Invitational) and advanced to the Round of 16 in last week’s WGC-Dell Matchplay. He finished 5th in this event in 2015 and 7th in 2016. Recommendation: Howell at 1.9
Henrik Stenson (1.9) vs. Phil Mickelson (1.9)
Mickelson’s resurgence has been one of the fun stories of 2018, and he’s certainly one to watch at the Masters next week. He’s had plenty of success in this tournament as well, most notably his win in 2011, but his comments this week make it clear that he’s viewing this event as a tune-up, and nothing more. He said that because you need to hit a lot of drivers at Augusta National, he’ll hit more of them this week than he would “if [he] were really focused on trying to win.” He also talked about how driving the ball was difficult for him at GC of Houston, and how he has “been in every single hazard.” I think I’ll take my chances with Stenson, who has twice been runner-up here and is coming off a strong performance at Bay Hill. Recommendation: Stenson at 1.9