The calendar year's final major championship is just over the horizon but we have one final tune-up before the big event.
It's the Houston Open which is no stranger to playing a lead-up role to Augusta National.
There are 128 golfers already lined up to play this week with four golfers still to be added to the field later today at the Monday Qualifier. That will make it a field of 132 golfers with top 65 and ties set to play the weekend, as usual.
This week's event will be hosted at Memorial Park Golf Course. The primary routing was laid out here by John Bredemus in the 1930s but Tom Doak came through in the last few years to provide a major renovation.
Doak removed lots of trees, bunkers, and water in the process. His goal was to make this playable for the public as the course sees more than 50,000 rounds per year, but also make it a tough enough test for the PGA TOUR pros. Speaking of public play, this is probably one of the most affordable TOUR courses to play with greens fees listed under $50 on their website.
Looking at the setup,
we see another non-traditional par-72 layout with five par 3s and five par 5s. I say "another" because we just saw a similar routing two weeks ago at Sherwood Country Club. This week's Memorial Park setup will be stretched to 7,432 yards. A bit longer than average from a hole-by-hole perspective.
UPDATE: The PGA TOUR has revised the original scorecard and the course is now prepped to play as a par 70 with five par 3s and three par 5s.
Off the tee, golfers will see generous landing areas that should let them hit as many drivers as they desire. That is what these guys like to hear when playing the week before Augusta National where the driver is a crucial club.
Brooks Koepka served as a player consultant on this renovation and one of his main ideas was that bunkers are not very penalizing for PGA TOUR pros but the average 18-hole handicapper gets beat up by them. So now, Memorial Park has just 19 bunkers in play.
Water is in play on four holes. Overall, we shouldn't see a lot of big numbers this week because the tee-to-green test is fairly straightforward without a lot of hazards to deal with along the way.
On approach, golfers will see large green targets (7,000 square feet on average). Similar to Augusta National, they have shaved the run-off areas so if you are missing greens (or landing in the wrong section) this week then balls will roll back into a collection area.
The greens are likely the primary defense of the golf course this week, especially if there isn't much wind in the forecast. The Memorial Park greens are large and multi-tiered. It should provide a nice test of lag putting in anticipation of Augusta National. They are looking at a target stimp of 12 to 12.5 feet. On the fast side but not lightning.
For turf talk, golfers will see wall-to-wall bermudagrass. That's not ideal the week before playing the bentgrass greens at Augusta National but overall I think they've done a good job of providing a tune-up environment for these players.
Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Tom Doak: "I feel it’s one reason there are only 19 bunkers on the course. Brooks said bunkers are easy for the Tour pros but difficult for the amateurs. So, there are fewer bunkers tight to greens but lots of tight grass slopes and contours. The 10 handicap players can get up onto the green and have a putt for par. But the Tour pro is going to have a longer shot — the green surround slopes repel shots — and it’ll be a tight lie to an elevated green."
Check back on Wednesday for additional course quotes from pre-tournament press conferences.
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
PGA West (American Express)
TPC Sawgrass (PLAYERS)
Bay Hill Club and Lodge (Arnie's Invite)
Waialae CC (Sony Open)
Kapalua (Tourney of Champs)
We don't have past data to lean on so what I dialed in on this week was bermudagrass turf and eagle rates. These are the courses that stood out in that regard.
UPDATE: After the change to the scorecard, I would shift my focus toward courses like Quail Hollow, CC of Jackson, TPC Scottsdale, or Golf Club of Houston. We can no longer project an easy scoring environment with confidence but we do know that Memorial Park now grades out as one of the longer courses on TOUR.
Thursday: Cloudy with a high of 75 degrees. Winds at 7 to 11 MPH.
Friday: Sunny with a high of 77 degrees. Winds at 7 to 11 MPH.
When we stroll through Texas we often see heavy winds but the early-week forecast is pretty light in that regard. There is some rain in the forecast over the weekend but it's supposed to be light rain so they should be able to play through it.
Golfers to Watch
He's returning from a forced layoff due to a positive COVID-19 test ahead of the ZOZO Championship. He opens the week as a 15/2 favorite on the betting board. Will there be any rust after putting the clubs away for a week or two? Or will he feast on these par 5s and run away from the field?
He did a fantastic Q&A on Instagram last week but now he's back in competitive action this week for a final Augusta National tune-up.We saw him return from injury to post a T28 at Shadow Creek, three weeks ago. He lost 2.8 strokes off-the-tee that week but gained 3.3 strokes on approach. Koepka served as a player consultant on the Memorial Park renovation so perhaps that touch of course knowledge will give him a nudge in the right direction this week.
If you are looking at DJ this week and wondering what a forced COVID break can due to form, then Finau is a success case to digest. Finau sat out two weeks when dealing with the virus then didn't miss a beat when he returned to post a T11 at the ZOZO. He'll have to deal with bermudagrass this week which has always been a struggle for him over the course of his career.
Arrives with some of the best form in the field and he's getting the job done with iron play, which is the preferred route for sustained success. He is 3rd on the tournament's all-time money leader list but that was accomplished at the Golf Club of Houston. He's not in the field for next week's Masters and unlike previous editions, cannot play his way into the event with a win this week. The 2020 Masters field is already locked in.
Similar to DJ, the Aussie has also been forced to miss two weeks due to a positive COVID-19 result ahead of the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP. Scott is known for playing a light schedule so prepping for an event without tournament reps is something he does very well. That being said, it's hard to know where his game will be if we haven't seen him since the U.S. Open, six weeks ago.
Si Woo Kim
Looking for value plays down the board, Kim is a Dallas resident so he should feel comfortable in the Lone Star State. He's won on two of the correlated courses I laid out so bermudagrass courses with lots of scoring chances are right up his alley.
He tossed together another big finish last week at the Bermuda Championship, with his son on the bag for him again. He's now gone WIN, T12, and T4 with his son caddying for him with a T64 at the Shriners in between, when using his regular caddie. "Reagan caddying for me, my son, we have great chemistry. You know, half his DNA is mine and we just see things the same way on the golf course and we have really good communication out there on our shots. It makes me be really decisive and committed." He also talked about an equipment change ahead of the Safeway Open. He's playing great golf right now and is #1 in par 3 performance since the restart. Something that could come in handy this week with five of them on the docket.
Ranking the Field
1. Dustin Johnson
2. Tyrrell Hatton
3. Tony Finau
4. Russell Henley
5. Hideki Matsuyama
6. Scottie Scheffler
7. Viktor Hovland
8. Sergio Garcia
9. Brooks Koepka
10. Sungjae Im
11. Jason Day
12. Zach Johnson
13. Erik van Rooyen
14. Lee Westwood
15. Adam Scott
16. Doc Redman
17. Lanto Griffin
18. Corey Conners
19. Cameron Davis
20. Si Woo Kim