Masters favorites look to refine their game

April, 1, 2014

The Shell Houston Open has embraced its reality as a Masters tuneup since earning a pre-Augusta spot on the PGA Tour schedule in 2007. The Rees Jones design does its best to replicate what players will face next week at Augusta National, and elite players have responded by making Humble, Texas, part of their annual schedule.

Trivia question

The first Houston Open was held in 1946. Both the winner and runner-up were Texans. Who were they? Answer below

While many of the world's best have made Redstone (now called the Golf Club of Houston) their final tuning grounds before the season's first major, winning the Houston Open hasn't been a harbinger of Masters triumph.

Of the seven winners at the Houston Open since 2007, only Anthony Kim (T-3, 2010) has gone on to finish in the top 10 at Augusta. The other six players in that group made the cut at the Masters, each finishing somewhere between T-38 and T-12.

Some of the biggest names in the sport don't need to win this week to give themselves adequate propulsion down Magnolia Lane. However, good play at the Golf Club of Houston would make them bigger contenders entering the Masters.

This week's Numbers Game breaks down what a handful of the game's biggest names will be looking to refine, fix or otherwise improve upon at the Shell Houston Open.

Phil Mickelson -- Rest vs. momentum: Will he or won't he play? The lefty withdrew Saturday in San Antonio with a pulled muscle in his side, leaving this week in Houston in doubt. Mickelson's 2014 on the PGA Tour has been one to forget so far -- six starts and three finishes (with two withdrawals and a missed cut), none of those coming in the top 10.

Logic suggests that resting a 43-year-old body the week before Augusta would be the best approach. But in this instance, as is often the case, logic and statistics disagree. The numbers say Mickelson has to come into Augusta with some kind of high finish under his belt.

Mickelson has 10 top-five finishes in his career at the Masters. He had at least one top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in the same year preceding each of those high finishes. In all but two of those instances, he entered the Masters with at least one PGA Tour victory that season.

Rory McIlroy -- Ironing it out: Now that Tiger Woods is out of the mix, McIlroy enters the 2014 Masters as the co-favorite along with Adam Scott (each at 10-1 odds). The golf-viewing public's last strong memory of the world's seventh-ranked player, however, was his double-bogey/bogey/birdie finish to get into a playoff at the Honda Classic, which was ultimately won by Russell Henley.

In McIlroy's two major championship wins, he was a greens-in-regulation machine, hitting them 76.4 percent of the time. Rory hit just 10 of 18 greens Sunday at Honda but was tied for eighth in GIR at Doral two weeks later.

It's a tired subject for McIlroy, but since his club switch before the 2013 season, his iron play truly hasn't been the same. In 2012, McIlroy tied for the lead on the PGA Tour in average approach shot proximity from the fairway (28 feet, 1 inch). In 2013, his rank slipped to T-24, and he is tied for 55th in this young season.

It will be interesting to see if McIlroy's iron play comes into form this week. In 2013, he played the Valero Texas Open in the week before the Masters, finishing second. His approach shot average from the fairway? An average of 23 feet, 2 inches -- best in the field.

Dustin Johnson -- Rust-proofing: He has finished T-6 or better in every PGA Tour stroke-play event he's participated in during the 2013-14 season. He leads the PGA Tour in greens in regulation, birdie average, scoring average and all-around ranking. His strokes gained-putting rank has jumped 106 spots this season to 11th. At 29 years old, he is a top-10 player in the world, with six top-10 finishes in majors since 2009.

For Johnson, it's not so much that he has anything to "work on" this week in Houston -- more that the bomber is shaking the rust off. DJ's last start came at Doral three weeks ago, where he finished T-4. That's exactly where he finished at Houston in 2013, firing four below-par rounds before heading to Augusta, where he finished T-13 -- his best career Masters result.

Matt Kuchar -- Sunday struggles: The world's 11th-ranked player opened 2014 with a pair of top-10 finishes in Hawaii. He and his family apparently enjoyed it, because they then stayed for the next month on an extended vacation.

Trivia answer

Question: The first Houston Open was held in 1946. Both the winner and runner-up were Texans. Who were they?

Answer: Byron Nelson held off Ben Hogan by two shots.

We at Numbers Game push our ferocious jealousy aside while pointing out that since returning from Hawaii, Kuchar has not cracked 74 in the final round on the PGA Tour (a combined plus-eight in three Sunday rounds).

Kuchar has finished in the top eight in each of the last two years at Augusta, but if he wants to claim his first major, he will need to figure out his fourth-round issue. In his last 11 final rounds in majors, he has broken par just once. And since 2011, he has never ranked higher than 35th on the Tour in final-round scoring average.