Hunter Mahan hoping for repeat

HUMBLE, Tex. -- As the defending champion of the Shell Houston Open, Hunter Mahan is the leading man this week around Redstone Golf Club. But Wednesday after his pro-am, he reflected on another leading man, the one again at the top of the official world ranking.

"It seems hard to be intimidating in golf," Mahan said, "but I think [Tiger Woods is] the closest thing to it."

Mahan said he had seen enough evidence the past few months to declare that the 14-time major champion is securely back in his perch atop the sport.

"I think [Tiger's] the man again and he proved that last week, because I don't know if he really played that great, but he won [and] that's impressive," Mahan said. "Everyone is waiting for the first major. I don't know why they're waiting for that.

"I think he's done enough this year to realize that he's still really good and he's still better than everybody else."

But with the Masters beginning April 11, the 30-year-old has a great deal more on his mind than Woods. Mahan, a five-time PGA Tour winner, is trying to play his way into form in an effort to win his first major title.

The Shell Houston Open has been an important part of the tour schedule since 1946, but it's only been since 2006, when it moved a week ahead of the first major of the year, that it's become a primer for the Masters.

Rees Jones, with the help of major champion David Toms, designed the 7,457-yard, par-72 Redstone Tournament Course with Augusta National in mind.

There are 30 players in the field this week with Masters invitations. And there are 126 more guys with a chance to get to Augusta with either a win or a high finish.

Charles Howell III, an Augusta native, estimates he needs at least a top-five this week to jump from 57th in the world to 50th to qualify for his hometown event.

"I guess this is the last week for me to do it," Howell said. "It's nice to know what you need to do going into the week."

Last year, Mahan won here by a stroke over Carl Pettersson and two over Louis Oosthuizen. There is no better time to peak than just before a major; winning at Houston comes with expectations to perform well at the Masters. And Oosthuizen did just that. But for Bubba Watson's heroics in the playoff, Oosthuizen would have won his second major championship.

Yet the players are careful to not look too much into the future.

"I'm worried about the Shell Houston Open now," Dustin Johnson said. "I will worry about Augusta next week when I go over there to practice. I want to play the best tournament I can this week."

As much as Redstone Club tries to reflect Augusta National with the length of the grass off the fairways and greens, most of the players are using this event to get into competitive shape. It's impossible to replicate the Alister MacKenzie masterpiece.

"I think that the reason guys play to get ready for the Masters is they want to get into contention," Howell said. "I think it's wonderful that this course is set up for Augusta. But the most important thing is getting into competition and playing."

On Wednesday, several players reflected on the past 48 hours in the world of golf and said it was great for the game to see Woods ranked No. 1 again. However, he doesn't represent a fear factor now as much as he is a source of inspiration.

"Players are little bit more focused now on what they need to do to be their best and prepare, as opposed to thinking about another player," said Howell, who beat Woods in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February.

Mahan said Wednesday that Woods made the unbelievable doable with his achievements.

"[Tiger] just brought a different way of thinking, and I think now it's inspiring because I think we've all realized he's just a person, just a man," Mahan said. "He's doing this out of his own will and his own work.

"He's not doing this because he's the son of a god and he was destined for this. I don't believe he's a demigod that was born to be great."

Regardless of the source of Woods' drive, it will take a player with an indomitable will to beat him in a couple of weeks at Augusta.

The Shell Houston Open will help prepare many of Woods' foes for an encounter in Amen Corner on a Sunday afternoon. The Redstone Tournament Course was built to cultivate that moment.