This week the PGA Tour is in Houston for the Shell Houston Open. This tournament has become increasingly significant because it comes the week before the Masters. I don’t remember all of this attention being given to it in the past; for me it was always about the tournament and navigating the TPC at the Woodlands.
There was a par-5 reachable in two that had an island green and I remember some player’s ball ending up on the footbridge over the back of the green and having to play it from there (no relief; the ball may be on the bridge, but the bridge is in the hazard). So that was it for me: it was all about Houston.
Now that the tournament has been moved to the Tournament Course at the Redstone Golf Club, organizers have been able to shape it into a proxy for what Augusta will be like next week. Here’s what Lee Westwood had to say about that:
It’s a great golf course. I always thought if you play well, you got a chance to shoot low.
If you don’t, it penalizes you. Lot of water out there. It’s testing shots. Greens are immaculate and around the greens is nice and tight and so natural run-off areas, better practice for next week.
Coming from England and being based there, it’s nice to come over for a couple of weeks and play a couple of tournaments on courses that are very similar.
There are players who take this week off because they want to fine tune their swings at home, get to Augusta in enough time that they can ramp up to that Thursday and generally just get settled in to that Augusta state of mind.
And then there are the players who are best served by playing the week before so that they’ve gotten their noses bloodied in a competitive environment and then bring that rekindled toughness into Augusta. “Show me the first tee. I’m ready.” Westwood is one of them and Houston is smart enough to give them a similar setup to what they’ll experience at Augusta:
I like to be competitive the week before the Masters. It’s a tough test at Augusta. I’ve always found it a tough test.
If you don’t go into it competitively sharp, you know, not going to hit all the greens, going to have to get up and down a little bit as you do at most tournaments, but it just seems like it’s more important at the Masters, you know, keep the momentum going.
It’s nice to have the benefit around the greens [here] playing the similar kind of shot and they got them really quick here as they do next week. It’s nice to get on fast greens because you can’t practice this time of year [in England], the greens are in poor condition and you can’t get them faster. It will be hard for me to go from being at home to straight into competitive play at Augusta.
The similarities with the green complexes and the speed of the greens are the hook. But he doesn’t find the same sorts of “looks” on the shots he has to play in Houston. Nor does he want to get too far ahead of himself:
No, not really, I haven’t found that. I’m not one of these people for playing the shot that I have to play next week.
I like to play each tournament and give it the respect it deserves and play each course on its merits, play a shot when it’s necessary.
So you ask yourself, “How can these guys be in Houston and not thinking about Augusta? Why don’t they just hop over there and get a round in to tone down the anticipation? I mean, come on! It’s Augusta! For free!” Not this year for Westwood and he has some real good reasons: you’d get all the lines on all the shots, you just wouldn’t get the conditions:
Not this year, no. I didn’t think it was, you know, that necessary. I’ve done it the last couple years and played it a couple weeks before.
You know, it’s a nice place to go and soak up the atmosphere with nobody there and get some work done, but the course isn’t really reflective of how it’s going to be on Thursday morning next week. It isn’t on Monday when – next week.
It changes so much in three days you can’t expect it to be right – if I would have gone last weekend and had a practice round. I just decided not to this year and thought the extra couple of days at home would do me more good.
Hard to imagine a scruffy Augusta National, but that’s a good illustration of just how stressed tournament golf courses get during a major when they’re setup to peak for four days beginning Thursday.
And I thought this was interesting. There comes a time when you are basically done with your swing and you’re just tweaking from time to time to make sure that it’s not moving on you, not drifting on you. And once that happens, your emphasis shifts:
Yeah, I spend a lot more time working on the [short game] shots than I used to, spend a lot more time in the gym and lot more time in the chipping green.
If I was asked to, you know, what percentage, I’d say I spend 60 percent of the time on the putting green or around the chipping green now, 40 percent on the range.
And then someone came back to him for more emphasis on giving the Houston Open its due:
Yes. I’m here to try to win this tournament, the Shell Houston Open. It’s all such a mental game. You have to be so mentally focused to do well that – certainly for myself, I’m not smart enough to concentrate on two things at once so I have to concentrate on the thing at hand, which is trying to win this week.
And then he was asked about his practice areas at home and whether he’s able to prepare them for tournament play:
As close as possible, yeah, as close as you can get it. You know, the season in Britain from October around to March is fairly limited. I can’t get my green anywhere near the 13, 14 [on the Stimpmeter] you need.
Well, what can he get them to?
9 1/2, 10. I’ve got – I use two weeks more to just get away from golf and get in the gym. I didn’t hit that many balls. I don’t think I hit any balls the first week and then just hit a few balls, practice around the clipping green the second week and the bunker play.
I thought all of this had a sort of “Day in a Life” quality to it, insight you don’t often get from a Tour pro. And it’s always interesting to discover what they’re thinking.
Westwood is a lot bigger than he looks on television and it is immediately apparent that he does, indeed, spend a lot of time in the gym. He is very fit. Barrel chested seems to aptly describe him.
He’s also very intelligent, has a good sense of humor and a twinkle of mischief in his eye. And I always found him to take his sessions with the media very seriously and thoughtfully. So these snippets are very good information from a very good guy…getting ready for the Masters.