Some people hate the word ‘penultimate’ but it is the only way to describe this week’s Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open.
After 43 events for the calendar year (seven of them on the current schedule), just this week and next remain in terms of full field events for 2021 which comfortably satisfies the dictionary definition of penultimate.
(Tiger’s Hero challenge and Greg Norman’s Shark Shootout will attempt to quench the public’s apparently insatiable thirst for golf in December.)
A decent field and a more interesting course than is offered up most weeks by the Tour makes this a tournament worth watching.
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Carlos Ortiz became the first Mexican player to win a PGA Tour event in 42 years with an impressive two shot victory over Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama in 2020.
COURSE: The Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston is one of the more interesting layouts on the Tour schedule for two reasons: it’s public and is a collaboration between four-time major winner Brooks Koepka and legendary architect Tom Doak.
RIGHT: Mexio's Carlos Ortiz claimed a drought-breaking win for his country here in 2020. PHOTO: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images.
On his website, Doak describes the brief for overhauling one of the city’s busiest public courses thus: “We were asked to do the impossible: renovate a city-owned municipal course hosting 60,000 rounds per year, to make it a compelling site for the new home of the PGA Tour’s Houston Open. The other imperative was to ensure that the course would drain beautifully to handle whatever the weather might throw at a future event.
“With our consultant, (now former) World No.1 player Brooks Koepka, we agreed that our priority should be not to defend par, but to provide opportunities for dramatic lead changes and excitement for both golfers and fans.”
The 2020 event certainly achieved that with eventual winner Ortiz holding off two of the game’s biggest stars in Johnson and Matsuyama in a dramatic final nine battle.
Ortiz all but sealed the deal with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th, the icing on the cake coming with a 20-foot birdie at the last to make it a two shot win instead of one.
Expect more of that sort of drama this year on a course that has been transformed into one almost universally regarded as among the best municipal facilities in America, a fact perhaps more important than who takes home the more than US$1 million winner’s cheque this week.
For an organisation not in the habit of setting a good example, the PGA Tour gets a tick in the case of Memorial Park.
They deserve credit for bringing attention to an aspect of the game (public golf) vastly more important than the value of their members’ pension funds and this week’s event definitely does that.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
There are 19 of the world’s top-50 teeing up this week with 6th ranked Justin Thomas the only top-10 player making the trip.
The real storylines in most events at this time of year in the U.S., however, is not the stars of the game but those only hardcore fans might know and they are often rewarded with compelling golf.
With more to play for than the game’s superstars and the opportunity to all but secure employment for next year with some decent play, the golf tends to be both aggressive and prone to the odd train wreck.
Among those who could do with a FedExCup points boost ahead of Christmas are some interesting and well credentialled players with two European Tour stars standing out.
South Africa’s Christiaan Bezuidenhout and England’s Tyrrell Hatton are both presently outside the top-100 and while neither will be panicking both would prefer to be a bit higher at year’s end.
Hatton finished in the top-10 here last year and a similar result would be no surprise this week while Bezuidenhout is making his Memorial Park debut.
The South African is a lesser known quantity in the U.S. than Europe but he knows how to win with three victories on the continent and four trophies from the Sunshine Tour in his cabinet.
His current form is good with a T13 result in Mexico and it would be a surprise if he didn’t continue that good play in Texas.
72-HOLE RECORD: 266, Curtis Strange and Lee Trevino (1980), Vijay Singh (2002).
PAST AUSSIE WINNERS: Bruce Devlin (1972); Bruce Crampton (1973 and 1975); David Graham (1983); Stuart Appleby (1999 and 2006); Robert Allenby (2000); Adam Scott (2007); Matt Jones (2014).
AUSTRALIANS IN THE FIELD: Cam Davis, Jason Day, Marc Leishman, Adam Scott and Cam Smith.
Round 1: Friday (Fox Sports 503 LIVE 5am – 8am)
Round 2: Saturday (Fox Sports 503 LIVE 5am – 8am)
Round 3: Sunday (Fox Sports 503 LIVE 5am – 8am)
Round 4: Monday (Fox Sports 503 LIVE 5am – 8am)
*AEDT, check local guides