The Shell Houston Open was more than the undercard for the Masters. It only looked like the warmup act to the year's first major because the shrewd Texans behind this operation want it that way. Tournament director Steve Timms mimicked Augusta National's sly ways, including slick greens, a second cut (not rough, please!) and fairways mowed toward the tee boxes. It's all done to simulate Masters conditions and thereby attract top players.
"It's brilliant," said Rory McIlroy. "They get the fairway heights the same as Augusta, the rough heights, the runoff around the greens. It's perfect, so you don't go to Augusta and get shocked by how fast the greens are."
The Timms plan, which was set in motion in 2007, is working. Five of the world's top 10--ranked players teed it up at the Golf Club of Houston, and it was a memorable week. But it was more than that. It was also the most important tournament of the year to date. Here's why:
The last man in. A narrow view of the PGA Tour is that it's one long qualifier for the Masters. Win and you're in. The final member of the Masters field is Australian Matt Jones, who in 252 career starts had never won on the PGA or the Web.com tours and had never played Augusta National. All Jones did on Sunday was beat Matt Kuchar on the first hole of sudden death and earn a Masters berth, a supersized crystal trophy and a minute with former President George H.W. Bush.
Double jeopardy. Jones, who played at Arizona State and will turn 34 on April 19, won with two shots that would rival any March Madness buzzer beater for drama. First, he drained a 46-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole. Then, after Kuchar bogeyed the last, Jones morphed into Larry Mize at the 1987 Masters, holing out for the win from 42 yards.
Where there's a Phil. It looked as if Phil Mickelson would join Tiger Woods on the Masters sideline when he withdrew from the previous week's Valero Texas Open with a pulled oblique muscle. Instead, Mickelson lit up an opening 68, completed 72 holes without aggravating his side and, oh, yeah, finished 12th.
He didn't score as well as he played, but he looked nearly Masters-ready. "Phil hit a 6-iron into the 5th green Sunday that was the ultimate confirmation that his health is where he wants it to be for next week," said his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay. "He had to go down and get it, the weather wasn't good at the time, Phil was in his rain suit, and it was a driving shot he was trying to fly into a bank and bounce up on the top of the green."
Playing favorites. Perhaps even more notable than Mickelson's rapid recovery was the return to form of McIlroy. He capped a week of solid play by making a seven-birdie, no-bogey Sunday 65 look easy. You are now free to say, Uh-oh. He slipped up at the Honda Classic last month when he had the lead on the final nine and messed up the Abu Dhabi Championship in January with a costly penalty, but now all things seem to be in order.
"I can't ask for a better way to fly to Augusta than with a 65 and a top 10 finish," said McIlroy, who tied for seventh. "It's a nice bit of confidence. I feel like I'm one of a handful of guys that's going to be up there next week, but it was nice to see some of the game that I feel like I have coming through."
McIlroy undoubtedly has some swagger back, so much so that he joked that a big concern was finding a caddie for the Masters par-3 contest in the event of bad weather. His fiancée, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, has made it clear she's not looping if it's rainy.
In summary, a 24-year-old who has twice won majors by eight strokes feels great, is happy and is back on his game. Little wonder he is the favorite in what is otherwise a wide-open Masters.
"It's almost like golf is waiting for someone to stamp their authority on the game," McIlroy said. "As a fan of golf, it would be nice to see someone sort of break away." He laughed. "I hope it's me."
After Kuchar bogeyed the last, Jones morphed into Larry Mize at the 1987 Masters, holing out for the win from 42 yards.
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES
PITCH-PERFECT After he drained his chip shot in sudden death, Jones had Georgia on his mind.