The calendar year's final major championship is just over the horizon but we have one final tune-up before the big event.
It's the Houston Open which is no stranger to playing a lead-up role to Augusta National.
There are 128 golfers already lined up to play this week with four golfers still to be added to the field later today at the Monday Qualifier. That will make it a field of 132 golfers with top 65 and ties set to play the weekend, as usual.
This week's event will be hosted at Memorial Park Golf Course. The primary routing was laid out here by John Bredemus in the 1930s but Tom Doak came through in the last few years to provide a major renovation.
Doak removed lots of trees, bunkers, and water in the process. His goal was to make this playable for the public as the course sees more than 50,000 rounds per year, but also make it a tough enough test for the PGA TOUR pros. Speaking of public play, this is probably one of the most affordable TOUR courses to play with greens fees listed under $50 on their website.
Looking at the setup,
we see another non-traditional par-72 layout with five par 3s and five par 5s. I say "another" because we just saw a similar routing two weeks ago at Sherwood Country Club. This week's Memorial Park setup will be stretched to 7,432 yards. A bit longer than average from a hole-by-hole perspective.
UPDATE: The PGA TOUR has revised the original scorecard and the course is now prepped to play as a par 70 with five par 3s and three par 5s.
Off the tee, golfers will see generous landing areas that should let them hit as many drivers as they desire. That is what these guys like to hear when playing the week before Augusta National where the driver is a crucial club.
Brooks Koepka served as a player consultant on this renovation and one of his main ideas was that bunkers are not very penalizing for PGA TOUR pros but the average 18-hole handicapper gets beat up by them. So now, Memorial Park has just 19 bunkers in play.
Water is in play on four holes. Overall, we shouldn't see a lot of big numbers this week because the tee-to-green test is fairly straightforward without a lot of hazards to deal with along the way.
On approach, golfers will see large green targets (7,000 square feet on average). Similar to Augusta National, they have shaved the run-off areas so if you are missing greens (or landing in the wrong section) this week then balls will roll back into a collection area.
The greens are likely the primary defense of the golf course this week, especially if there isn't much wind in the forecast. The Memorial Park greens are large and multi-tiered. It should provide a nice test of lag putting in anticipation of Augusta National. They are looking at a target stimp of 12 to 12.5 feet. On the fast side but not lightning.
For turf talk, golfers will see wall-to-wall bermudagrass. That's not ideal the week before playing the bentgrass greens at Augusta National but overall I think they've done a good job of providing a tune-up environment for these players.
Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Tom Doak: "I feel it’s one reason there are only 19 bunkers on the course. Brooks said bunkers are easy for the Tour pros but difficult for the amateurs. So, there are fewer bunkers tight to greens but lots of tight grass slopes and contours. The 10 handicap players can get up onto the green and have a putt for par. But the Tour pro is going to have a longer shot — the green surround slopes repel shots — and it’ll be a tight lie to an elevated green."
Check back on Wednesday for additional course quotes from pre-tournament press conferences.
Brooks Koepka: "I know this golf course is quite difficult. It's quite long. You'll see some high numbers especially if the wind gets up, it kind of resembles a little bit of a U.S. Open I think some people would say, which I feel like I've done pretty good at."
Lanto Griffin: "I would say the grass is somewhat similar to the Golf Club of Houston, but the golf course is very, very different. It's a tough golf course to learn in a week. It's got a lot of movement around the greens. I think players will like it, it's going to be a really good challenge."
Adam Scott: "It's going to be a challenge. The greens are firm, the rough is enough to kind of lose a little control, so if you can hit some fairways this week, that will be great. I think we're in for a good test."
Dustin Johnson: "the golf course is good. It's a big golf course, it's long. The greens got a lot of slope and undulation in them, so you've got to hit it in the right spots if you want to have any kind of look at birdie. If you miss greens, you're going to have a really tough time making pars, especially if you're in the wrong spot. So yeah, I mean, the golf course, I think it's going to play fairly difficult. It's a long golf course, you hit a lot of mid to long irons. You don't get many wedges in your hand out here. Yeah, I think you're going to have to golf your ball around here if you want to shoot a good score."
Looking at grass types, geography, course attributes, and past performance, here are a few courses/events that I think could prove to be a good pointer this week:
PGA West (American Express)
TPC Sawgrass (PLAYERS)
Bay Hill Club and Lodge (Arnie's Invite)
Waialae CC (Sony Open)
Kapalua (Tourney of Champs)
We don't have past data to lean on so what I dialed in on this week was bermudagrass turf and eagle rates. These are the courses that stood out in that regard.
UPDATE: After the change to the scorecard, I would shift my focus toward courses like Quail Hollow, CC of Jackson, TPC Scottsdale, or Golf Club of Houston. We can no longer project an easy scoring environment with confidence but we do know that Memorial Park now grades out as one of the longer courses on TOUR.
Thursday: Cloudy with a high of 75 degrees. Winds at 7 to 11 MPH.
Friday: Sunny with a high of 77 degrees. Winds at 7 to 11 MPH.
When we stroll through Texas we often see heavy winds but the early-week forecast is pretty light in that regard. There is some rain in the forecast over the weekend but it's supposed to be light rain so they should be able to play through it.