HOUSTON – (Wire Service Report by The Sports Xchange) – Ten players to watch at the Shell Houston Open.
1. Jordan Spieth, United States — When top-ranked Dustin Johnson withdrew from the Shell Houston Open on Monday, citing fatigue and a need to rest ahead of the Masters next week, Spieth became the favorite among oddsmakers and many other observers. The native Texan also will be a fan favorite while playing in the Houston event for the fifth time, with his best result coming when he lost in a playoff to J.B. Holmes two years ago. Spieth took a one-stroke lead into the final round after starting with 66-69-67, but he closed with a 70. Holmes caught him with an 8-under-par 64, then beat Johnson Wagner with a par on the second extra hole. Spieth dropped out with a par on the first playoff hole, where the other two made birdie. After starting this year with four consecutive top-10 finishes, capped by a victory at Pebble Beach, Spieth has not done better than his tie for 12th in the WGC-Mexico Championship over his past three starts.
2. Henrik Stenson, Sweden — After skipping the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play because he doesn’t like the format introduced last year in addition to saying it didn’t fit into his schedule, Stenson will prep for the Masters by making his sixth start in the Shell Houston Open. The world No. 5 has done everything but win the tournament, finishing one stroke behind Jim Herman in solo second last year, tying for second one stroke behind D.A. Points in 2013, and tying for third two shots out of the playoff in which Paul Casey of England beat J.B. Holmes in 2009. The big Swede finished in the top 10 of seven consecutive events around the world, including second in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, the Hero World Challenge and the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, before shooting 75-75–149 to miss the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in his last start. And that run doesn’t even count a victory in the Open Championship and tie for seventh in the PGA Championship late last season.
3. Jon Rahm, Spain — Coming off his eye-opening performance in the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, in which he took top-ranked Dustin Johnson all the way to the last hole of the final before losing, Rahm seems to have a lock on the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year award on the PGA Tour even before the first major. After earning his playing card right out of Arizona State in limited starts last year, the Spaniard has three consecutive finishes in the top 10 and four in his past five starts, including his first PGA Tour victory in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Those results have lifted him to fourth in the FedExCup standings and 14th in the Official World Golf Ranking, perhaps validating Phil Mickelson’s claim that Rahm is one of the top five players in the world right now. The 22-year-old will be making his debut in the Shell Houston Open, but his game plays well anywhere.
4. Phil Mickelson, United States — Lefty has said all year that his best game is close, and he proved it with a strong run to the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship before Bill Haas sent him home, 2 and 1. That result came after Mickelson tied for seventh in the WGC-Mexico Championship, so he seems to be peaking just in time for the Masters next week. Mickelson loves the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston, and he is making his 12th start in the event. He claimed one of his 42 PGA Tour victories in Houston, playing the weekend in 63-65 to beat Scott Verplank and Chris Kirk by three strokes in 2011. His only other top-10 result in the tournament was a tie for fourth as defending champion, four strokes behind champion Hunter Mahan, but he has not finished out of the top 20 in his past six appearances, including a tie for 13th last year.
5. Rickie Fowler, United States — Another player who skipped the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship, Fowler has been on a strong run of form, with his worst start in his past four tournaments a tie for 16th in the WGC-Mexico Championship. Included in that surge were his fourth PGA Tour victory in the Honda Classic and a tie for fourth in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Those results have lifted him to No. 9 in the world rankings and 10th in the FedExCup standings, giving him confidence that he can make a run at his first major title next week in the Masters. Fowler is making his sixth start in the Shell Houston Open and has finished in the top 10 two of the past three years. He was sixth three years ago and tied for 10th last year, but in his other four starts on the Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston, he has failed to crack the top 60.
6. Adam Scott, Australia — The Aussie admittedly has made a career of trying to figure out the best schedule formula to prepare for a major championship, but it worked perfectly for him only once, when he captured the 2013 Masters. This time, Scott skipped the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship and will tee it up this week in the Shell Houston Open for the seventh time. He claimed one of his 13 PGA Tour titles at Houston in 2007, playing the weekend in 66-65 to beat Bubba Watson and fellow Aussie Stuart Appleby by three strokes. That was one of his two top-10 finishes in the tournament, as he tied for sixth in 2002, but he was solid in a tie for 14th last year. Scott opened with a 63 in his title defense in 2008 but struggled to a 76 in round two and withdrew because of a high fever. He finished in the top 14 in his first five tournaments this season, but he tied for 45th in WGC-Mexico Championship in his most recent start.
7. J.B. Holmes, United States — Unable to defend his title in the Shell Houston Open last year because of a shoulder injury, Holmes returns this week to make his seventh appearance in the tournament. He opened with a 7-under 65 and closed with a 64 two years ago, then beat Johnson Wagner with a par on the second playoff hole after Jordan Spieth dropped out when he couldn’t match birdies made by Holmes and Wagner on the first extra hole. Holmes also finished second at Houston in 2009, losing in a playoff when he took a double bogey that allowed Paul Casey of England to win with a bogey on the first extra hole. He has played well at times this year, making the cut in all seven events and finishing under par each time, but he has struggled to put four good rounds together and his best result was a tie for 12th in the WGC-Mexico Championship early this month.
8. Justin Rose, England — Still another player who passed on the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship in the run-up to the Masters, Rose played well early in the season. He finished solo second in the Sony Open in Hawaii, seven shots behind Justin Thomas, and tied for fourth in both the Farmers Insurance Open and the Genesis Open. He slipped to a tie for 38th in the WGC-Mexico Championship and tied for 13th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, not far from his home in the Orlando area. Rose hopes to ramp up his game this week with the Masters looming. This will be his fifth start in the Shell Houston Open, and the Olympic gold medalist’s best result was a tie for 14th in 2010. Two years ago, the last time he played at the Golf Club of Houston, he started with a promising 69-68 but played the weekend in 72-72 and managed only a tie for 37th.
9. Charles Howell, United States — The last of Howell’s two PGA Tour victories came in the 2007 Nissan Open, but he has been showing up on leaderboards this season, and he made a nice run to a tie for ninth in the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship last week. He also was in the hunt all the way to the finish in the Farmers Insurance Open before rookie Jon Rahm of Spain closed with a 65 to his 68, leaving Howell three shots back in a tie for second. Howell, the 2001 Rookie of the Year on the PGA Tour, is making his 13th appearance in the Shell Houston Open, and he finished in the top 10 in three of the past four years. He closed with a 66 to tie for 10th in 2013, opened with a 66 on his way to a tie for fifth in 2015 and shot 68 in the final round last year to tie for seventh.
10. D.A. Points, United States — Since he didn’t qualify for the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship last week, Points flew off to play in the Puerto Rico Open, an opposite-field event on the PGA Tour. And he took advantage of the opportunity by opening with an 8-under-par 64 and then making five birdies to start a final-round 66 that carried him to a two-stroke victory over Retief Goosen of South Africa, Bill Lunde and Bryson DeChambeau. It was the third victory of Points’ career, with the others coming in the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the 2013 Shell Houston Open. He will be making his 10th start in Houston this week, and he claimed the title four years ago by opening with an 8-under-par 64 and finishing with a 66. He sank a 13-foot par putt on the final hole to defeat Billy Horschel and Henrik Stenson of Sweden by one stroke