The Houston Open is back to its usual pre-Masters slot although, in these bizarre times, that means the two tournaments are played back-to-back in November.
It was previously the case that regular venue, Redstone, was set up to mimic (as best it could) the attributes of Augusta National.
As well as providing years of reliable course form, that also allowed us to work backwards; if someone played Augusta well, they might be a decent bet to shine at Redstone.
That’s out of the window here as new venue, Memorial Park Golf Course, has very little in common with Augusta National.
Course designer Tom Doak hasn’t had his work used before on the PGA Tour although we do know he puts an emphasis on being creative. That offers a little help maybe.
But the main help is provided by some very basic factors: current form, form in windy Texas and prowess on bermuda greens.
And with that in mind, I’m going to play Corey Conners.
The Canadian has some great memories playing in Texas the week before the US Masters. That’s because, last year, he came through Monday qualifying to win the Texas Open and punch his ticket to Augusta.
Played on a course similar in length, Conners shot 20-under to win while his previous start in Texas resulted in tied eighth at Colonial. His latest? Another top 20 at Colonial in June.
After some rather unspectacular golf over the summer, he’s started to turn it up a notch and posted tied 17th at last month’s Sanderson Farms Championship and, most recently, tied eighth at the ZOZO Championship where he closed with a 66.
The latter was played at Sherwood Country Club where there are five par 5s and that’s the case again this week at Memorial Park.
Conners played those 20 long holes in 14-under (fourth best) at Sherwood and was 37th for Par 5 Scoring on the PGA Tour last season.
A wonderful ball striker, the worry is usually his putting but he’s recorded positive SG: Putting figures in three of his last four measured tournaments and that ratio jumps to five in six when using the filter of events played in Texas over the last couple of years.
Take the 28-year-old former US Amateur runner-up at 45/1.
Denny McCarthy did us an each-way favour at 28/1 last week and he’s 60/1 here although obviously the field is much stronger.
However, there will likely be an element of the bigger names having half an eye on next week’s US Masters and past winners of this event in its usual pre-Augusta slot show that it’s an opportunity for some of the less celebrated names to pinch a win.
Starting with current form, McCarthy certainly has that after his fast-finishing fourth place in the Bermuda Championship where he set the early clubhouse target with a Sunday 63.
Two starts earlier he’d delivered a top six in the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi.
The link, besides proximity on the calendar, with those two events and this week’s tournament: all three feature bermuda greens.
McCarthy ranked 15th for SG: Putting in the Sanderson Farms and 17th for Putting Average (the only stats available in Bermuda). Of course, given his prowess with the flatstick, good putting numbers are almost a given.
What’s been more encouraging of late is his ball-striking. In Bermuda last week, it was certainly on point as he ranked 2nd for Driving Accuracy and 4th for Greens In Regulation.
Moving on to Texas form, he was tied ninth in this event last season having earlier posted a top 25 in the Byron Nelson where he was left to rue his Friday round (63-77-65-67).
Like Conners, he lives in Florida so windy conditions and bermuda grass are the norm.
Also tied 20th in the 2018 Texas Open, McCarthy has plenty of momentum and 60/1 seems a decent price for him to make the frame again and who knows, maybe grab that first win.
At the front end of the market, Dustin Johnson is the clear 7/1 favourite but I can’t help think that this is a tune-up for his latest crack at a Green Jacket.
If playing one of the market leaders I might try Brooks Koepka at 18/1. He’s had a hand in the course design and has three seconds and a fourth in his last six strokeplay starts in Texas.
It’s easy to think he’ll be saving his best for Augusta but he managed to focus on the here and now when runner-up at the WGC-St. Jude the week before the US PGA.
Now sounding much more positive after overcoming knee problems, a T28 at the CJ Cup (a pair of middle 68s) blew some rust away.
He’s 20/1 in the Enhanced Win Only market.
But for my final bet I’ll go with Stewart Cink at 70/1.
Back to an earlier comment about Doak wanting to reward imagination, Cink boasts plenty of that. He’s captured an Open Championship and also has four wins on Pete Dye layouts where brain is still a valued commodity.
And, of course, he’s suddenly enjoying something of a renaissance after landing the Safeway Open a couple of months ago.
That was the week before a major and he could nip in again here.
Just as important, the 2009 Turnberry winner has shown it was no fluke. He followed it with T12 at the Sanderson Farms and added a top four in last week’s Bermuda Championship.
He ranked 1st for GIR at both the Safeway and Bermuda events so really has those irons dialled in.
While his uptick in form is a surprise, he’s actually been playing well in Texas for the last couple of years. Two of his last four visits have resulted in top 10s – this tournament last year and the 2017 Dean & Deluca Invitational.
With son Regan on the bag, Team Cink are clearly having a blast and he’s showing that, at 47, there’s still plenty of good golf to be played before he becomes eligible for the Champions Tour.
A fine wind player, he looks ahead of the handicapper a little still and I’m happy to play Cink at 70/1.