Rory, Dustin lead Houston charge

If you consider that this week’s Shell Houston Open is a curtain raiser for the Masters, the event takes on a whole new level of importance.

Tournament organisers have set up the Golf Club of Houston (actually located just northeast of Texas’ largest city in a town called Humble) specifically to help players prepare for the challenges of Augusta National, and many have responded by confirming their participation in the long-running event.

First staged in 1946, the Houston Open spent close to three decades in the city it is named after before venturing elsewhere. The Golf Club of Houston in Humble (formerly known as Redstone Golf Club) has been its home since 2003.

The Houston Open has held the privilege of being the lead-in to the Masters since 2007, aside from last year when it was moved due to a provision for the Valero Texas Open not to end on Easter Sunday.

The Tournament course that will host the event is a traditional par-72, designed by Rees Jones, which measures 7,441 yards.

The course is uniquely free from any housing development, leaving its users with a feeling of being well away from the hustle and bustle of city life, and is also one of only 11 PGA Tour-hosting courses in the USA that is open to the public.

While not an especially challenging lay-out, scrambling presents a particular challenge. Unforgiving rough areas and numerous collection areas around undulating putting surfaces means this is a course where it’s important to find the green with your approach shot.

Bad weather is not a certainty, but can’t be ruled out, while the wind is expected to blow throughout.

Looking at the field, the bookies have wasted little time in installing the back-in-action Rory McIlroy (10/1) as the favourite, with the ever-consistent Dustin Johnson (14/1) following just behind.

McIlroy last played at Doral, where he finished T25. That ended a run of six straight top-10s, but the Northern Irishman is still expected to put up a strong showing this week.

Johnson, meanwhile, is yet to finish outside the top 10 in a strokeplay event this year. His last start was also at Doral, where he finished T4. He also placed equal fourth at the Houston Open last year.

Henrik Stenson (16/1) is also back in action and after a slow start to the season, the Swede seems to coming into his own. He tied for fifth place at Bay Hill two weeks ago, and finished tied-second in Houston last year.

Keegan Bradley (25/1) is another player backed to do well due to some good results of late and a good showing at this tournament in the recent past.

Others placed among the top 10 favourites for Houston include Sergio Garcia (25/1), Jordan Spieth (25/1), Matt Kuchar (25/1), Hunter Mahan (30/1) and Graham Delaet (33/1).

The PGA Tour has delivered more than its fair share of surprises so far this season, however, as evidence by Steven Bowditch’s Texas Open last week, so Sunday’s winner should again prove notoriously tough to call.