It’s your last chance, Ernie!

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Ernie Els, for so long an automatic qualifier for the Majors, will be fighting for survival at this week’s Houston Open.

Ernie Els, for so long an automatic qualifier for the Majors, will be fighting for survival at this week’s Shell Houston Open.

In the week ahead of the Masters, the three-time major winner desperately needs to win at Redstone Country Club in Texas this week if he is to make it onto the tee-box at Augusta National next week and this urgency could well make the big South African a major contender – if only he can get his putter to behave.

It hasn’t exactly done that in his past two stabs at victory, but it may be significant that, despite that, he has posted top fives in each of the last two weeks – the first time he’s achieved that on the PGA Tour since his back-to-back victories in March, 2010.

Els’s smooth, sweet swing should do him well at Redstone’s Tournament Course which golf pundits have likened to Augusta.

The similarities between the setup of Redstone and Augusta National are well known – for example at 7,457 yards, Redstone is only 32 yards longer than Augusta and both are par 72s that make hitting greens in regulation, scrambling and scoring on the par 5s of vital importance when it comes to producing champions.

In the past this kind of course has been red meat to Els, who has won the gruelling US Open twice and a wind-lashed Open Championship once and has twice finished the runner up at Augusta. But that was when his troublesome putter was still on song, so everything this week could be down to his flat-stick.

Something which has become quite clear in the 56 years since the great Byron Nelson won the inaugural Houston Open in 1946, is that the event has been dominated by many of the greatest names in golf, almost certainly because it so often takes the best of the best to win the toughest tournaments.

And the Shell Houston is certainly one of those.

Last year the overall scoring average was just 71.74, and that was the first time in a long while that it had checked in under par.

On this occasion it was won by recent Masters maestro Phil Mickelson who in May will join a score of previous Houston Open champions who have been inducted into Golf’s Hall of Fame.

Along with Nelson (whose record 18 PGA Tour wins in one season, 11 of which were won in succession, has yet to be matched) this prestigious group also includes Bobby Locke (1947), Cary Middlecoff (1950, 1953), Jack Burke, Jr. (1952, 1959), Arnold Palmer (1957, 1966), Roberto de Vicenzo (1968), Hubert Green (1971), Gene Littler (1977), Gary Player (1978), Curtis Strange (1980, 1986, 1988), Ray Floyd (1985), Payne Stewart (1995) and Vijay Singh (2002, 2004, 2005).

Strongly underlining the importance of hitting greens, Redstone was ranked as the hardest course in scrambling from the rough in each of the last three years and it is almost certain to be given even more teeth by the ever present South Texas winds and the threat of thunderstorms at the weekend.

What all this will mean on one of the Tour’s longest tracks, of course, is that the major contenders will be those who hit longest and straightest, find the highest number of greens and are able to finish off the job with some solid, no-nonsense putting.

Looking at the field, this might well hoist 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley and his deadly belly putter into the group of early front runners.

He was eighth at the WGC Cadillac two weeks ago and seemed to be taking his game towards a peak.

England’s World No 3 Lee Westwood could be another to keep your eye on for right now he is ranked second on the PGA Tour in greens hit and third in the all-round category.

Others you can expect to feature on the leaderboard at one time or another this week are rock solid Steve Stricker, who, at No 5, is still the highest American ahead of newly promoted Tiger Woods (6th) on the World Rankings list, Graeme McDowell, Northern Ireland’s 2010 US Open champion and runner up to Woods at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week, and reigning Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, who has shown signs of climbing back towards his best form at just the right time – and he has, of course, finished as high as third in Houston (in 2010)

Another American who could be fighting for the lead on the final day is Johnson Wagner who posted the first of his three PGA Tour victories here at Redstone, first set the current course record at 63 and is currently sitting at No 1 on the FedEx Cup standings after four top 10s this season, including a tie for 4th at Bay Hill last week.

And last, but not least, in the absence of two of the hottest Masters favourites, Woods and Rory McIlroy, who are both taking a break from competitive golf this week to hone their games, dont forget Phil Mickeslon, the defending champion.

This wonderful master of the short game, led the Houston field last year with 27 birdies, 18 of them carded in the weekend rounds, and with his A Game never very far away during the past month, he has every chance of picking up his second straight Shell Houston Open title – if he can get his putter working well from the outset.

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