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Redstone Setup Mirrored Augusta National - to a Degree
It's easy to paraphrase a famous line from the movie "Field of Dreams" when describing the fervor of golf's top players for the Tournament Course at Redstone, site of the Shell Houston Open: if you condition it like Augusta National, they will come.
But with that conditioning - lightning-fast and sloping putting surfaces, lake slopes shaved down to fairway length and little or no rough - you take the bad with the good. Such was the case Thursday when the Houston area was hit with a windstorm (with gusts of up to 50 miles per hour) that forced the first postponement for wind since the 2007 Verizon Heritage Classic at Hilton Head was pushed to a Monday finish by extremely blustery conditions.
A morning thunderstorm early Thursday before the wind came delayed the start of the tournament by two hours, and then play was halted for the day at 12:50 p.m. because of winds strong enough to move balls on the slippery greens before players could mark them. The round was suspended for at 3 p.m. "We couldn't conduct the competition properly this afternoon," PGA Tour official Mark Russell explained.
The Houston event - won by Paul Casey in a one-hole playoff over J.B. Holmes - drew a star-studded field, with 15 of the top 20 players in the world rankings teeing it up at the Tournament Course at Redstone to fine-tune their games before next week's Masters. The tournament's calling card since its move to the weekend before the Masters in 2007 has been to try to replicate the conditions players will see at Augusta National, and that is a hook upon which Shell Houston Open organizers have been able to hang their collective hats.
"Certainly setup-wise, (the organizers) cut it as close as this course can be to Augusta," Padraig Harrington, winner of the last two majors of 2008, said Wednesday. "The greens' reaction is firm and very, very quick - very fast, actually. Still - for me at least - the focus is very much on the Shell Houston Open, and the Masters can look after itself on Sunday evening."
It was that setup that caused the problem Thursday. According to Randy Samoff, Redstone's course superintendent, the greens at the start of play were running at "about 14 on the Stimpmeter. That is the speed the Tour has set for us. It sets the bar pretty high.
"Once the wind started blowing like it was, the putting surfaces got even faster than that," Samoff added, "and the balls would not stay still on the green."
The delay held up the tournament throughout the weekend, as the second round wasn't completed until Saturday afternoon at 2:50 p.m. CDT. By that time big-name players such as Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and K.J. Choi missed the cut and were packing their bags for northeast Georgia.
Obviously, you can't duplicate Augusta National's elevation changes and some of that locale's wind situations in the steamy prairieland north of Houston. But are there a reasonable number of shots that players can work on because of the way the Houston Open course sets up and is conditioned.
"There is definitely a comparison," Sergio Garcia said. "The greens are obviously not as severe as some of the greens at Augusta, but there are a lot of shots that you can see similar to that and around the greens it is very, very similar. On the greens you can get some really, really quick putts like you're going to get at Augusta."
Greg Norman, who qualified for the Masters by finishing third in the 2008 British Open Championship (as well as his lifetime ranking on Tour), said playing the Shell Houston Open is a great tune-up for the Masters in a lot of ways.
"You've playing pine trees, and if you have allergies, you get adjusted to it," Norman said. "[Former tournament site] The Woodlands is totally a different golf course than Augusta National, and here at least you got the chance to play under similar conditions and on clay-based grounds.
"The greens (at Augusta National) are always very, very fast, and we have the same here," Norman added. "They are absolutely perfect and have enough undulation in there - not to some of the degrees you get at Augusta National, but enough to know that you've got big swinging putts and a lot of speed downhill."
The Tournament Course at Redstone, designed by noted "Open Doctor" Rees Jones with input from PGA Tour player David Toms, has hosted the Shell Houston Open since 2006, but - according to Jones - the track was not designed with Augusta National and Masters-like conditions in mind.
"Once the Tour granted us the week before the Masters, we decided along with all the Redstone executives to set it up for Augusta," Jones said Wednesday. "The word has gotten around the Tour that this is a great prep for the Masters as well as a wonderful golf course set-up the way the pros like it, and that's what David and I really wanted when we designed the course."
The routing and subtle features were at least - through legacy - influenced by the work of Robert Trent Jones (Rees' father) at Augusta National. "To some degree my training from my father had to do with what we have at this course," Rees Jones said. "My father always had Augusta National in mind, and I think I learned a lot about green contours and Bobby Jones' philosophy from him.
"I was fortunate enough to meet with Bobby Jones several times when my dad took me down to Augusta," Rees Jones added. "My dad did the 16th hole, the 11th hole and 13th green at Augusta. Then he built Peach Tree with Bobby Jones, which is much like Redstone. So to some degree, it was good fortune maybe that they hired me [for Redstone] because I sort of had that philosophy, the strategic layout of Augusta National."
Jones's and Toms' philosophy at the Tournament Course at Redstone wasn't necessarily to design it to be as hard as possible. "We wanted the players around the Tour and the really good players to want to play here," Rees Jones said. "So we have reachable par-5s, we've got a couple real finesse par-4s in hole Nos. 10 and 12 and some good birdie opportunities. Then we have some tough par-4s at holes 5, 6, 17 and 18.
"There's a great ebb and flow here and there be will be some red numbers, and that's that we intended," Jones continued. "To some degree a lot of these courses that are set-up for Tour events and especially for the major championships are too hard, so there are a limited number of players that have an opportunity to win. Just about half the field here could win the Shell Houston Open, and that's that we wanted."
Given the advantages Augusta National-like conditions allow the Tour players and benefit the Shell Houston Open (and its sponsors, fans and charities), expect organizers to continue the three-year-old setup come hell or high water - or even 50-mph winds.
Steve Habel is one of Cybergolf's national correspondents, contributing news stories, features, equipment and book reviews and personality profiles from his base in Central Texas. He is also the media coordinator for Bechtol Golf Design, the managing editor for Business District magazine in Austin and works as a contributing editor for Horns Illustrated magazine, a publication focusing on University of Texas sports. He also writes a blog (www.shotoverthegreen.blogspot.com), which features news on golf and the Longhorns.
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