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Shell Houston Open

Tournament Preview

The last oasis before the biggest test of the early season on the PGA begins Thursday with the Shell Houston Open at the Golf Club of Houston in Humble, Texas.

Worth 500 FedExCup points and a cool $1.152 million for the winner, the tournament always attracts top players seeking to fine tune their games or qualify before the first Major of 2014.

D.A. Points is the defending champion at Houston after firing a 16-under 272 a year ago.

Now in its 68th year, the tournament has made the rounds through the greater Houston area, with the Humble location being its 13th site in that time span.

The course is a 7,457-yard par-72 highlighted by the 608-yard No. 15.

Although many top players have traditionally taken the week off to rest up for The Masters, the tournament has seen a non-stop list of high-profile winners including Phil Mickelson in 2011, Adam Scott in 2007 and Vijay Singh, who won the tournament three times in four years between 2002 and 2005, setting the course record at 22-under in 2002.

The only other player to win the tournament three times was Curtis Strange, who captured the crown in 1980, 1986 and 1988.

Mickelson will tee off on No. 10 alongside Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley at 7:50 a.m. on Thursday.

Ten minutes later, the impressive trio of Jimmy Walker - who has won three times this season; Matt Kuchar and 2013 FedExCup champion Henrik Stenson.

Former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy takes the course at 12:40 p.m. on the front nine along with countryman Luke Donald and American Dustin Johnson.

Ten minutes later, Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia and Steve Stricker are on tap. Defending champion Points tees off at 1:10 p.m. with Jhonnattan Vegas and Justin Leonard.

04/03/14, Thursday

A whopping 96 players are at least one stroke under par after the first 18 holes of the Shell Houston Open, the last stop on the PGA tour before the Masters kicks off next week.

At the top of the leaderboard are Americans Bill Haas and Charley Hoffman, who each shot a 7-under 65.

The 31-year-old Haas, ranked 36th on the money list this season, came out with guns blazing, reaching the turn at 6-under thanks to four birdies and an eagle on the front nine.

Hoffman, 33rd on the money list, racked up seven birdies on the first 14 holes and never recorded a bogey.

There’s a four-way tie for third at 6-under featuring Matt Kuchar, J.B. Holmes, Erik Compton and Jim Renner.

Another 10 players are tied for eighth at 5-under, two strokes behind the co-leaders. Among them is Spaniard Sergio Garcia, who was 1-over through four, then notched six birdies and eight pars the rest of the way.

The tie for 18th place at 4-under looks like a who’s who of famous linksters: Webb Simpson, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera, Retief Goosen, Steve Stricker and Davis Love III are all knotted at that score.

Mickelson, who has struggled to find his form so far in 2014, recorded four birdies and zero bogeys in a strong first round.

Other scores of note: Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth each shot a 2-under 70 while Henrik Stenson is 1-under with a 71.

04/04/14, Friday

Sergio Garcia is doing what every player on tour hopes to do the week before the Masters - be playing at a very high level.

Garcia blistered the Shell Houston Open for a 7-under 65 on Friday, tying the course record by reaching 12-under through the first two rounds.

Garcia has needed every bit of that hot streak to maintain the lead; Matt Kuchar is 11-under and one stroke back.

Garcia has just one bogey in his first 36 holes. On Friday, he birdied No. 3 -5, then went birdie, eagle, birdie on 12-14.

Kuchar could have tied for the lead or even held it himself, but he bogeyed No. 18 after birdying it the day before.

Garcia and Kuchar have a cushion between them and the next batch of players. Four men - Cameron Tringale, Matt Jones, Shawn Stefani and Jimmy Walker are tied for third at 8-under.

Walker was the best of the quartet on Friday, tying Garcia for the best round of the day with a 7-under 65. Walker, who has a tour-best three tournament wins already this season, racked up eight birdies on Friday.

The cut was set at even par at the conclusion of Friday’s round, leaving such names as Jordan Spieth, defending tournament champion D.A. Points and Kevin Stadler on the outside looking in.

Steve Stricker and Ben Curtis are tied for seventh at 7-under, with Ryan Palmer, Jason Gore, Tim Renner and Phil Mickelson tied for ninth at 6-under.

Mickelson shot a 2-under 70 to rise from 18th to ninth. The defending British Open champion had four birdies and two bogeys, all of them between holes 5 and 13.

04/05/14, Saturday

With all eyes on Sergio Garcia and his record-setting two-day start to the Shell Houston Open, Matt Kuchar was able to sneak up on everyone.

He made his presence well known on Saturday, with a 4-under 68 to drop to 15-under for the tournament, opening up a four-stroke lead.

Fellow American Cameron Tringale and the aforementioned Garcia are tied for second at 11-under.

Tringale shot a 3-under 72, while Garcia came crashing back down to earth with a 1-over 73 after shooting 67 and 65 on his first two days.

Kuchar came firing out of the gate with three birdies in his first five holes. He got hot again on the back nine, with three birdies on 12-14.

The trio are the only players who are double digits below par with 18 holes to go.

Tying Kuchar for the best round of the day was American Rickie Fowler, whose 4-under dropped him to 8-under for the tournament, allowing him to jump from 18th to a tie for 5th.

British Open champion Phil Mickelson shot an even par 72 to remain at 6-under, putting him in a tie for eighth with Jon Curran, J.B. Holmesand Retief Goosen.

04/06/14, Sunday

Matt Jones had big plans for the week of The Masters: Fly home to Australia to spend time with his two-year-old and three-week-old children.

Instead, he’s trying to figure out how to get his whole family safely to Augusta, Georgia, which he earned an exemption for by winning the Shell Houston Open on Saturday in a playoff.

Leading at Houston on any of the first three days turned out to be a bad thing.

Sergo Garcia had the lead after each of the first two days and finished third; and Matt Kuchar was in the lead after Saturday, but lost in the playoff.

Jones caught Kuchar on the final hole Sunday by firing a birdie while Kuchar struggled to a bogey. Jones ran off a string of six birdies in nine holes between No. 3 and No. 11 to turn it into a chase.

After sitting at 12-under after two rounds, Garcia was 1-under the rest of the way, shooting a final round 70.

American Cameron Tringale was fourth at 12-under.

Rory McIlroy, former No. 1, finished tied for eighth at 8-under, ripping off a 65 on Sunday. American Phil Mickelson finished tied for 12th at 7-under.

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