After a few weeks bouncing around from Japan to Bermuda to Mexico, the PGA Tour returns to the United States for one of its more traditional events: the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open, which has a history that dates back 75 years.
Until 2019, the event was held in the weeks leading up to the Masters and was often the last chance for golfers to qualify for the event. It was moved to the fall starting that year, and ironically, the event was held before the Masters again in 2020 when the major was moved to November due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the way the tournament schedule fell previously, many top names would skip this event in order to get ready for Augusta. With it now held in the fall, there is a higher-quality field. Eight major winners are in the field, along with Ryder Cup participants Scottie Scheffler and Matt Fitzpatrick.
One name who will not be among the contenders is defending tournament champion Carlos Ortiz. After finishing second last week at the World Wide Technology Championship in his home country of Mexico, Ortiz announced that a shoulder injury will keep him out of this event. It’s an issue that has been bugging him for some time, as he had to withdraw from the ZOZO Championship last month due to the problem. Last week’s event at Mayakoba was a shorter course, and with Memorial Park being over 400 more yards in length despite still being a par 70, it likely proved too daunting of a task for the ailing Ortiz.
“Unfortunately, I’ve been battling a left shoulder injury since Japan, and after meeting with my doctors, it was recommended that I take the rest of the season off to recover,” Ortiz said on Tuesday. “This is incredibly disappointing to me, as I was looking forward to defending my first PGA Tour title in Texas, my second home. I’m honored to be a champion of this event, and I look forward to returning next year.”
The tournament has had several homes over the years, including the Golf Club of Houston from 2003-19. Last year, it moved to Memorial Park Municipal Golf Course, which was recently renovated and redesigned with input from Brooks Koepka, who is in the event this weekend.
In its history, which dates back to 1946, there have been two three-time winners of the event: Curtis Strange (1980, ’86, and ’88) and Vijay Singh (2002, ’04-’05). Singh also holds the tournament record to par at 22-under, while he’s tied for the lowest tournament score of 266 with Strange and Lee Trevino.
Memorial Park has been ranked as one of the best municipal golf courses in the nation after it underwent an $18.5 million redesign and renovation that was funded by the non-profit Astros Golf Foundation, run by Houston Astros baseball team owner Jim Crane. World-renowned golf architect Tom Doak designed the new course with the help of Koepka.
The result is a par-70, 7,432-yard course that, last year, hosted the event for the first time since 1973. While the pros got accustomed to the new course in 2020, the 16th hole proved to be one worth watching. The par-5, 576-yard hole has water all the way down the right side of the fairway, and the green has water on three sides of it. This led to 100 birdies, which was fourth-most of any hole during the tournament, and 29 double bogeys or worse, which was the most of any hole in 2020.
It’s the only par-5 hole on the back nine, as players finish their round with two par-4 holes. The 17th is 382 yards but rated as the second-hardest hole on the course due to more water on the right side. No. 18 is 503 yards but essentially straight to the green without too many hazards to deal with.
Sam Burns is narrowly favored over Scottie Scheffler as the betting favorite at +1500 this weekend. Burns held the lead after the second and third rounds here last year, but struggled with a 2-over 72 on Sunday to finish tied for seventh. Since then, he’s recorded the first two wins of his career, leads the current FedEx Cup standings, and is 19th in the Official World Golf Rankings, which is second in the field behind Koepka.
Burns won at the Valspar Championship in Tampa last May and followed that with a runner-up finish at the AT&T Byron Nelson. He also lost in a playoff at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and was eighth at the BMW Championship before finishing tied for 18th at his first Tour Championship. He then started this season off in the best way possible, winning the Sanderson Farms Championship in his first start of 2021-22. He then followed that up with solid efforts in Las Vegas—finishing tied for 14th at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open and then was fifth at the CJ Cup the next week. The length off the tee will help Burns here, as he had the best scoring average on par-5 holes in the field last year.
Scheffler (+1600) played two tournaments after his Ryder Cup debut and did not have a great time in Las Vegas, missing the cut at the Shriner’s and finishing tied for 38th at the CJ Cup. But after a two-week break, he came back to finish a solid fourth last week at Mayakoba. Scheffler, who resides in nearby Dallas, scored his first top-20 in three months last week and also finished with a 65 here last year despite a 32nd place finish, so after a slow start, he may have this course figured out. Despite not having a PGA Tour win, his skills on the course along with his solid performance at the Ryder Cup as a rookie shows that he can handle the pressure and will likely score his first win sometime this season.
The other golfer listed below +2000 is Sungjae Im at +1800. The birdie machine won the Shriners Children’s Open and followed that up with a ninth-place finish at the CJ Cup, which was his last tournament. He also hasn’t played a round above par in the 12 he’s participated in this season. He finished 50th here last year, but like Scheffler, finished strong with a 67 on the final day. Given that Im is a birdie hunter, expect him to have a better feeling of when he can go for them now that he has played this course before. Im is a workhorse who is coming off a rare three-week break, but even with just three tournaments under his belt, he is second in the FedEx Cup standings.
Three golfers are tied at +2000, including Matthew Wolff, who has been one of the hottest golfers on tour in the young season. After finishing second at the Shriners Children’s Open, Wolff charged up the leaderboard on Sunday last week by shooting a bogey-free 65 to finish fifth at Mayakoba. Couple those results with a 17th at the Sanderson Farms Championship, and Wolff is playing some great golf at the ripe age of 22. If you may recall, he has already won on the PGA Tour, claiming victory at the 2019 3M Open while playing on a sponsor’s exemption.
And he won in style, draining a putt off the green for eagle on the final hole to beat Bryson DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa by one stroke. After finishing second at the 2020 U.S. Open and runner up at the 2020 Shriners as well, Wolff struggled by not recording a top 10 for the rest of 2021 until he put up top-fives in his last two events. There’s also a correlation between the 3M Open and here in Houston, as nine of the top 18 at the 3M this past year also finished in the top 20 at Memorial Park.
Tony Finau and Cameron Smith are both at +2000, and both are linked from August’s The Northern Trust, where Finau won the FedEx Cup playoff opener over Smith in a playoff. After winning that tournament, Finau had a nice Ryder Cup but hasn’t done much else on the PGA Tour since. His two starts this year both resulted in 45th place finishes (CJ Cup and World Wide Technology Championship last week).
Smith has played just once this season, logging a ninth-place finish at the CJ Cup, and while he didn’t play in Houston last year, he had a hot run last fall with four-straight top-11 finishes, including a second at the 2020 Masters. He also won the Zurich Classic of New Orleans this past April and closed out the 2020-21 season with a 14th at the Tour Championship.
A whole host of golfers are at +2500, including Brooks Koepka, who is the highest-ranked golfer in the field. He has struggled since his Ryder Cup performance, having a season-best finish of 38th at the CJ Cup and missing the cut last week in Mexico, but Koepka finished fifth here last year and did have input in redesigning the course, so there is a familiarity with the grounds for the four-time major winner.
Talor Gooch, on the other hand, is playing some great golf—a 74 last week notwithstanding. Gooch was just two shots behind Viktor Hovland for the lead last week at Mayakoba but ended up tied for 11th. His results this year, however, have been consistently strong: fourth at the Fortinet Championship, 11th at the Shriners Children’s Open, and fifth at the CJ Cup. Gooch also shot a bogey-free 63 on Sunday here last year to finish fourth.
If you’re looking for consistency, Joaquin Niemann has missed just one cut in the last 14 months and finished fifth last week in Mexico on his 23rd birthday. He’s the only player from Chile to have won on the PGA Tour, doing so at the Greenbriar in 2020, and he also made two playoffs in 2021—the Sentry Tournament of Champions and Rocket Mortgage Classic—but lost both.
Marc Leishman is a big hitter who is playing Memorial Park for the first time, but the length suits his game. He’s scored a win in each of the last three seasons and opened up the 2021-22 campaign with top-five finishes at the Fortinet in Napa and the Shriners Children’s Open in Las Vegas. He’s reached the FedEx Cup playoffs 13-straight years but he missed out on the Tour Championship last year for the first time 2016.
Aaron Wise has been knocking on the door, having five top-25s in his last six starts, including two top-10s. He opened with a 63 in Mexico last week before finishing 15th and was 11th in the Houston Open last year.
Patrick Reed (+3000) is a hometown favorite, as he lives within driving distance of the course. This will be Reed’s third tournament in a row, speaking to his improved health after a pneumonia scare over the summer. He was tied for second in Bermuda but stumbled a bit to finish 56th last week. But Reed has often struggled in the tournament before a win, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a strong showing here.
Maverick McNealy (+3500) was in the top 20 here last year and has been gaining momentum this year, starting the season with a runner-up finish at the Fortinet Championship. He was also tied for 11th last week in Mexico.
Mackenzie Hughes (+4000) finished his 2020 tournament here with a 63 to end up tied for seventh and was the best in the field in two putting metrics a year ago. His last time out, he came in fourth place at the ZOZO Championship in Japan three weeks ago.
Max Homa (+6000) finished 48th here last year, but he has rounded into form since then, winning once last season and again at this season’s opener (Fortinet Championship). Homa has also performed well at two events that have a correlation to Memorial Park: third at the 3M Open and a win and a fifth in his last two times out at Rivera.
Ian Poulter (+10000) didn’t fare well at this course last year, but he has a great history in the state of Texas, as the typically faster Bermuda-grass greens suit him well. He won this event in 2018 and was tied for third last year in Fort Worth. He missed the cut in Mexico last week but was 18th at the CJ Cup in his previous start.
The Astros Foundation operates the event and it gathered a group of sponsors in 2018 to keep the tournament in Houston for at least the next five years. One of the main charitable efforts of the tournament is the Birdies for Charity program that benefits THINK Neurology for Kids. Fans can make a donation and guess at the total number of birdies made throughout the event to win a prize. Other beneficiaries of the event include the Houston Parks & Recreation Department and the First Tee of Greater Houston.
We haven’t seen a multiple-time winner on tour this year, but someone from outside the United States has won the last five events, including Im, who started that streak at the Shriners Children’s Open. Burns is also another potential multi-time winner this season. If you like players who are on hot streaks to break through for a win, Matthew Wolff and Talor Gooch would be good bets for you. Gooch and Koepka are the highest finishers from last year’s event who are entered in this year’s field. Homa is also a solid bet, especially at the longer odds, given that he’s been playing great golf this year.
The trend this year, however, has been for players to somewhat come out of nowhere before winning, perhaps with the exception of Hovland, who defended his title at Mayakoba last week. If you’re following that trend, Scheffler, Smith, Reed, and Tyrell Hatton are worth a look.
|GOLFER||ODDS TO WIN THE 2021 HEWLETT PACKARD ENTERPRISE HOUSTON OPEN|
|Joaquin Niemann / Talor Gooch||+2500|
|Aaron Wise / Adam Scott / Marc Leishman||+2500|
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