Washington - Five-time major winner Phil Mickelson and
Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion who bungled a repeat bid, begin play
Thursday at the PGA Houston Open with the Masters looming next week.
Also in the field a week before the year's first major
championship at Augusta National are England's Justin Rose, Australia's Adam
Scott, reigning British Open champion Henrik Stenson, Match Play runner-up Jon
Rahm of Spain and 2016 PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker of the United
World number one Dustin Johnson withdrew from the event
Monday, citing fatigue after winning last week's World Golf Championships Match
Play title in Austin, Texas. The reigning US Open champion has won his past
three events and is a heavy Masters favourite.
Johnson was in the hunt last year before a double bogey at
17 on Sunday doomed his Masters bid. Spieth had been a runaway leader before
back-to-back bogeys and a double splashdown into Rae's Creek for a quadruple
bogey at the par-3 12th ruined his round, helping England's Danny Willett take
Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion who finished second
to Stenson at last year's British Open, could become the oldest Masters winner
next week at age 46. Jack Nicklaus was two months past 46 when he set the mark
by winning in 1986. "Lefty" will be just over two months shy of 47
when he tees off next week.
"I almost always play the week before a major because
if I take it off, I often feel a little rusty at the start," said
Mickelson, who has 42 PGA titles but none since taking the 2013 British Open at
It doesn't hurt that the Golf Club of Houston does its best
to emulate conditions players will face next week at Augusta National.
"It's tremendous," Mickelson said. "The
greens are fast. The fairways are perfect and tight. They even mowed the
grain... in the fairways just like Augusta does. There is no rough. The first
cut is like Augusta.
"I like playing in a tournament that's similar to what
we'll be playing. It's a great place to get ready for next week."
Sweden's Stenson skipped the WGC event to play in Houston so
he could make an early practice trip to Augusta, then compete just before
chasing a green jacket.
"Scheduling is a big part of it, given that I want to
play the week before Augusta," Stenson said. "I've played in the
Middle East, I've had a couple weeks off and then I need to pick up some
Rahm, 22, had never played Augusta National until practice
rounds earlier this month, but he thinks he has the game to be among the
contenders there next week.
"Certainly I do feel like I belong there, that I belong
where I am right now and that I compete to win," Rahm said.
Rahm played 108 holes last week at the Match Play but wanted
to avoid arriving too early at Augusta National and dwelling upon his debut
next week. He took off the week before last year's US and British Opens and
shared 23rd at Oakmont and 59th at Royal Troon in his first major starts.
"For the British Open, I think I would have benefited
from playing the week before," Rahm said. "That's why I want to play
this week. Last week I played good. Why wouldn't I keep that level of play
Rahm has opened the year well, winning at Torrey Pines and
sharing third at the WGC Mexico event before losing the Match Play final.