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Wednesday, 19 December, 2018

Russell Henley can have perfect Masters prep by retaining Houston Open

Final place at Augusta is up for grabs in Texas

Russell Henley won the Houston Open in 2017
1 of 1

Sky Sports Golf, 1.30pm Thursday
Tournament starts 1.20pm

Just one space remains in next week's Masters field and some big names head to Houston this week searching for the tournament success that will earn them a place among the game's elite at Augusta.

Lee Westwood knows only a win in Texas will be enough to see him to his 14th successive Masters, Steve Stricker's two recent victories on the Seniors Tour are not worth a bean when it comes to earning a place in the first Major of the year, while Ian Poulter has been left cursing his luck as his world ranking of 51st is insufficient.

Just 18 of this week's field have their place guaranteed - Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and three-times Green Jacket winner Phil Mickelson among them - and one of the qualifiers, who defends his crown in Texas, has a great chance to go into battle having claimed another success.

Wilkerson's best bet
Russell Henley 33-1
The defending champion put in a storming Sunday display last year when he needed a victory to make the Masters and although the man from Georgia does not have that pressure this time, he is well suited to the challenge presented this week.

Henley recorded his best Major performance at Augusta last year with an 11th-place finish - the top 12 are invited back the following season - and he has the putting ability to make hay this week when the greens will be manicured to mimic the requirements the players will face next week.

Last year's success came after three successive top-ten finishes at the Golf Club of Houston and while he is not the biggest hitter on the US Tour, history suggests that has not been a big hindrance to him in past efforts at the venue - he has averaged just over 68 in his last 13 rounds there.

After finishing third in October's Tour Championship, it has not been a stellar start to the year as 15th at Pebble Beach has been his best effort of 2018. But this is plainly a course where he performs at the height of his ability and he looks to have a great chance of making a big impression once again. 

Next best
Charles Howell 50-1
While Henley is guaranteed his place in his home state Major, the same cannot be said of fellow Georgian Charles Howell, who has not taken his place in the April showpiece since 2011.

Howell is a frustrating character for punters to follow - the 38-year-old has had 51 top-ten finishes since his last victory in the 2007 Nissan Open - but he is in the sort of form that suggests a bold bid could be on the cards this week.

He fell in the first knockout round of last week's WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play to a 1up defeat to Kiradech Aphibarnrat, but he should have been encouraged by group victories over Satoshi Kodaira, Rafa Cabrera Bello and particularly a 3&2 success over Phil Mickelson.

Houston Open match bets

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The week before, he played consistently to finish 14th in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and although he is not famed for his accurate driving, that should not be an issue in Houston where finding the fairways is not regarded as a key component of success.

The near-misser claimed 39th spot last year but has finished in the top ten in this tournament three times since 2012 and could be spurred on by his last chance to make Augusta.

Other selection
Tony Finau 33-1
Big driver Tony Finau does not have a top-30 finish to his name at the Golf Club of Houston but he should be able to fill the necessary criteria for success and heads to Texas in decent form.

He is the longest driver on the PGA Tour and hits 70 per cent of his greens in regulation and he stands ninth in the FedEx Cup standings having finished second at both the Safeway and Genesis Open and he tied for sixth at the Farmers Insurance Open, three shots behind winner Jason Day.

His lone US Tour success came two years ago at the Puerto Rico Open, but he appears to be growing in stature and with plenty of players electing to swerve this week's tournament in preference for extra Augusta practice, he can take advantage and make a bold bid for glory.

Others to note
Phil Mickelson
Lefty has been inspired as he heads towards his 48th birthday and captured glory at the venue in 2011, when he set the course record for 72 holes.

Justin Rose
Last year's Masters runner-up is one of the most consistent players in the game, but has never finished higher than 14th in four attempts in this tournament.

Rickie Fowler
Has finished in the top ten in three of the last four Houston Opens, but he has not achieved that feat in any of his five tournaments since the turn of the year.

Jordan Spieth
Is entitled to be a factor if the quality of his putting rises to its customary level.

Steve Stricker
The veteran lacks length these days but he should be buzzing after winning his last two seniors tournaments and has to be respected.

Daniel Berger
Has not claimed a top-ten finish in his last 17 tournaments, but he will have his supporters having finished fifth in the last two Houston Opens. 

R Henley
2pts each-way 33-1 bet365, BetBright
C Howell
1pt each-way 50-1 BoyleSports
T Finau
1pt each-way 33-1 Coral

The lowdown

Course Golf Club of Houston, Humble, Texas
Prize money $7m ($1.224m to the winner)
Length 7,441 yards Par 72 Field 144

Course records – 72 holes 268 Phil Mickelson (2011), Russell Henley (2017) 18 holes 63 Adam Scott (2008), Jimmy Walker (2011), Phil Mickelson (2011), Scott Piercy (2015), Sung Kang (2017)

Course winners taking part Johnson Wagner, Phil Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, DA Points, Matt Jones, JB Holmes, Russell Henley

When to bet By 1.20pm Thursday
Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 1.30pm Thursday
Time difference Texas is six hours behind the UK and Ireland

Last week – WGC-Dell Match Play 1 B Watson 50-1, 2 K Kisner 125-1, 3 A Noren 35-1, 4 J Thomas 12-1 Corales Championship 1 B Garnett 55-1, 2 K Mitchell 80-1, 3 K Kraft 50-1, 4 D McCarthy 200-1, T5 KJ Choi 125-1, P Dunne 33-1, H English 33-1, S Han 60-1, T Lovelady 100-1, S Power 80-1, A Putnam 175-1, X Zhang 200-1

Course overview The Houston Open has been played at this course
since 2006, but it changed its name in 2014 from Redstone Golf Club to the Golf Club of Houston. Rees Jones designed the layout, with assistance from David Toms.

This track is not overly penal from the tee but the game gets tougher closer to the hole. The tournament organisers realised they were going to have to make their course more like Augusta if they were to attract star names just prior to the first Major of the season, so they made changes.

Most shots from around the greens are from fairway-cut or bunker (rather than from rough as had been the case previously), the goal being to give players some of the same shots they will hit at Augusta. Sloped banks around the greens and lightning-fast putting surfaces have made this an excellent Masters warm-up.

The 488-yard par-four 18th is the hardest hole, the 480-yard par-four fifth and 238-yard par-three ninth are two other difficult assignments, while the eighth, 12th and 13th are the three best birdie opportunities. There are four par fours under 400 yards.

Story of last year Russell Henley hit ten birdies in his final round to catch 54-hole leader Sung Kang and not even a double bogey on the ninth was enough to stop the man from Georgia booking his place at Augusta with a three-shot triumph.

Weather forecast Significant rain is expect on the eve of the tournament but four days of competition should be completed in dry conditions.

Type of player suited to challenge This course demands a tidy short-game, with fast putting surfaces surrounded by lots of tricky run-off areas.

Finding fairways counts for little. The power to have loft into small targets is more important. With rain anticipated before hostilities commence, that should play into the big-hitters' hands.

Key attribute Power

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This is plainly a course where he performs at the height of his ability and he looks to have a great chance of making a big impression once again
E.W. Terms
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