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Last Masters tune up at Houston Open

The greens are fast, the rough is short and the slopes are so slippery that errant approach shots are doomed to roll into any nearby water.

Organizers of the Houston Open have done everything they can to make the Tournament Course at Redstone play like Augusta National and make their event an ideal prep for next week's Masters.

The Houston Open was moved from late April to the week before the Masters when the PGA Tour shuffled the schedule last year. Tournament officials were hoping the new date and their attempts to simulate Augusta would draw an A-list field.

Instead, most of the top players bypassed Houston and headed straight to the real thing, while the Houston Open was once again left without stars such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and now, even three-time champion Vijay Singh.

Tournament director Steve Timms is confident that word of mouth about Redstone will bolster fields in the future. But he knows, even with a more attractive date, that the Houston Open will never draw everybody.

"You put the best product out there you can and hopefully they'll want to come play," Timms said. "There are some players who just don't play the week before the Masters."

Though many of the big names stayed away, the new date lured many of the international players who'll play at Augusta. Former Masters champions Jose Maria Olazabal and Bernhard Langer are here, along with Argentinian Angel Cabrera, Irishman Padraig Harrington and Englishman Lee Westwood.

The highest ranked player in this week's field is Adam Scott, who's trying to become the sixth Australian to win in Houston. Stuart Appleby won last year and fellow Aussies Bruce Devlin, Bruce Crampton, David Graham and Robert Allenby have also won the event.

Scott would've played anywhere this week. He spent five weeks vacationing in Switzerland and England before finishing 61st at Doral last week.

"I'd like to throw myself back up the top of the leaderboard and get those butterflies in the stomach going for next week," Scott said.

The Houston Open was played on the Tournament Course at Redstone for the first time last year, but drew lukewarm reactions. Singh, who won the Houston Open twice at the Jacobsen/Hardy course across the street, said the new venue "did not grow on me." He added that many players shared his opinion.

Appleby raved about the course's condition on Wednesday -- though he could hardly complain after finishing 19-under par last year to win by six.

He said the alterations have made the course "a flat version of Augusta," down to the lightning-fast greens.

Ultimately, Appleby said the weather will determine how much the course gets the players ready for the Masters. The weekend forecast calls for a slight chance of storms each day, with gusty breezes up to 20 mph.

"If this course stays soft, it will be very easy, which is not Augusta," Appleby said. "If it plays firm, fast and windy, it will make us think more Augusta thoughts."

Appleby hasn't won since Houston and his best finish this year was a tie for 13th at Kapalua, where he's won three times.

"I haven't played any good all year," said Appleby. "I haven't moved with the herd, you know? Stuck out of the back with the dog nipping at my heels. I've got to get moving some."

Returning to Houston certainly couldn't hurt. Appleby opened with a course-record 66 and broke 70 in all four rounds.

Scott doesn't think Appleby's total will be enough to win this year. He likes that the course doesn't offer too stiff a test leading up to the Masters.

"You might not get so severely punished and might be able to keep something going, good for the confidence," Scott said.

Course architect Rees Jones, who oversaw the changes, hopes it's not too easy. He said the alterations were done to force players to make more creative shots.

"They're going to have to lob shots or pitch shots into slopes," Jones said. "They'll have a lot of options."

Like Timms, Jones said he hopes the majority of players will eventually embrace the Redstone course.

"When they play it, they're going to talk to one another, about how they liked it," Jones said. "And then, more will play it and more will come. The word will get out."



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