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The Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course: As close as you may ever come to playing Augusta

Mike BaileyBy Mike Bailey,
Senior Staff Writer
Golf Club of Houston - Tournament Course - 18th
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No. 18 on the Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course is one of the most difficult finishers on the PGA Tour. (Courtesy of the Golf Club of Houston)

The Tournament Course at the Golf Club of Houston (formerly known as Redstone), home of the Shell Houston Open, is a popular stop for PGA Tour players and a good Masters warm up. That's because the course is prepped like Augusta National ... but in Texas.

HUMBLE, Texas -- When the date of the Shell Houston Open was moved to the week before the Masters in 2006, tournament officials decided to do something brilliant.

In an effort to get as many top players as possible, they prepped the Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course like Augusta National. That meant using a combination of rye/bentgrass to overseed the greens and heavily overseeding the fairways and tees with rye, essentially turning it into a winter golf course.

The players raved, and the Shell Houston Open has been able to attract the top players in the world because they're looking for a tune-up to the Masters.

Of course, the players' endorsement and subsequent publicity has been the best form of advertising for this Rees Jones course, which was specifically designed for the PGA Tour event.

Bret Nutt, head golf professional of the Tournament Course, said in the weeks following the tournament, which is held in early April, the course is booked solid. There are outings, but there are also plenty of individual players who have seen the course on TV or walked the course during the tournament.

In short, nothing attracts players like perfect conditions, and from February to late spring, that's pretty much standard operating procedure at the Golf Club of Houston, which is located just 15 minutes east of George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

The Golf Club of Houston: Play where the pros play

Like any course on the PGA Tour, the Golf Club of Houston can offer something special -- the treatment.

Here it starts with a forecaddie and the best practice facility in the Houston area.

After you arrive to your cart, you're greeted by your forecaddie, who carries your clubs to the range, wipes them clean as you finish with them and keeps you on schedule for your tee time.

Our caddie, "Hollywood," a young man with long blond hair and aspirations of going into the golf business, worked his way from Whistling Straits in his home state of Wisconsin and eventually to Houston for the winter. He earned his nickname as he gained a reputation as a "player" while caddying at golf courses in New York.

Hollywood declined to divulge the details of his escapades. Instead, he was Johnny on the spot for greens reads, finding balls, yardage and confirming club selection. Given that I was in a group of all single-digit players, the partnership worked extremely well.

Length and water at the Golf Club of Houston

From the very back, the Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course plays to a par 72 and 7,422 yards. One tee up -- and there are five sets in all -- it's still just under 7,000 yards.

While some of the holes can play long, the course overall runs fast, which is just the way the PGA Tour players like it.

By the time you get to the fifth hole, though, you get the idea of how hard and long some of these par 4s can be. Not only is the fifth 467 yards from the back tee, but the tee shot plays around a lake, which forces you to not only hit it long but shape a driver as well to carry part of the water. From there, you're looking at a long club into a green protected by water and bunkers.

The primary defense of the course, however, is the water, which is predominant on at least half the holes. It comes into play on par 5s and par 3s and big-time on the difficult 484-yard, par-4 18th hole, considered one of the toughest finishing holes on Tour.

In fact, the last four holes represent one of the most difficult finishing stretches anywhere. The 15th is a 609-yard par 5 that features wetlands and is anything but a routine three-shotter. The 16th is a 200-yard par 3, and the 17th and 18th par 4s are both over 480 yards.

Fortunately, the 18th generally plays downwind. In the spring and winter, though, it often plays into the wind, and when that's the case, even the best players often find themselves laying up on the second shot with water all the way down the left side.

The Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course: The verdict

Opened in 2005, the Golf Club of Houston's Tournament Course is gaining a fine reputation.

The downside of the course are the treks between the first and second hole and 17th and 18th, which are separated by bayous and several hundred yards (forecaddies typically have to catch a ride here on the back of a golf cart).

But the quality of holes and superb conditioning make the fact that the course is spread over 350 acres easy to overlook.

Practice facilities here are also as good as it gets. The large range, with perfect turf, is double-sided. There's also a large chipping green, practice bunkers and two large practice greens shared by both the Tournament Course and the the Golf Club of Houston's private member course.

Lessons are also available from the professional staff, which includes well known instructor Charlie Epps, who has worked with 2009 Masters champion Angel Cabrera.

If you play the course in spring, you can enjoy the same conditions the PGA Tour players get, which simply put is phenomenal. During the summer, as the course transitions back into Bermuda, there might be some blemishes here and there, but by in large, it's still in pretty good shape, although the course closes in the middle of summer for maintenance and late fall for overseeding.

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Mike Bailey is a senior staff writer based in the Houston area. Focusing primarily on golf in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America, he contributes course reviews, travel stories and features as well as the occasional equipment review. An award-winning writer and past president of Texas Golf Writers Association, he has more than 20 years in the golf industry. Before joining the TravelGolf Network team in 2008, he held positions at PGA Magazine, The Golfweek Group and AvidGolfer Magazine. Read Mike's golf blog here and follow him on Twitter at @Accidentlgolfer.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
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