The Houston Open was, for a long time, the traditional warm up event for the Masters. The organisers did a sterling job of trying to recreate the conditions of Augusta National and several big-name players made sure to take in a trip to Houston for their Masters prep each year.
That all changed in 2019 when the Houston Open was moved from its slot in April to much earlier in the season/later in the year (the whole wraparound season still confuses us a little!). The new October date was swiftly followed by a new course but the fields remain strong for the new look Vivint Houston Open.
2022: Tony Finau
Tony Finau’s transformation from a choker to a killer is – at least in the eyes of most golf fans – now complete. It took the popular, big-hitting American over five years to go from one PGA Tour victory to two but he heads into the end of 2022 as a five-time PGA Tour winner after his victory in the Cadence Bank Houston Open.
After some excellent golf over the first three days at Memorial Park Golf Course Finau knew that he was very much the one the others were taking aim at on Sunday. The chasing pack – which included Tyson Alexander, Ben Taylor and Alex Noren – tried their best to put Finau under pressure early in the final round. However, a front nine of 31 suggested that the leader was feeling happy and confident. By the time the nerves started to rear their head on the back nine Finau was clear of trouble so his slight stumble was of no consequence.
“I’ve always had belief, but the confidence when you win is contagious,” Finau said after securing the win. “I’ve just always been a hopeful person and I work extremely hard on my body and my game. And now I’m starting to bear the fruits of that labour.” That confidence helped Finau to shake off a missed cut the previous week and suggests that he has plenty more wins coming his way.
2021: Jason Kokrak
Professional golf at the top level is an incredibly challenging, competitive environment. The PGA Tour is full of alphas who love to exude confidence in their abilities and for a long while it looked as though Jason Kokrak just didn’t have the required killer instinct as he went the best part of a decade without being able to get over the line. However, the 36-year-old has firmly dispelled that notion as the 2021 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open became his third PGA Tour win in 13 months.
Speaking after finishing two shots ahead of Scottie Scheffler at Memorial Park, Kokrak said, “I guess you can call me an underdog, but the last couple years I’ve played some pretty solid golf, so I wouldn’t exactly say that I’d be the underdog going in.” Kokrak’s run of form is all the more impressive when you consider that he has only one top 10 finish in between his three wins, showing just how deadly he now is when in contention.
As happy as Kokrak is with his golf currently he would have loved to break his duck sooner. He’ll therefore empathise with Ryder Cup ace Scheffler who once again performed admirably without being able to win on the PGA Tour. He did very well to get into contention without his best game but the Texan native would love to go one better in next year’s Houston Open.
2020: Carlos Ortiz
The 2020 tournament saw a new course for the newly named Vivint Houston Open. Memorial Park Golf Course made its debut on the PGA Tour and produced a first-time winner at this level in Carlos Ortiz. The 29-year-old earned his breakthrough win in some style, closing out with a birdie to see off the challenge of Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.
Many players of Ortiz’s stature would have crumbled in the face of such high-class opposition. He deserves a huge amount of credit for the way he traded blows with more established and successful players such as Johnson and Matsuyama during the final round and then for coming up trumps with the decisive move on the 16th. Ortiz showed why he ranked so well for strokes gained from tee to green with a big drive followed by a stunning six iron into the green of the par five.
The win was even more special as it came in a city and a state that Ortiz knows very well. He played a lot of golf in Texas during his amateur days and as such had a healthy proportion of the galleries on his side. “This is like my second home,” he said afterwards. “There was a bunch of people cheering for me, Latinos and Texans. I’m thankful for all of them.”
2019: Lanto Griffin
A move in the schedule for the Houston Open in 2019 to October meant that it was no longer the warm-up event for the Masters. If that detracted from the tournament you would never know it by listening to Lanto Griffin after Sunday’s closing round. The emotions poured out of the 31-year-old when he holed a par putt on the 72nd hole to secure his first PGA Tour title.
“This is going to be a week that I’ll never, never forget,” Griffin said afterwards. If all of the hard work, sacrifice and pain that he’d gone through before this win burst out after the deal was sealed, there was no evidence of that emotion during the tournament. He stuck to his task very well during a closing round of 69 during which he hit the front on the 16th hole. It was a lead he maintained thanks to a composed last two holes, ending with a six foot putt for par.
Griffin’s joy was balanced out by Scott Harrington’s disappointment. He held the lead through to the 15th hole when a mistake saw him loosen his grip on the tournament. Harrington couldn’t do enough to claw his way back to the top of the leaderboard and finished level with Mark Hubbard, an agonising one shot off the winner.
2018: Ian Poulter
Few, if any, golfers have been better at squeezing every ounce of potential out of their ability than English Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter. His work rate and mental fortitude makes up for any relative lack of class compared to the best players in the world. That much was clear to anybody present at the Golf Club of Houston for the 2018 Houston Open. Poulter was languishing in 123rd and facing a weekend off after the first round but he dug deep and focussed on going past his rivals one by one like a driver in Formula 1. That strategy paid off in dramatic style when he belatedly secured the tournament win in a playoff against Beau Hossler. What made the victory even more incredible was the fact that it was just what Poulter needed in order to secure his place at the upcoming US Masters.
Poulter’s match play exploits must have been playing on Hossler’s mind as they teed it up for the playoff. He knew that his opponent would not blink under the pressure but that’s exactly what the American himself did, making a hash of the first playoff hole and allowing Poulter to win with a par four.
“It’s amazing, to get this done today to get me to Augusta is amazing,” said Poulter after the playoff, referencing the fact that he had just earned the final outstanding place for the Masters. “My first strokeplay win in the States, and to do it with the Masters on the line, is unbelievable.”
2017: Russell Henley
Winning on the PGA Tour is very difficult. Just ask Sung Kang. The South Korean opened up the 2017 Shell Houston Open with rounds of 65 and 63 to put himself in pole position going into the weekend at the Golf Club of Houston. Despite showing signs of nerves during a round of 71 on Saturday, Kang still had a three-shot lead going into the final round. Those nerves became even greater on Sunday though and a level par round of 72 was not enough to hold off Russell Henley who stormed through the field to win by three shots.
There was more than just a third PGA Tour title motivating Henley to victory. The win earned him the final place in the field for the following week’s Masters, a prize that was particularly coveted after Henley missed the trip to Augusta for the first time in four years in 2016. It also showed that his game was in very good shape for a crack at the green jacket as he saved his best golf for last in Houston.
Henley had a hot run of form on the greens to thank for this win. He averaged over three shots gained on the field with his putter at the Golf Club of Houston. Those sort of numbers were always going to make it difficult for the competition, especially on top of a good week from tee to green.