Houston: last step for Spieth before defending Masters crown
HOUSTON (AP) Jordan Spieth is so excited about returning to Augusta National next week to defend his Masters championship that just thinking about it makes him feel like doing pushups.
First things first. Spieth believes a strong showing in the Shell Houston Open, which starts Thursday, could have a significant impact on how well he plays in this season's first major championship. It certainly did last year.
''A win here would obviously be the goal, to get as much momentum as possible,'' he said. ''I drew a lot on this week last year. It certainly kept the momentum alive (and led to) coming out on top.''
Spieth had a playoff victory and a runner-up finish before Houston a year ago, then took the 54-hole lead here last spring before losing in a three-way playoff, in which he secured a spot by sinking a nearly 12-foot putt on the final hole, calling it ''a nice putt to have hit going into a major.''
Although he didn't win - J. B. Holmes prevailed over Spieth and Johnson Wagner - he took plenty of confidence with him to Georgia. The end result there was a record-tying 18-under-par 270 and an easy four-stroke victory. At 21, Spieth became the youngest start-to-finish leader since Walter Hagen in 1914, and the first four-day front-runner in Augusta since Raymond Floyd in 1976. He also broke the Masters record for birdies, and at one point was the first player to reach 19 under-par.
That success carried over to the U.S. Open, which he also won to get halfway to golf's Grand Slam.
But that was last year, Spieth was quick to remind everyone at a news conference Wednesday. While looking forward to hosting the Champion's Dinner on Tuesday in Augusta, where he'll serve Texas barbeque, he said, ''I won't be celebrating whatsoever. The week is solely about the 2016 Masters to me.''
He knows defending his title will be a tall order with a deep field of contenders who have been playing better than Spieth has in recent weeks. The Texan hasn't won a tournament this season since January and lost his world No. 1 ranking to Jason Day when Day won the Match Play in Austin after Spieth was knocked out in the round of 16.
Day, who isn't playing at Houston, will be coming off back-to-back PGA Tour titles, giving him six wins since July 2015, when he tees off at the Masters. Spieth said of Day's taking over the top spot, ''He certainly deserves that position right now. It's really incredible what Jason can do when he finds his confidence in his game.''
Besides Spieth, who's now ranked second, five others among the top 11 in the world are in the Houston field: Rickie Fowler (5), Henrik Stenson (7), Patrick Reed (10) and Louis Oosthuizen (11). The tournament's last five champions are entered, too, including Phil Mickelson, whose victory here in 2011 is among his 42 career PGA Tour titles.
Mickelson is one of five former Masters champions who will play the 7,441-yard, par-72 course that features both lakes and wetlands and has been set up in many ways to replicate conditions at Augusta National. Of the 144 players in the Houston field, at least 33 are going on to the Masters.
And a 34th could join them with a victory Sunday. Wagner in 2008 and Matt Jones in 2014 qualified in the last opportunity by winning Houston.