A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Mickelson adds star power to Open

Phil Mickelson is a big draw at the Houston Open. PGA.com

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It was hard to know which headline had Houston cheering louder Thursday.

Another Opening Day lead-off Springer Dinger or Phil Mickelson on the Houston Open leader board after opening with six birdies in his first eight holes.

Honestly, neither one gets old.

We’re used to World Series MVP George Springer swinging for the fences, but Thursday he became the first player to open back-to-back seasons with a leadoff homer up in Arlington for the #Neversettle Houston Astros and the first player from a defending World Championship team to start the season with a leadoff homer the following year.

And Mickelson? One of Houston’s all-time favorite players never really does subtle, does he? We expect wild tee shots and jaw-dropping recoveries. And moments like he had earlier this month when he one-upped Justin Thomas in a playoff the WGC-Mexico Championship for his first win since the 2013 British Open.

With the lineup they have, we expect the Astros, 4-1 winners in the opener, to start their season strong. Especially when they go up their against in-state rivals the Texas Rangers.

As for Mickelson, he cooled off on the back with a run of pars and a double-bogey at the par-3 14th, but, just a few months away from turning 48, he’s still right there, just three shots back with three rounds to play.

He’s tied with a bunch of others, including fourth-ranked, legend-in-the-making Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson, at 4-under-par 68 and just two behind another fan favorite Rickie Fowler. Steve Stricker, who has won the last two Champions Tour events, is in a group at 5-under.

“I played well today and I certainly, the back nine, didn't make a birdie, played 2-over  and that's disappointing,’’ he said. “But I'm playing well. I got off to a good start. My goal is not to win on Thursday, my goal is to try to get in contention for the weekend.  So I didn't hurt myself there, but I didn't help myself as much as I could have.’’

Still, having that crowd on the leader board and Mickelson eyeing the weekend is  just what the Houston Open needs.

We’ve got months to go with the Astros, but just the rest of the week with the Houston Open. Next week it’s off to the Masters when the season really kicks into high gear and Mickelson, Spieth, Fowler and Stenson are all in the conversation for this year’s green jacket.

Without a title sponsor for the first time in decades, the Houston Open is putting on a great show to showcase Houston and, well, having those guys on the opening-day leaderboard certainly doesn’t hurt.

Mickelson is a perennial fan favorite around the country, but Houston has a special place in his heart since his wife Amy and mother Mary both underwent breast cancer surgery and subsequent treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

And when the Houston Open took the pre-Masters slot and started setting up the course with quick greens and mowing patterns that mimicked Augusta National’s setup with a different grass, Mickelson started playing his way in. Although he struggled with certain holes that didn’t set up well for him, he figured it out and won here in 2011.  That year – cue the cheering – he chipped in on the first hole of the final round just to get things going.

After his round, he talked about hitting those low running slices he’ll need next week. Great prep for what could be a fourth green jacket.

“There's a lot of holes where (a low running slice) fits here and I'm just trying to hit that shot and get comfortable with it, and I hit it well,’’ he said.

Mickelson, who went more than four and half years without a win, has a win, a second, a third and a fifth this season, has moved to 18th in the world and is fifth in the Ryder Cup standings. And he has his eye on that 50-win mark. He’s at 43 and holding. And, yes, the plans to get there.

Thursday, he wasn’t happy with the double on the back nine, but otherwise it was a good start. “I didn't make any big mistakes off the tee, which out here there's potential for disaster on every tee shot,’’ he said. “I have found that disaster over the years just about every place here.  So I was able to navigate through all the disaster, potential tough holes, and didn't hurt myself off the tee and then my iron play took over.’’

Houston Open tournament director Steve Timms calls Mickelson one of the great draws in the game and fans at the Golf Club of Houston flock to him. Part of it are those smiles and great reactions to his shots – good and bad – on the course; part is the way he signs autographs for children and engages the crowd, period. And fans don’t forget when, after winning the 2010 Masters, he teed it up in 2011 and won here.

Spieth and Fowler both attract crowds too. Spieth, the Dallas native and former Texas Longhorn, will be eyeing his second green jacket next week and fourth major overall. He won America’s hearts early, winning both the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015 and finishing tied for fourth at the British Open and second at the PGA. Last year, he won the British Open, leaving him just a PGA away from the Grand Slam.

And Fowler? He’s got that “it” factor. He has only won four times so far, but one was the 2015 PLAYERS Championship. He has two top-10 finishes in Houston, including last year’s tie for third.

If Mickelson, Spieth and Fowler are in the mix in that final round, it could be another Houston Open to remember.


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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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