HARRIS COUNTY - HSA INSIDER

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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Houston loses first game to Oakland

A's end losing streak against Astros with late homers

Lance McCullers Jr. went five innings of one-run ball Friday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After maintaining their stronghold against the A's in Thursday's home opener, the Astros had the chance to lock up the three-game series victory against Oakland with a win on Friday night. On the mound, Lance McCullers Jr. hoped to improve upon his first start against this same team, a five-inning one-run outing.

Instead, he would have the same outcome, once again lasting five innings while allowing one run, before a big tie-breaking home run late in the game would push Oakland out of their losing skid against the Astros.

Final Score: A's 6, Astros 2

Astros' Record: 6-2, tied for first in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yusmeiro Petit (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (1-1)

McCullers Jr. makes it through five

McCullers Jr. looked sharp through the first three innings, allowing just two baserunners, one on a second-inning single, then a walk in the third. Oakland did better against him the second time through their order in the fourth, with Jed Lowrie leading the inning off with a solo home run to put Oakland in front 1-0.

They went on to load the bases with one out on an error and two walks, but McCullers would strand them all. He returned for the fifth, a much cleaner inning where a caught stealing by Martin Maldonado would help him face just three batters. His final line: 5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 88 P.

Oakland gets homer-happy to even the series

McCullers Jr. would leave the game without being eligible for the winning or losing decision, as an RBI-groundout by Kyle Tucker in the fourth would have it tied 1-1. Bryan Abreu was the first out of Houston's bullpen, and he would attempt to eat up multiple innings. He had perfect innings in the sixth and seventh, retiring six A's in order to maintain the stalemate.

Abreu remained in the game in the top of the eighth, allowing a single before getting a strikeout, ending his run as Dusty Baker would bring in left-handed Blake Taylor. Taylor would give up a single against his first batter, then a loud go-ahead three-run home run to Matt Olson to push the A's back in front 4-1. They'd add two more insurance runs off of Joe Smith in the top of the ninth, getting a two-run home run by Mark Canha to extend the lead to 6-1.

Oakland's bullpen would hold on to the newly created lead, allowing just one run on a sac fly by Jose Altuve in the bottom of the ninth, finally ending their losing streak against Houston and setting up the rubber game on Saturday to be for the series victory.

Up Next: This series's finale will be a Saturday afternoon start, with first pitch scheduled for 3:05 PM. For the Astros, Jose Urquidy (0-0, 4.15 ERA) will look to get a win on the board, while Oakland will hand the ball to Frankie Montas (0-1, 23.63 ERA).

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