This Week in Golf -- March 29 through April 1

PGA TOUR - HOUSTON OPEN, Redstone Golf Club, Tournament Course, Humble, Texas - The Florida Swing is over and the Masters is next week, so the Houston Open provides the final chance to get games in shape in time for Augusta National.

Last year, Phil Mickelson used rounds of 63-65 over the final two days to post a three-stroke victory over Scott Verplank and Chris Kirk.

Mickelson wasn't able to parlay that success into a successful title defense at the Masters. But Lefty is the last player to win the week before the Masters, then don the green jacket seven days later. That happened in 2006 when Mickelson collected his second Masters victory.

Heading into this week, Mickelson has enjoyed an up-and-down 2012 campaign.

Mickelson had the sensational finish to win at Pebble Beach and followed that up with a playoff loss at the Northern Trust Open. Aside from those two shining moments, Mickelson hasn't cracked the top 20 in five other starts, including a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Mickelson is certainly not the only big-name player in the field this week.

Europeans Lee Westwood, Open Champion Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn, Paul Casey, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington will be on hand to refine their games before the Masters.

Perhaps the most interesting headline prior to the tournament is that of Ernie Els.

The Big Easy, a three-time major champion, will need to win the Houston Open to gain entry into the field at Augusta. Els hasn't missed the Masters since 1993 and he's come painstakingly close in the last few weeks to securing a spot.

Els needed big finishes at the Transitions Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational to get into the top 50 in the world rankings and he was right there. Unfortunately, Els missed short putts down the stretch of both and is now in this predicament.

Golf Channel has the action on Thursday and Friday, then it's over to NBC on the weekend.

Next week is the Masters, where Charl Schwartzel will try to become the first player since Tiger Woods in 2001-02 to successfully defend a title at Augusta National.


KRAFT NABISCO CHAMPIONSHIP, Mission Hills Country Club, Dinah Shore Tournament Course, Rancho Mirage, California - Golf's first major championship is upon us and it's almost impossible to imagine anyone but Yani Tseng taking that plunge into Poppie's Pond.

Tseng has won the last two weeks and captured a third event, earlier in the year at the Honda LPGA Thailand 2012. She is the best player in women's golf and an argument could be made that she's the most dominant athlete in the world.

It's not like she doesn't have great history at Mission Hills.

She grabbed the tournament by the throat on Sunday two years ago and earned her second major title. Last year, Stacy Lewis played flawless golf and that was what it took to keep Tseng from back-to-back titles. Tseng finished alone in second.

Lewis shot a three-under 69 a year ago and won by three strokes. It was her first, and to date, only major championship.

Golf Channel will carry all of the action.

In three weeks, the LPGA Tour will be back for the inaugural LPGA LOTTE Championship in Oahu. That event will run from Wednesday to Saturday.


SICILIAN OPEN, Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, Sicily, Italy - Matteo Manassero was in a similar position to Ernie Els the last few weeks.

The Italian teenager needed a win last week at the Trophee Hassan II to get into the top 50 in the world rankings. Manassero was tied for the third-round lead, but Michael Hoey shot a pair of 65s in the final two rounds and now Manassero has to watch the Masters on television.

This week, he will try to make up for missing out on a trip to Augusta with a victory in his home country.

He admitted he's never played the course, but Manassero is the star attraction.

Raphael Jacquelin posted a three-under 68 in the final round last year to earn a one-stroke victory over Anthony Wall. It was Jacquelin's third European Tour title, but he needed an extra day to get this one.

A 2 1/2 hour weather delay on Sunday a year ago forced a Monday finish. Jacquelin had a one-shot lead with six to play on Monday and hung on for the victory.

Golf Channel has the broadcast this week.

The next European Tour event is the Masters, won by one of its own, Charl Schwartzel.