Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose pitch for the Masters at Shell Houston Open

Ewan Murray in Houston
Rickie Fowler shot a 64, his best round of the year, in the first round of the Shell Houston Open. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The Shell Houston Open can never be treated in isolation. Some players are at least honest enough to admit publicly that this event is used as a crucial precursor to the Masters rather than a standard stop on the PGA Tour. For others Houston represents the last hope of qualifying for the first major of the year.

Rickie Fowler has no worries in the latter department but the 28-year-old is looking to end a curious run. Last year a missed cut at Augusta National was followed by the same at the US Open, a share of 46th at the Open Championship and a tie for 33rd at the US PGA – this in a year when Fowler had been widely tipped to end his wait to claim a major.

The signs are suddenly considerably better for Fowler, partly because he will head to Augusta relatively under the radar. His opening round of 64 in Houston was more like the swashbuckling Fowler of old in endorsing form as shown when winning the Honda Classic in February. Thereafter Fowler returned three fine scores in four rounds at the WGC Mexico and finished a creditable 12th in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. And yet, it is Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson who dominate pre-Masters discussion.

Fowler produced a bogey-free performance kick-started by an opening nine of 31. His 64 was his lowest this year and his best in this tournament. This Texas canter was even more impressive given the appearance of “mud balls” – Augusta sees a good few of them too – which left a number of players struggling to control iron shots. “I really like where I’m at right now,” said Fowler. “I have a lot of good stuff going on; family is great, friends are great, plus I’ve been able to put in some really good work in the gym.

“I like playing my way into the majors and they’ve been able to do a great job here with conditions around the greens and making it as similar as possible to next week. Just playing and going through the process of getting ready makes things a lot easier when you go tee it up on Thursday next week. It’s definitely been trending and building this way. I felt very good over the last few months.”

Fowler was to throw the opening pitch at the Houston Astros’ game with the Chicago Cubs on Thursday evening. “You get more nervous out there than playing golf,” he admitted. “You just hope not to screw it up.”

By close of play on day one Fowler’s lead was only one, from Sung Kang, the Korean who is seeking to become the fifth player in nine years to seal a Masters spot by winning in Houston. Justin Rose’s late-afternoon 67 leaves him three from the summit of the leaderboard. Adam Scott, on a rare 2017 start, shot 68 which was one better than Jordan Spieth. The Open champion, Henrik Stenson, runner-up here a year ago, surprisingly slipped to a 74. Lee Westwood’s 77 was reasonable in the context of being five over par after three holes.

Phil Mickelson produced back-to-back nines of 36 for an even par start. Jon Rahm, the on-form Spaniard, fared one shot better. “I wasn’t quite sharp today,” Mickelson said. “But I have been playing well, so I’m hopeful to come out tomorrow and shoot a low one and get back in it. I was just a little bit off out there. I didn’t hit my irons close. I didn’t make a lot of great putts.”

Speculation that Tiger Woods will play in the Masters has intensified with his appearance on the schedule for pre-tournament interviews. However, such a situation has transpired before with Woods subsequently pulling out of events.

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