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Handicapping The Open Championship

Golf's most prestigious championship is on the line as the pros tee it up at the Old Course at St. Andrews starting on Thursday. Here's a look at a few names that might intrigue you when setting this week's lineups.
The chalk
It's always a good idea to start with the guys that the Vegas oddsmakers favor, keeping in mind that their views are often affected by the need to tweak the odds on certain popular players to generate betting. Tiger Woods leads all individual players at 3:1, followed by Phil Mickelson at 10:1 and Lee Westwood at 12:1. Padraig Harrington (15:1) and Ernie Els (18:1) are the only other golfers who come in under 20:1. Interestingly, the field (comprising all those players beyond the top 30 on the oddsmakers' charts) comes in at 2:1. This reflects Vegas's collective belief that your best individual bet would be "none of the above."
Who's hot
Last week's winners and near-winners include Steve Stricker, Paul Goydos, Edoardo Molinari, and Darren Clarke. Each man deserves consideration, but pay particular attention to those who did well in the Scottish Open (Molinari and Clarke). The strong finishes by Goydos and Clarke actually earned them previously un-punched tickets to St. Andrews. A week earlier, Justin Rose took the AT&T National by a stroke over Ryan Moore, and Miguel Angel Jiménez won the French Open in a playoff over Francesco Molinari and Alejandro Caňizares.
Who's not
Henrik Stenson has entered six events on the west side of the pond in 2010 and hasn't cracked the top 25 once. He has two eighth-place finishes on the European Tour this season, but hasn't made the noise everyone expected after last year's big splash. He was as steady as they come in winning the 2009 Players Championship and in amassing over $2.5 million in just 10 PGA events last year, but this year has been an enormous disappointment.
For the reckless at heart
Former Open champ John Daly actually played well last week at the Scottish Open, and he has won at the Old Course (albeit a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away). He'll laugh off the added length in this year's course, and if his short game shows up, who knows?
For the wistful at heart
Tom Watson. Why not? He came within a hair of writing perhaps the greatest sports story of all time last year, and he probably hasn't deteriorated all that much in the ensuing 12 months. And age is just a number; Sam Snead finished third in the PGA Championship at age 62. But to answer the question posed above, one reason not to pick Watson is his career 0-fer at the Old Course; the only Open venue on which he has yet to win. Turnberry, last year, better suited his game. Picking Watson is for sentimentalists only; if you're determined to go with a senior player, Tom Lehman makes a better choice.
A solid dark horse
Check out Chris Wood, a Brit who has finished T-5 and T-3 in the last two Opens, and who put together three straight top-10 finishes in May. Don't expect miracles; he missed the cut at the Scottish last weekend.  But he sizzled at the BMW back in May before fading to 6th with a 77 on Sunday. If you want to catch lightning in a bottle with a less-known player, he's your guy.
The Lefty factor
Mickelson is generally regarded as the best golfer on the PGA Tour right now, but should he be your pick at St. Andrews? Based on past performance, probably not; this is one event that has always eluded him. His best finish at the Open is a third in 2004; indeed, that's his only top-10 finish here.
The Tiger factor
Tiger Woods has entered six events this year. In two majors, he finished tied for fourth both times. In just about everything else, he's laid a series of eggs, with his best showing being a tie for 19th at The Memorial. We have the same advice for you now as we have had all year, and it's the opposite of previous years. If you need to take a chance in order to move up in your standings, then taking a flier on Woods makes some sense. If you're in good position, you're probably better off picking a safer, steadier player. Those 3:1 odds you saw above? They're probably significantly altered from reality by the number of bettors who shun Tiger based on his current personal woes. Frankly, we think the reluctant bettors are on to something.
The travel factor
It's usually a good idea to give at least a modest uptick to those players who traveled to Scotland a week early, in contrast to those who stayed stateside to play in the John Deere Classic. They will have overcome travel fatigue by now, and have acclimated their bodies to British Summer Time. The pros are accustomed to travel, of course; but flying from Illinois to Fife is a tad more than is customary on the PGA Tour. Physiologists tell us that in this era of jet travel, we can generally adapt to a new time zone at the rate of about one hour per day. BST is six hours ahead of Central Daylight Time, so the Deere alumni might still be a bit off-peak on Thursday's round, particularly those who have an early-morning tee time. For example, John Senden (who finished T-12 at the Deere) is due at the first tee at 6:52 BST, which is shortly before 1:00 in the morning Illinois time. Goydos and Stricker fare better, with afternoon tee times for the opening round. If you're concerned about this factor, then you should bench Senden for Thursday's round, and bench Stricker Friday, when he tees off at 8:58 BST. The effect will be marginal on Goydos, whose Friday time is 10:37 BST.
Sick bay
Forget Anthony Kim, who's still out after surgery on his thumb. Vijay Singh is in the field, but he's an injury risk – as he has been all year – due to his bad back. Even so, he has posted top-15 finishes in three out of his last four events, so you might be tempted to go with the big Fijian with the languorous swing; that's fine as long as you have the requisite risk tolerance. One of the tournament favorites, Lee Westwood, is favoring a recent ankle injury that might hamper him this week. He has cut back on his pre-tournament practice schedule to allow the injury to heal, but this particular injury typically requires several weeks to resolve fully.
Spanish invasion
Fresh off Spain's wins in the World Cup and at Wimbledon, the Iberian nation sends a formidable contingent to St. Andrews, led by Sergio Garcia, who's still trying to shed the label of a career underachiever. By now you will have heard plenty about Alvaro Quiros, who drives the ball far enough to inspire Tiger Woods to describe him as "stupid long." He'll be hitting a whole lot of wedges and short irons into the expansive Old Course greens (average green size is about 20,000 square feet, compared with Pebble Beach's average of 3,300). Miguel Angel Jiménez won two weeks ago at the French Open and generally plays well at the majors (including top-15s at the Open Championship in 2007 and 2009). His fairways-and-greens game makes him a decent bet to contend into the weekend, but he isn't likely to take home a claret jug unless he buys one as a souvenir. Of the other Spaniards in the event, Jose Manuel Lara has missed three straight cuts on the Euro Tour; Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaňo played well early in the year but has shown little in the past couple of months; Ignacio Garrido isn't even in the top 200 in the Official World Golf Rankings; only Alejandro Caňizares has put together a solid season in 2010, posting six top-15 finishes in the last 2½ months. As a small national contingent, the Spanish golfers are poised to do comparatively well on the links course.