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Northern Trust Open Preview: Will Luke Get Lucky?

Greg Vara

Vara is the lead golf writer at RotoWire. He was named the 2013 FSWA Golf Writer of the Year. In addition to producing the weekly preview and the bulk of the draft kit content, Vara participates in Yahoo!'s "Experts Picks" where he routinely dominates. He also picks college football games against the spread in his "College Capper" article.

Ask any player yet to win on the PGA TOUR where he'd like to be entering the final round and he'll likely say, "just off the lead." Why? Simple, there is less pressure when you are not in the lead, and the last thing you need when trying to seal the deal on your first PGA TOUR win is pressure. More evidence of this notion was presented last weekend at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am as D.A. Points spent most of the day Sunday in the weeds only to strike at nearly the last moment. His strike came on the par-5 14th where he holed-out from 100 yards and suddenly took the lead. From that point, Points had merely one hour to let his brain get the better of him rather than an entire night like fellow competitor Steve Marino. One hour can seem like an eternity when trying to close out your first PGA TOUR win, but it's a walk in the park compared to sleeping on the lead and teeing off in the final group. Some have pointed to the comic relief of Bill Murray as a major reason why Points remained calm in the face his first victory, but the fact that everything happened so quickly was likely more of an influence.

What the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am means:

D.A. Points: Contrary to his post-round quotes, Points appeared to be completely under control down the stretch Sunday. Whatever the case, if he can appear calm in similar situations going forward, this could be the beginning of a solid career.

Steve Marino: It's only a matter of time - sure we've been saying that for a couple years now - but eventually, players who put themselves in position to win time and again find a way to win. Just ask Tim Clark. Of course, Marino undoubtedly doesn't want to wait an entire decade to earn win No. 1.

Dustin Johnson: There's no reason to panic about Johnson's performance last week at the AT&T, but considering how he started this year, with two top-10s and his outstanding track record at Pebble, last week's result was a major disappointment.

This week:
Northern Trust Open

Last Year:
Steve Stricker shot a final-round 70 on his way to a one-stroke victory over Luke Donald.

Players to Consider:

1. J.B. Holmes

It seems like Holmes performs well at every stop on the west coast swing, and Riviera is no exception. Holmes has three consecutive finishes in the top-7 here, and his form is pretty good entering the week.

2. Phil Mickelson

Same story as last week, Mickelson seems fairly close to his top form, but he's come up a little short each week. His track record is solid at Riviera, including two wins and a runner-up the last four years.

3. Luke Donald

Donald has been close several times here, including last year when he finished just one-stroke behind the winner Steve Stricker. In addition to his runner-up finish last year, he's also carded two top-6 finishes the last three years, and he's missed the top-15 only once in his last six tries here.

4. Steve Stricker

We haven't seen much from Stricker this year, but it's hard to ignore the way he's played here the last two years. Prior to his win here last year, he finished runner-up to Mickelson in 2009.

5. Steve Marino

Marino could go either way, but history indicates he'll continue to play well this week as he's proven to be a streaky player the last few years. Marino finished well here last year when he finished in the top-5.

Players to Avoid:

1. Corey Pavin

Pavin is a two-time winner here, but those wins came when Rickie Fowler was in grade school. Pavin hasn't made a cut here since 2007.

2. Billy Mayfair

Mayfair's win here came as Fowler was approaching middle-school and much like Pavin, Mayfair's had little to no success at Riviera the last five years.

3. Jhonattan Vegas

I was late to the party to weeks ago when I finally jumped on the Vegas bandwagon, but I am going to be early in predicting his troubles at Riviera this week. This is Vegas' first trip to Riviera and this course can eat players alive. Don't expect another run from Vegas this week.

4. Ryan Palmer

After a year off, Palmer is going to give Riviera another try. His success, or lack thereof, in his first five tries here would lead most to steer clear of this event. In those five tries, Palmer has missed the cut four times.

5. Justin Leonard

Leonard has had a long and successful career on the PGA TOUR, but for some reason he's never played well here. In 13 tries, he's never cracked the top-10.

Yahoo! Fantasy Golf:

This week:
Northern Trust Open

Group A

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Luke Donald

I was expecting a difficult decision this week in Group A, but this pair seems pretty clear. Mickelson is a two-time winner here, and Donald has been on the door-step the last three years.

Group B

1. Steve Stricker
2. Bill Haas
3. Hunter Mahan
4. Robert Allenby

An embarrassment of riches in Group B this week. I've selected a mix of players with strong track records at Riviera and those who are playing well coming in. Leading the way in the latter group is Bill Haas, who has three top-10s in four events this season. Also in that group is Mahan, who's coming off a strong showing last week at the AT&T. Stricker and Allenby each have strong histories at Riviera, though Allenby hasn't shown much of an upside the last five years here.

Group C

1. Anthony Kim
2. J.B. Holmes

The Holmes pick came easy, but after that, I struggled for quite a while. I considered Couples, who usually plays well at Riviera, but I'm not sure of his upside anymore. Other big names such as Cink and Day just don't have the track record here, and while Mike Weir does have the track record, he's simply not the same golfer as he was when he won in consecutive years here. In the end I chose Kim, who scored a top-10 here a couple years back.

Starters Round One

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Steve Stricker
3. Bill Haas
4. J.B. Holmes

Tough call in Group A this week as both Mickelson and Donald seem like excellent picks to start round one, but I'll go with Mickelson who has a habit of going really low in one of the first two rounds each year. I'm going with Stricker and Haas in Group B on Thursday. Stricker is generally reliable and is about as likely as anyone in the field to grab the first-round lead. Haas doesn't have the track record at Riviera, but he's been lights-out all year and likely will improve upon his best finish here, which was a T22 in 2007. Holmes was an easy choice in Group C as he has the track record and has played well the last couple weeks.

Round Two and Going Forward:

Mickelson's play will determine who starts in Group A the first two rounds. If he goes really low in round one, I'll likely switch to Donald on Friday. If Mickelson struggles early, I'll probably stick with him in round two with the expectation of a bounce-back. The weekend is a toss-up, but I'll lean Mickelson's way if he's in the hunt. Stricker has a strong hold on one spot in Group B, but the other spot is up for grabs all week. Allenby could find a spot in the line-up if he shows the form of years past, but I'll have to see it first. If Haas plays anything like he has all year, he'll likely get multiple starts this week. Mahan can play his way in if he shows his form from last week early on. Holmes has a pretty strong hold on the starting spot in Group C. Kim will have to force my hand to find a starting spot, otherwise Holmes could be the starter all week.