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Houston Open Preview: Off his Game

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.

It's a question that can never be answered, and for most it's a question that doesn't cross the mind. But as someone who covers the sport of golf, it's crossed my mind often. The question is - is there an optimal score for every player? Example, take Steve Marino last Sunday. He came to the 17th tee at 8-under, one-stroke ahead of the nearest competitor. At that moment, considering the task in front of him, the daunting par-3 17th hole, a par was the best case scenario. Marino's tee shot left him a precarious spot, buried in a bunker. A spot from which he wasn't likely to salvage par. He splashed out of the bunker, and what remained was a lengthy putt/chip. At that point, with par likely out of the picture and bogie looking like a decent option, my theory is that 7-under was Marino's optimal score. If he were to manage a bogey in that spot, he goes to the 18th tee at 7-under. With his nearest competition at or near that same score, 7-under would seem to be good enough to win the event or force a playoff. Marino's entire approach changes on yet another daunting hole, the 18th. Instead of pin-hunting, he plays it safe, plays for a par, and that's likely what he gets. That's not how it happened, though. Marino doubled the 17th, which forced him into a spot where he had to make something happen on the final hole, which he did - but it still wasn't enough. So what's the point? A tight golfer, is a poor golfer. We've seen it for years, the tighter one gets, the worse he plays, thus limiting his scoring potential. In other words, the situation dictates the score as much as the player, which leaves us with an optimal score.

What the Arnold Palmer Invitational means:

Martin Laird: Give Laird credit; he was left for dead midway through the final round, but he found enough confidence to finish the round in style. It's not often that a first-time winner on the PGA Tour can rebound from a disastrous start to his final round.

Steve Marino: Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. As Tim Clark can attest, it doesn't get any easier. Marino is making a habit out of failing to close, and the longer it takes to get the monkey off his back, the harder it will be to close.

Sergio Garcia: Don't look now, but Garcia might actually be back. For those keeping track, that's two solid performances in a row - a top-15 at the Transitions and a top-10 at the Arnold Palmer.

This week:
Shell Houston Open

Last Year:
Anthony Kim shot a final-round 70 on his way to a playoff victory over Vaughn Taylor.

Players to Consider:

1. Lee Westwood

Westwood has never really fared well on this side of the pond, but for some reason, he plays well in Houston. He's finished T11 and T8 in his last two tries here. With the Masters right around the corner, expect Westwood to be on top of his game.

2. Hunter Mahan

This seems like the perfect place for Mahan to pick up another win on the PGA Tour. His game is just about right entering the week. He hasn't missed a cut all year, and he's finished outside the top-30 only twice this season. He also has two top-10s here in the last four years.

3. Steve Marino

Marino didn't actually fall apart last week, he just had one bad hole. And to his credit, he finished with an exclamation point at Bay Hill, so we know his game is fine. Add to that, his recent success here, consecutive top-20s, and you have the makings of a solid selection this week.

4. Johnson Wagner

If Wagner is going to build on the momentum from his win earlier in the year, this is the spot. He won here in 2008 and finished in the top-10 the year prior.

5. Fred Couples

Couples makes a habit out of contending at certain spots each year, and this is one. Last year didn't work out so well, but prior to that he tied for third and tied for fourth.

Players to Avoid:

1. Anthony Kim

The defending champ has been well off his game this season. Of his last four stroke events, Kim has missed three cuts and finished no better than 60th.

2. Phil Mickelson

Crazy, I know, but there's simply no reason to gamble on Mickelson this week. There's no doubt he's looking ahead to next week at Augusta, and he'll likely just use this event as a tune-up.

3. Vaughn Taylor

Consistency is not his thing. A good showing in Houston last year can only mean that he's not around for the weekend this year.

4. Gary Woodland

I was surprised that Woodland played so poorly last week at Bay Hill, but I guess it's understandable. The question is how long will the hangover last? With a question like that looming, it's best to look elsewhere.

5. Louis Oosthuizen

Oosthuizen hasn't exactly backed up his major win from last year just yet; don't expect that to change this week in Houston. In his only stop here in 2008, he missed the cut.

Yahoo! Fantasy Golf:

This week:
Shell Houston Open

Group A

1. Lee Westwood
2. Steve Marino

Two of my top five come from Group A this week. Westwood is looking to gain some momentum heading into next week, and Marino is looking to build on his momentum from last week. Both players have a good track record in Houston.

Group B

1. Hunter Mahan
2. Justin Leonard
3. Charl Schwartzel
4. Steve Stricker

Not exactly the most exciting group of golfers this week, but there are couple names in here that could win this week. Most notably Mahan, but close behind is Steve Stricker who finished in the top 11 three consecutive years from 2006-2008. Leonard has a consistent track record here, but it's not spectacular. Consider him the safety net this week in case some others miss the cut. Schwartzel finished third here last year.

Group C

1. Fred Couples
2. Johnson Wagner

I'll admit, this duo is a tad bit scary. Both Couples and Wagner have solid track records here, and I don't expect a disaster this week, but it's possible. I guess that's the price of upside. Wagner was a surprise winner here in 2008, and Couples nearly won earlier this year, so you never know.

Starters Round One

1. Steve Marino
2. Steve Stricker
3. Hunter Mahan
4. Fred Couples

I'm playing it safe out of the gates this week. Marino in Group A; he should have some momentum from last week even though he couldn't quite finish. Mahan and Stricker in Group B; they've both played well here before and have been quite reliable. Couples in Group C might not be considered a safe pick, but Freddy is pretty dependable in Houston, and that should remain the case this year.

Round Two and Going Forward:

Marino gets the first-round start due to his performance last week at Bay Hill, but after round one this week, it's anyone's spot. Westwood needs only to show that he's focused on the task at hand this week and I'll consider putting him into the line-up. Of course, that could depend on how well Marino starts. If he shows his form from last week early on, it might be hard to pull him. Mahan and Stricker could hold the starting spots all week in Group B if they play well early. Chances are, one will falter, at least a little, which will open the door for Schwartzel, who's likely the first one off the bench. I may not use Leonard this week, but it's nice to know that he'll likely be around for the weekend if needed. Group C is a toss-up after the first round. If Couples shows his form from earlier this year where he nearly won, then he's probably locked into the starting spot. If not, we'll see what Wagner has to offer.