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The Masters Preview: Phil's to Lose?

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 Masters week, and for those of us who pegged Phil Mickelson as the likely winner a week ago, today we are joined by thousands more as any chance he had of coming in even a little under the radar vanished with his impressive win last week at the Shell Houston Open. Now, if I'm being completely honest, as someone who inserted Mickelson as the favorite at Augusta, I'm not entirely thrilled that he won last week. I can't pinpoint the exact reason, but I have this feeling that winning the week before the Masters isn't going to help his cause. Whether it hurts it is the important question, though, so let's examine the reasons why winning the week before the Masters could be detrimental. Reason one: He's no longer under the radar entering the week, which is generally where you want to be as a golfer. But we can throw this one out because Mickelson is never going to be under the radar. Reason two: the odds of winning in consecutive weeks, especially at a major, aren't good. This is a valid reason to question Phil's chances this week, but he already pulled off this feat when he won his second Green Jacket in 2006. Reason three: he's also the defending champion. Sure, going back-to-back at Augusta isn't easy - it's only been done twice in the last 40 years - but it's not impossible, especially since Mickelson has a habit of contending here nearly every time out. Perhaps there's nothing to worry about after all. Forgive me if I'm over-thinking this, but it is the Masters after all.

What the Shell Houston Open means:

Phil Mickelson: Mickelson is no stranger to winning the week before the Masters, but pulling it off in Houston is a new trick. This win doesn't increase his chances of winning this week, however, because he was already the favorite before the victory last week.

Scott Verplank: It's been a rough couple years for Verplank, but he finally showed signs of life last week in Houston. He wasn't able to gain access to the Masters this week, but perhaps he can pick up where he left off in a couple weeks.

Anthony Kim: Verplank wasn't the only one who came back from the dead last week. Kim also played well for the first time in a while. Kim started well this season, but the last two months he's struggled to find his game. He'll need to play even better this week if he's to make any noise.

This week:
The Masters

Last Year:
Phil Mickelson shot a final-round 67 on his way to a three-stroke victory over Lee Westwood.

Players to Consider:

1. Phil Mickelson

Mickelson isn't quite the favorite that Tiger used to be here, but he's close. He might not win this week, but he's all but guaranteed to be in the hunt Sunday.

2. Tiger Woods

Before you roll your eyes, remember that at his lowest-point, 12 months ago, he finished fourth at Augusta. His game hasn't improved that much over the last 12 months, but if he was able to contend last year, he can do the same this year.

3. Nick Watney

Watney looks really comfortable on the grounds of Augusta, and with his game constantly improving, he's likely to break through for a major win at some point. For his sake, though, I hope he's not the 54-hole leader.

4. Trevor Immelman

Immelman has struggled the last two seasons, but even in the midst of those struggles, he's managed to play well here. Since his win in 2008, he's finished T20 and T14.

5. Fred Couples

Couples underperformed last week in Houston, but that works out well as he'll be under the radar entering this week. So why take him? He finished sixth last year and has only missed two cuts here in 20 tries.

Players to Avoid:

1. Vijay Singh

Singh has a good track record at the Masters, heck he won here in 2000, but I don't like what I've seen from him the last few weeks. Singh appears to be trending the wrong way.

2. Dustin Johnson

Johnson has yet to figure out Augusta, and until he does, it's wise to pass on him. Johnson is also fresh off a missed cut in Houston, so there's a chance he doesn't even show up with his best game this week.

3. Sergio Garcia

Garcia's game is getting better, but outside a couple good showings, he's really struggled at Augusta. Garcia has only two top-10s in 12 tries at the Masters.

4. Aaron Baddeley

Baddeley is having a very nice season, but he's only finished in the top-20 once in five tries here. Augusta is one venue where you can't toss out course history, no matter how well the guy is playing.

5. Anders Hansen

Hansen has not only missed the cut in his two tries here, but he's missed by a country mile. Hansen has ended each of his two weeks at Augusta double-digits over par.

Yahoo! Fantasy Golf:

This week:
The Masters

Group A

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Tiger Woods

The dynamic duo back together again. How great would it be to have these two paired up on Sunday? Woods will have to find his "A" game to have that honor, though.

Group B

1. Hunter Mahan
2. Justin Rose
3. Paul Casey
4. Steve Stricker

Can't say that any player in Group B is a "must have" this week, which is odd because there are some really good players in this group. Mahan is probably the closest to that designation as he comes in off of consecutive top-10s here. Stricker is coming in off a good week in Houston and has also had his moments here over the years. The other two picks are gut picks, and those picks are critical during majors because nothing ever goes as it's supposed to.

Group C

1. Fred Couples
2. Trevor Immelman

A pessimist looks at this duo as a 50-year-old and a guy still recovering from injury. An optimist looks at this duo as former champions, who usually play well here, no matter the state of their game. Guess which one I am?

Starters Round One

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Steve Stricker
3. Hunter Mahan
4. Fred Couples

Three-fourths of my starting line-up from last week in Houston return for Thursday's round this week. Mickelson is an easy call over Woods to start. Even during Woods' best years, he rarely started well at majors. I'm taking a safe route in Group B as well. Stricker knows how to get around this course, and Mahan has played very well here the last two years. Calling Couples the "safe" pick makes me cringe a bit, but considering where we are, it's not that crazy.

Round Two and Going Forward:

It sounds strange, but I'm not sure I'll find a place for Tiger Woods at the Masters this week. Mickelson is playing that well, and he's absolutely money. That said, if Woods shows some of his classic form, I will find a spot for him. I'd be lying if I said I knew what was going to happen with my players in Group B this week. Fact is, majors are very difficult to predict. Guaranteed, many expected contenders will go home early this week. Some golfers considered sleepers will post scores in the double-digits - over par. That's just how the majors work. If a player gets going early, he's probably good to go for the entire week; if not, you can almost count him out after the first round. There will be no bounce-back factor this week, I'll side with momentum at every turn.

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