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Houston Open Preview: Ready to Strike

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.

When Pete Townshend penned the now famous lyric, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," he certainly didn't have Tiger Woods in mind, but the that phrase certainly applies to Tiger's standing in the golf world after his triumphant return to the top of the PGA TOUR. Before we get too excited, I will point out that according to the WGR, he's merely a contender to the throne. But according to the eyeballs of anyone who watched Tiger steamroll the field last weekend, he's again one of the best in the world, if not the best. You might ask how I, along with so many others, can jump to this conclusion after one victory. To that I say, did you not see what happened Sunday? Did it not feel like the old Tiger was back? Did the field not crack under the pressure like it used to? Was there not that feeling of inevitability that no matter who made a charge Sunday that Tiger was going to win? I understand those who are hesitant to crown Tiger once again after just one victory, but he's been striking the ball at an elite level for weeks now; it was only his putter that kept him back. Suddenly his putter is back, and wouldn't you know it, he's lapping the field. Only time will tell if Tiger can regain his spot atop the WGR, but we've seen this script before and every time we've doubted him. But before you underestimate Mr. Woods this time, it might be wise to consider the title of the song lyrics mentioned earlier, "Won't get fooled again."

What the Arnold Palmer Invitational means:

Tiger Woods: To put it simply, he's back. Everything is working right now, including the putter. It was really the only thing missing over the past couple months and now that he's found his stroke an epic battle with Rory McIlroy awaits in two weeks.

Graeme McDowell: Woods isn't the only one who appears to be "back". McDowell cleared off the cob webs on his way to his best showing on the PGA TOUR in quite a while. He didn't have enough juice to catch Tiger, but he was the only one who put any kind of pressure on him all week.

Ernie Els: In case you missed the 300+ times they mentioned it this weekend, Ernie Els needs to win this week at Houston to earn a spot the Masters next week. Els has played well over the past few weeks, but its easy to see that he no longer has that extra gear to get him over the top.

This week:
Shell Houston Open

Last Year:
Phil Mickelson shot a final-round 65 on his way to a three-stroke victory over Chris Kirk and Scott Verplank.

Players to Consider:

1. Phil Mickelson

He's not at the top of his game, but this is historically when Mickelson strikes. Just when you start to wonder about his game, he comes up big, and with Augusta on the Horizon, you can bet he's focused.

2. Keegan Bradley

Course history be damned, Bradley is playing too well to leave off your roster. I learned that a few weeks back; heck, that's a lesson I should have learned a lot sooner.

3. Johnson Wagner

Wagner turned the corner this season in that he's starting to play well outside of the venues where he normally plays well. That's not a factor this week, however, as he usually plays well in Houston as his 2008 win here would attes

4. Anthony Kim

His opening 69 last week had us all wondering if he was back, but his closing-round 83 answered that question emphatically. That said, he did show signs of life last week, and he's a former champion here, so he could put up a few good rounds this week.

5. Fred Couples

In four tries at the current venue, Couples has two top-5s, and he's coming off a win on the Champions Tour. I know, it's the Champions Tour, but hey, you still have to play well to win on that tour.

Players to Avoid:

1. Jamie Lovemark

He's starting to come around as evidence by his top-20 in Puerto Rico, but he's yet to crack the top-25 against a full-field event this season. He'll get there, but not this week.

2. Andres Romero

Remember this guy? He was the next big thing a few years ago after nearly winning the Open Championship and capturing a win on the PGA TOUR, but it's been all downhill since, including this season, where, like Lovemark, he's failed to crack the top-25 in a full-field event.

3. Harrison Frazar

You'd think the native Texan would fare better in his home state, but for whatever reason, Frazar really struggles in Houston. Frazar has missed the cut in five of his six tries at the current venue.

4. Darren Clarke

Clarke is undoubtedly using this week's event as a tune-up for Augusta next week, but if his results from this season are any indication, he'll need more than a couple rounds in Houston to get ready for Augusta.

5. Stewart Cink

Has there been a player that has fallen as far as Cink over the past few years? OK, there are a handful of players, but Cink looks totally lost now. After a decent start to the season, Cink has carded only three of his last 11 rounds in the 60s.

Yahoo! Fantasy Golf

This week:
Shell Houston Open

Group A

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Keegan Bradley

There aren't a lot of quality players to choose from in Group A this week, but I'll admit, it was tough to leave Steve Stricker off the roster. But I can't find fault with either Mickelson or Bradley this week.

Group B

1. Hunter Mahan
2. Lee Westwood
3. Ernie Els
4. Anthony Kim

Again, not much beyond my picks in Group B. Mahan has a solid track record here with four top-11s in six tries on this course. Els is playing for a spot at Augusta with a win this week; that's a little insider information everyone. Westwood has fared well on this course as has Kim, who isn't that much of a risk this week considering the players I paired with him.

Group C

1. Johnson Wager
2. Fred Couples

I'll say this about my picks in Group C, they aren't going to be copied by many. Not with so many big names in this group anyhow. You'd think I'd play it safe after both of my players from Group C missed the cut last week, but in a way, I am playing it safe. Wagner and Couples have been reliable on this course and are both playing well coming into this week, so I'd be shocked if I were left without a starter this weekend.

Starters Round One

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Hunter Mahan
3. Ernie Els
4. Fred Couples

This is a first, I think the average age of my starters Thursday is about 45. No worries, though, as all four have shown the ability to get around this course. Mickelson carved out a nice 65 on the final day last year, which should give him some good vibes heading into the first round this year. Mahan has a very consistent track record here, so I'll start him out of the gate. Els, well, I'm not sold on Els this week. He's under a lot of pressure, but I guess we'll see what he's got left right away. Hopefully, he comes up big like he used to. I'm going Couples in Group C; I have a feeling that this could be one of those magical weeks when Freddy is in the mix until the end.

Round Two and Going Forward:

Mickelson has a fairly strong hold on the starting spot in Group A this week. It will take something special from Bradley to pry him out of that spot. Group B is up in the air after Thursday. Els will be the first one out if he falters in round one, while I'll give Mahan the benefit of doubt if he starts slowly. That said, a strong round from Westwood and he's the first one in. Kim on the other hand is going to be a tough call. After all, he started well last week and fell off the map. I might need two good rounds out of him before he gets in there. Group C is all on Couples' performance. If he starts well, I'll stick with him. If not, I'll have no problem switching to Wagner.