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Northern Trust Open Preview: Riviera to the Rescue

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.

There are a number of ways to determine when a player reaches the "next level" in professional golf. The most common indicator is when a player wins a major, and while I can't argue with that necessarily, the PGA Tour is littered with players who won a major and never sniffed the "next level." If not majors, then what is the best indicator of where a player stands among his golfing brethren? For my money, nothing reeks of superiority more than knowing the outcome of an event before it happens. That's exactly what happened last week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am where Brandt Snedeker took the reins early and never let up. To be clear, Snedeker wasn't the favorite coming into the week, but once it was clear that he brought his best game, there seemed to be a sense that him winning the tournament was a forgone conclusion. That, in my eyes, is the measure of a golfer residing on the "next level." Sure, a major championship this season would be quite the stamp on his career and it would surely bring exponentially more media attention, but for a player like Snedeker it would only serve to validate his current position - and that's something he really doesn't need to do, he has indeed arrived. That, of course, won't stop him from winning a major soon, though. If he can somehow keep this roll going, into, say, mid-April, we just might be talking about Snedeker at the very top level sometime soon.

This week:
Northern Trust Open

Last Year:
Bill Haas shot a final-round 69 on his way to a playoff victory over Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley.

Players to Consider:

1. Phil Mickelson

It was all lined up for a Mickelson victory last week. He was coming off a great performance the week before and his track record at Pebble was solid. But wouldn't you know it, he almost missed the cut. This, however, is actually a better spot for Phil. He has an impressive history here, but he's coming in off a poor performance, just like he was two weeks ago in Phoenix.

2. J.B. Holmes

Holmes is not off to a great start this year, but Riviera is just the place to kickstart his season. In his last five starts here, Holmes has missed the top 10 just once and that was a 12th-place showing. This course obviously suits his eye.

3. Jimmy Walker

Walker played very well last week at Pebble on his way to a top-5, and he's on a nice roll at Riviera as well. Walker has posted consecutive top-5s here, and if he has his form from last week, it will be three consecutive come Sunday night.

4. Aaron Baddeley

Baddeley takes the fourth spot for the second consecutive week after a nice showing at the AT&T last week where he finished T12. Baddeley won this event just two years ago and finished T11 last week. Another top-10 looks to be in the cards this year.

5. Charl Schwartzel

If you follow the Golf Channel's Jason Sobel on Twitter, you know he's hyped Schwartzel all week, and for good reason. In his five starts overseas this season, Schwartzel has yet to finish outside the top-5. He's a first-timer here, so this could easily backfire, but his game is spot on.

Players to Avoid:

1. Vijay Singh

Singh has a decent track record at this event, which might warrant a look under normal circumstances, but these are anything but normal circumstances for Singh these days. If he happens to start fast, the attention only intensifies, as do the questions. It's really a no-win situation for Singh until this deer antler spray investigation gets settled.

2. Fred Couples

Betting against Freddy at Riviera is generally a bad idea. After all, he's made a career out of focusing on a certain number of locals each season and playing lights out. Riviera is one of those locals, but missing the cut here last year was an indicator that father time has caught up to him.

3. Robert Allenby

Allenby has a solid track record here that includes a playoff victory in 2001, but he's way off his game, and not even Riviera can solve his issues. Allenby has played three times this year and has yet to make a cut. His most recent round of 76 was followed by a WD from the Farmers.

4. Justin Leonard

Leonard isn't exactly lighting it up this year, but four made cuts in four starts is actually a nice improvement upon his 2012 season. That's not why he's here, though. His history here is not good, and his consecutive cuts streak will likely end this week.

5. Ben Crane

Crane has only missed the cut once in his seven starts here, so why is he on the Avoid List? He's never cracked the top-50 at this event. Very strange indeed, but for whatever reason, he simply can't put four, or even three, rounds together here.


Group A

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Sergio Garcia

Group A lacks its typical firepower this week, and as such, Mickelson should be on every team. The second choice, however, will vary, but Bill Haas likely will be a popular choice. I'm going to fade the defending champ and go with Sergio, who has a nice track record at this event as well.

Group B

1. Jimmy Walker
2. Aaron Baddeley
3. J.B. Holmes
4. Webb Simpson

Group B is overflowing with quality options this week. So much so, that I'm actually a little skittish about a couple of my choices. But that's what happens when you leave names like D.J. and Donald off your team. Three of my top-5 are in Group B this week, and the only outlier is Keegan Bradley. Bradley is not off to a great start this season, but he finished runner-up here last year and has shown a tendency to turn his game around on a dime early in his career.

Group C

1. Charl Schwartzel
2. Adam Scott

With many foreign players tuning up for the Match Play event next week, there is plenty to choose from in Group C as well. Schwartzel is a bit of a wild card this week as he's yet to play here, so it's imperative that you choose your other Group C player wisely. I'm going with Scott, who won here in 2005 and finished runner-up in 2006. He also finished in the top-20 last year, which makes Scott fairly reliable at this venue.

Starters Round One

1. Phil Mickelson
2. Jimmy Walker
3. J.B. Holmes
4. Adam Scott

It might seem odd that I'm going with Mickelson out of the gate this week after his less-than-stellar performance last week, but he did post a 60 the round immediately after a uninspiring performance at the Farmers. Walker gets the first spot in Group B; he has the track record and is coming off a solid week at the AT&T. Second spot in Group B goes to Holmes. A little risky as he's not in top form entering the week, but his history here is hard to ignore. Playing it safe in Group C to start the week. Schwartzel is hot, but a new track can change that quickly, so I'll go with the former champion Adam Scott.

Round Two and Going Forward:

Finally a straightforward, play-who-you-want-because-they're-all-on-the-same -course kind of week. Some might say it makes it more difficult this way; after all, there's no crutch to fall back on. But I prefer basing my decisions on the golfer, not the course. Anyhow, Mickelson gets the start out of the gate in Group A, and it's his spot to lose. If he starts well, he just might go all four rounds this week. Walker has a pretty strong hold on one starting spot in Group B this week, and it might take a couple poor rounds to move him. Holmes will not have quite as long a leash. One poor round from Holmes and I'll likely move onto Baddeley. Bradley will probably be the last one in and only if he shows the form that earned him runner-up last year. Scott gets the Thursday start in Group C, but a good start from Schwartzel will knock him from that spot Friday. As always, precise lineup updates will be posted on my Twitter feed throughout the week.

Follow @gregvara on Twitter.

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