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Weekly Preview: Houston Open Preview

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 been a while since I've been forced to write about Tiger Woods every week, but at this pace, that time is nearly here. I mentioned last week that when Tiger is on, the PGA TOUR is consumed by what he's doing and even not doing. Case in point, how much time has been devoted to the Shell Houston Open this week as opposed to The Masters in two weeks and Tiger's next major opportunity? OK, so The Masters is always going to draw more attention, even two weeks out, but the point is this: the golf world is focused on Tiger and his attempt to win another major championship. As proven over the last 15 years, it's certainly not bad for business, either. The problem for the avid golf fan, though, is that when Tiger is rolling, there isn't much drama. Don't get me wrong, watching Tiger dominate is often more entertaining that watching two average players battle it out to the very end, but what if we could have it both ways? That's always been the dream - Tiger at his best being challenged by another elite player, week after week. Many have tried, and many have failed. There is one player, however, who just might be up to the challenge, and you all know who I'm talking about. If Rory McIlroy is on top of his game, The Masters could be the start of the next great rivalry. And if that happens, I'll be more than happy to write about Tiger every week.

This week:
Shell Houston Open

Last Year:
Hunter Mahan shot a final-round 71 on his way to a one-stroke victory over Carl Pettersson.

Players to Consider:

1. Rory McIlroy

This week is actually a great test for McIlroy. Tiger did his part last week, now it's Rory's turn. It might not be fair, but that's how the public is looking at this potential rivalry. It doesn't hurt that when we last saw McIlroy, his game looked pretty good.

2. Keegan Bradley

Bradley is rounding into form and at just the right time. A rough start last week made it almost impossible to get in the mix Sunday/Monday, but the effort wasn't lacking. Bradley finished in the top 5 here last year as well. Looks like another good week for Bradley.

3. Geoff Ogilvy

It's nice that Ogilvy is back in the mix now. His track record at this event is solid, and his play lately has been pretty good. Let's not forget where he came from when assessing his play. He was at rock bottom not too long ago, but he seems to be past that now.

4. Phil Mickelson

Remember this guy? While the spotlight is firmly on what Tiger has done and what Rory could do, Phil is lurking in the shadows and might be the one player who can beat Tiger and Rory at The Masters. This week, though, he's in Houston, a place where he's had a lot of success, including a top-5 last year and a win in 2011.

5. Hunter Mahan

Mahan loves this track, at least judging by his results it sure looks that way. Five top-15s in seven starts, which includes a win last season. More impressive perhaps is a streak of seven consecutive top-25s entering this week. Make that eight after this week.

Players to Avoid:

1. Russell Henley

Henley started 2013 on fire, but a missed cut last week might be the first sign that his game is starting to crack. Young players have a hard time keeping momentum going for long stretches, and it looks like Henley may have hit a bit of a wall last week.

2. Bill Haas

Haas played well last week, for a couple rounds at least, but he's never made a cut in Houston, be it at the former venue or the current one where he's 0-3. Haas is likely using this week to fine tune his game for Augusta.

3. Dustin Johnson

Johnson is another player likely using this week as a tuneup for The Masters. D.J. has struggled at this event with two starts and two missed cuts. The field is strong this week, and it will take a great effort to win. D.J. doesn't appear to have enough on this track to pull it off.

4. Bud Cauley

If he's not at the top, he's certainly near the top of the most disappointing players of 2013. He played well here last year, and that might be enough to get him out of his funk, but his game is in horrible shape.

5. Retief Goosen

Goosen has played this event once, and although he made the cut, he did no better than T60. Goosen played fairly well last week at the Palmer where he finished with a top-30, but his game has been too inconsistent this season to use him here.


Group A

1. Rory McIlroy
2. Phil Mickelson

With three of my top-5 in Group A this week, I had to leave one out. I left Ogilvy out because I'm not sure his upside is as high as Rory's or Phil's this week. Phil has won here before, and Rory is out to prove a point in his lead-up to The Masters.

Group B

1. Keegan Bradley
2. Steve Stricker
3. Hunter Mahan
4. Carl Pettersson

There appear to be three picks in Group B this week that are far and above the rest. Bradley and Mahan are in my top-5 this week, and Stricker finished just outside the mix. Stricker finished with a top-5 in 2011 and has four top-10s in his six most recent stats here. The last pick wasn't too clear, but I figured last year's runner-up was probably a good choice.

Group C

1. Lee Westwood
2. Brian Stuard

I've got a good feeling about Westwood this week. I don't have the numbers to justify a top-5 pick necessarily, but I just have a hunch. He plays in Houston almost every year and is very comfortable on this layout. Brian Stuard is quietly, and I mean, really quietly, having a solid season. He's a perfect 8-for-8 in cuts made this season, including two top-10s.

Starters Round One

1. Rory McIlroy
2. Hunter Mahan
3. Steve Stricker
4. Lee Westwood

A couple of interesting decisions to make for round one this week. First, in Group A, Mickelson or McIlroy? Mickelson has a big edge in course history, but McIlroy probably has the edge in recent form. Considering the intangibles this week, such as Rory trying to make a point, I'm going to start with McIlroy. Another dilemma in Group B. This time it's because of the number of starts available for each player. I've already used Keegan Bradley five times this season, which obviously means I've only five left. Since he looks like a solid pick this week, I need to have him on the roster, but I don't have to start him unless he starts well, more on that later. Such is the case, I'm going with Stricker and Mahan out of the gate, so it's not like I'm sacrificing anything. Group C was the only easy call to make. Like I said, I have a good feeling about Westwood this week, and he gets the nod out of the gate.

Round Two and Going Forward:

Group A is going to be fun to follow all week. I'll likely go with the hot hand Friday unless said hot hand goes really low Thursday. As is often the case, it's really difficult to back up something in the low-60s. As mentioned earlier, I'll keep a close eye on Bradley early. If he starts well Thursday, I'll get him in the lineup Friday. If I am going to use start No. 6, I want to get all that I can out of it. Group B looks like a three-man rotation this week with Pettersson on the outside looking in. Pettersson will need to be in contention on the weekend to get a start this week. Group C is Westwood's to lose this week. Stuard has played well this year and is a solid safety blanket if Westwood falters, but I don't see that happening this week.