Rotowire writers team with Morning Read contributors to handicap the PGA Tour's Houston Open in final Masters tuneup
Morning Read has teamed with the fantasy golf and gaming experts at Rotowire to bring you a more complete look at which players are set to thrive – and others who will struggle – this week on the PGA Tour. In the first of our weekly series, our two groups preview the Houston Open. Play begins Thursday at Memorial Park, a municipal course renovated recently by Tom Doak with an assist from Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champion who will be in the field.
Previewing the action: Greg Vara, Rotowire’s lead golf writer; Len Hochberg, Rotowire’s senior golf writer; and Morning Read contributors Mike Purkey and Gary Van Sickle.
Let’s get to it:
Who has the most to gain – or lose – this week heading into the Masters?
Vara: Phil Mickelson. It's one thing to win on the Champions Tour, but it's been a while since Mickelson has thrived on the PGA Tour. With the Masters on the horizon, a good showing in Houston could provide a confidence boost into what surely will be his last chance to compete at a high level at Augusta.
Purkey: Brooks Koepka will be one of only a handful of players who will have all eyes on him this week at the Houston Open. But it would be a surprise if Koepka attracted a lot of betting action unless he somehow gets into the hunt, simply because of the uncertainty that surrounds his physical condition and the state of his game. He was sketchy at the CJ Cup, finishing T-28. He says he’s almost 100 percent physically, and we can only take his word for it. A good week in Houston – which should mean a top 10 –likely will give him a boost headed into next week’s Masters.
Hochberg: Well, there are two guys. And really, they both have the most to gain and the most to lose. They are those former BFFs, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. Johnson is making his first start since the U.S. Open after having testing positive for COVID-19 three weeks ago. We've seen a couple of other top guys who tested positive return to different results. Scottie Scheffler struggled for a few weeks. Tony Finau tied for 11th at the Zozo in his first start back. There's so much we don't know about this virus and its effects, and how everyone will handle it. If Johnson looks good this week, great; all systems are go for Augusta. If he doesn't look good, that makes him a very big question mark for the Masters, With Koepka, it's more cut and dried. If his left knee holds up, then he could thrust himself into the conversation for next week. If his knee is iffy or flares up – and it didn't appear to be at the CJ Cup – then he has everything to lose by playing this week.
Van Sickle: Brooks Koepka was the man to beat whenever he teed it up not so long ago. A knee problem cut short his run, and he's looking more and more like damaged goods. That would be a shame. He would/should be among the Masters favorites, but he's being overlooked. If Koepka is going to contend at Augusta, and maybe start to regain his mojo, he needs to sharpen up in Houston.
Who’s one sleeper (30-1 odds or greater) to watch this week, and why?
Vara: Doc Redman (50-1). Unfortunately, there is no course history this week as Memorial Park is in play for the first time since 1963. With that in mind, current form is of the utmost importance, and Redman comes in off a nice showing (T4) last week. It's a step up in class as the field is much better this week than last, but Redman will get a win sometime soon.
Purkey: Brian Harman (50-1) has been a stealth player on the PGA Tour since August in the two FedEx Cup playoff events in which he competed. He was T-11 at the Northern Trust and T-12 at the BMW Championship. Lately, at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, he started 65-63 and was in contention until a Sunday 72 ended his chances. And at the Zozo Championship, he posted rounds of 66-68-67 and dropped to T-26 after a final-round 73. This week’s event will be played at a redesigned Memorial Park in Houston and everyone in the field will be learning it for the first time. Harman’s short game will be an advantage.
Hochberg: After struggling for much of the year, Alex Noren (90-1) has made eight straight cuts coming in, six of them top-25s, including both majors (yes, his past two starts were in no-cut events). There are a bunch of long holes at Memorial Park, which doesn't play to Noren's strengths. But with run-offs around the greens a feature of Tom Doak's redesign, a good short game will be required, and that's where Noren normally shines. He ranked seventh on Tour last season in strokes gained around the green and 31st in strokes gained putting. He also was T-18 in par-5 scoring, and Memorial Park features five par 5s.
Van Sickle: Stewart Cink (66-1). It seemed like a fluke when the 47-year-old won the Safeway Open in September, but he's backed it up. Cink finished T-12 (Sanderson Farms), T064 (Shriners) and T-4 (Bermuda) in his past three starts and ranks ninth in greens hit in regulation. He's also 15th in total driving, which combines length and accuracy.
Which player would you avoid this week in fantasy games/gambling, and why?
Vara: Phil Mickelson (100-1). The most to gain with a good performance, but I don't see it happening this week. He's been tearing up the Champions Tour, but it hasn't translated to improved play on the PGA Tour. Mickelson's best showing in three starts on the PGA Tour in the 2020-21 season was T-44, at the Safeway Open.
Purkey: Dustin Johnson (13-2) is probably not the best fantasy pick this week. He’s coming off a recovery period from COVID-19 and likely will be even more low energy than normal. He will be just trying to get his sea legs under him and work on the shots he’s going to need for Augusta National and the Masters. Lighting it up for four days at Houston probably is not on Johnson’s agenda.
Hochberg: This week could turn into a real birdie-fest. Golfodds.com puts the over/under on the winning score at 265.5, or 22.5 under par. That signals we're in store for a track meet. Hideki Matsuyama (18-1) is terrific around the greens, which will be a real asset at Memorial Park. But it's hard for him to keep up in a putting contest. He is better on hard courses than easy ones. He has recent top-25s at the WGC-FedEx, PGA Championship and U.S. Open, but not The Northern Trust, Shriners (MC) or Zozo. Even if he finishes top-25 this week, that alone wouldn't justify his price.
Van Sickle: Lanto Griffin (50-1). The Houston Open moved downtown to renovated Memorial Park, which was not where the Open was played last year when Griffin won at Golf Club of Houston. So, don't be fooled that Griffin will have any more local knowledge than anyone else. Using last year's results as a guide to predicting this one would be unwise. The pre-renovation Memorial Park last hosted the PGA Tour in 1963.
Who’s your pick to win the Houston Open, and why?
Vara: Russell Henley (16-1). Henley has a great track record here, which doesn't matter quite as much because it's a new course, but there's something to be said about being comfortable in a location, such as what Henley apparently is in Houston. None of that would matter, however, if he weren’t playing well right now, but he is. Henley enters this week off a pair of top-5s in his previous two starts on the PGA Tour.
Purkey: The last few years, the Houston Open has provided its winner a trip to the Masters. Jim Herman got his first victory in 2016 at Houston; Russell Henley ended a three-year drought with his 2017 victory; Ian Poulter won on Tour for the first time in six years with his 2018 win in Houston; and Lanto Griffin came out of nowhere for his first Tour win last year. Scottie Scheffler (22-1) could be the next in line. Scheffler finished T-4 at the PGA Championship in August, T-4 at the Northern Trust and fifth at the Tour Championship. After a 67-65 start, he finished T-17 at the Zozo. A win this week would send Scheffler to Augusta.
Hochberg: It's crazy that Viktor Hovland (16-1) isn't in the Masters. I get it, it's an anomaly of a year, and I don't quibble with the entry criteria. But he's the one top guy in the field who won't be going to Augusta. He doesn't have one eye looking ahead. Plus, he's been playing very well since the restart and has moved into the top-25 OWGR (so he's virtually assured of being at Augusta next April). He's not the best putter, but with the rest of his game, he's good enough.
Van Sickle: A new course, a new tourney, a new sponsor; the Houston Open is tough to handicap. When in doubt, always go with quality: Dustin Johnson (13-2), the No. 1 player in the world. He is back after a brief break due to a positive COVID-19 test.
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