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Fantasy Cheat Sheet: Shell Houston Open

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Since 2007, the Shell Houston Open has been the springboard to the Masters. Normally played the week prior to the year’s first major, it is the last chance for someone to get to Augusta, and the only way to do so is to win.

The Golf Club of Houston (formerly Redstone Golf Club) in Humble, Texas, has been the host since 2003, and it appears to be yielding one of the strongest fields it has ever had. That’s primarily due to the Rees Jones design acting as an Augusta National prequel. And of the participants, there are 14 players who have combined to win 25 major titles, including five by Phil Mickelson, who is coming off a withdrawal from last week’s Valero Texas Open. Who knows if his oblique muscle strain was real or something to get him home a day earlier once he got far out of contention.

For Jimmy Walker, who played his college golf at nearby Baylor University, being in the field as a three-time PGA Tour winner, which was all accomplished this year, comes on the heels of a barely-made cut.

Many gamers are starting fresh after the Yahoo winter segment ended, and hopefully you’re holding onto a virtual trophy. But with a new segment now in the works, begin planning your strategies accordingly and don’t be afraid to play some hunches on a course that sets up for Masters prep. Here’s a look at some I’ll fool around with this week. It’s Risk, Reward, Ruin.

RISK

Steve Stricker Shell 2014 Fantasy

With such a strong field this week, season starts to be valued at this point in the year, and a new segment opening up, I want to take a deeper look at some golfers who are likely total hit-or-miss for one reason or another. I really like all five of the Risk picks below, but I will still be calculated in whatever gambles I take. Often that means pairing risk with reward so you don’t wind up with goose eggs on your scorecard and a bottle of Goose in your hands.

Steve Stricker

Last year, he played a limited schedule. This year by comparison makes Steve Stricker look a buddy who pulls his clubs out of the attic every June to go drink a sixer and lose 50 balls in the water. Of course, Stricker practices in the meantime, but he’s played but four events this season and one was match play where he got bounced in the first round. He won’t shoot himself in the foot this week, but the play of recent tournament play provides me trepidation he won’t tear up GCH either. When he was playing a lot, Stricker’s results were impressive. His last two outing were middle of the pack, but before came T4 (’11), T11 (’08), T9 (’07) and solo third (’06) results with one missed cut mixed in. You’d like to use him because he has so many starts available. This could be a good time.

Paul Casey 

Paul Casey Shell Fantasy 2014

In 2009, Paul Casey reached third in the Official World Golf Rankings. In that year, he recorded his first PGA Tour victory at the Shell Houston Open, topping J.B. Holmes in a playoff, then later won the European Tour’s high-profile BMW PGA Championship. But also in that year, he suffered an injury, which slowed his ascent, before his game turned back the other way. His only Tour win is still in Houston, though he does have 12 European Tour and two Asian Tour wins to his credit. A T12 at the Honda Classic a month ago was a nice sign to his game, but he missed the cut at the Valspar and tied for 60th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He has missed his last two cuts at SHO, but I believe he’s nearer his 2009 form than that of his struggling play in more recent memory.

Hunter Mahan

This slot was a tie between Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan until Kuchar finally awoke from a semi-slumber and played well for three rounds at the Valero Texas Open. Kuchar will continue to play well, but Mahan needs a top-5 finish to get his year going. And since he withdrew during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a hip injury, it’s a mystery to know what kind of golfer he’ll be this week. But with four top-10s this season and a win at the SHO in 2012, it’s not to say he can’t come out on top again. He’s contended a lot as evidence by T8 (’11), T6 (’09), T5 (’07) and T11 (’06) finishes, but he’s also sprayed in four missed cuts during a 10-year stretch.

Charles Howell III

Charles+Howell+III+Humana+Challenge+partnership+jvi0RLuy6k_l

Charles Howell III may be heading to Augusta this week, but the only way the hometown kid is making the Masters is by winning this week. He has six top-10s this season and he’s entering with a final-round 76 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational to remind him of missed opportunities to slide in using the OWGR. Fortunately for him, he’s played well at the SHO. Last year, tied for 10th, in 2011 he was T19. He’s 6 for 9 with a solo 17th in ’05 as his only other solid result. CH3 is a true risk pick with his last PGA Tour win coming in 2007.

Brian Davis

Davis enters this week with very little to show for his season thus far, outside a couple top-20s. A third-round 76 took him out of brief contention last week, but Davis has shined at the Shell Houston Open. He finished T6 last year with nothing to show for himself in the weeks preceding. In 2012, he finished T4. He’s 5 for 7 at SHO with a T7 in ’05 and a T14 in ’09. Davis is a good under-the-radar pick and in a great spot to use him in Golf Channel’s game.

REWARD

Henrik Stenson Shell Fantasy 2014

Up until Phil Mickelson withdrew from the Valero Texas Open, I had him pegged to be in the Reward category. This will be the 10th time he’s teed it up at the SHO, and he won in 2011. But now, I don’t have anywhere to slot him. I guess, technically, he’s a Risk, but I’m not even close to considering him. He’s also not been so bad that he’s Ruin either. Lefty is in some weird golf purgatory right now, which is not where you want your game to be heading into Augusta. So for now, here are five I especially like to tame Houston’s fast-paced greens. Apologies to the many elite golfers not named.

Henrik Stenson

Coming off a T5 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Stenson enters GCH as a strong favorite thanks to a T3 finish in 2009 and a T2 last year. On this course, hitting greens in regulation will be a big key to success, which is what Stenson did so well at Bay Hill. His GIR sits at just below 70 percent, which would place him in the top 25 on Tour if he qualified. If he hits greens this week, look out.

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy Shell Fantasy 2014

Outside of Adam Scott, who’s not in the field this week before defending his Masters title, you could make a strong case for McIlroy being the best player in the world. His play this season backs that up this season with a win at the Emirates Australian Open and a loss in a playoff at The Honda Classic. On the European Tour, he’s had a T9 at the Dubai Desert Classic and a T2 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy’s GIR is even better than Stenson’s and would slot him in the top 10 on Tour if he qualified. He’s 2 for 3 in cuts made at the SHO with one top-20, but he is very much at the top of his game in a very young career.

Dustin Johnson

Very few can top the season Johnson has already had. He won his first stroke-play event, has a T6, T2, a solo second-place finish and is coming off a T4 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He closed last year’s T4 performance with a final-round 65. While he missed the cut in 2008-09, his game has reached a pinnacle in recent years. He leads the Tour in GIR, birdie average, scoring average and is second in driving distance. All the statistics line up with recent form to make him the top contender this week.

Keegan Bradley

Keegan Bradley SHell Fantasy 2014

We’re still waiting for Bradley to bust out and grab another win. He came close at Bay Hill with a solo second, which was his eighth top-20 of the season and his best result of the season. He’s 3 for 3 at making the cut at the SHO and tied for 10th a year ago and fourth in 2012. He ranks 22nd in driving distance, which sets up approach shots, and when he gets in trouble, his scrambling gets him out.

Louis Oosthuizen

Oosthuizen is perhaps a bit overlooked with Sergio Garcia, Webb Simpson, Jordan Spieth and others also in the field. But Oosthuizen has a T10 last year, a solo third in 2012 and a T16 the year before. He won the European Tour’s Volvo Golf Champions in December and played well in match play. He hits GIR at a good clip and his pattern of play each year lines up with having a successful week. In a week where you may want to save starts from other big names, Oosty sits as a great alternative across all game formats.

RUIN

D.A. Points Shell Fantasy 2014

While the tournament is competitive, this is still a Masters prep week. And with the course mimicking green speed and set-up for Augusta National, some will find struggles they haven’t in week’s past, nor will some be mentally ready to battle certain veterans under such scrutiny. As always, course history weighs heavily into my evaluations. Context is king.

D.A. Points

Yes, Points won the SHO last year, but no, he won’t win again. His GIR is worse than last year, but oddly enough the trends in his year are the same. So what are we to make of it? Well, even in years prior, he’s missed the cut when playing well. I don’t want to be confused on what to expect when making a selection and he gives me no confidence. I’d bank on a missed cut before a made one.

J.J. Henry

J.J. Henry Shell Fantasy 2014

Though he played his college golf in Texas, Henry’s game is in no shape to compete this week. He’s in a swoon of seven missed cuts in his last eight stroke-play events. He’s missed his last two cuts at the SHO, which is the downward trend from four decent results in prior years. Don’t ignore the recent form.

Steven Bowditch

Coming off his first PGA Tour win at the Valero Texas Open, Bowditch will get the rude awakening of playing the week after an emotional victory. Maybe he’s ready, but he really struggled to find fairways in holding off the rest of his competitors. On any other course, he probably doesn’t get away with it. This week, the more technicals aspects of his game will be tested and collection areas around the greens will swallow up errant approaches. He’s 1 for 3 at the SHO and that one made cut was a T56. He also ranks poorly in GIR.

Johnson Wagner

Johnson Wagner Shell Fantasy 2014

Don’t be blinded by Wagner’s win in 2008. He hasn’t been hitting fairways or greens this year and has missed eight cuts in 11 starts this year. He also missed the cut last year in a 2 for 5 stretch since his win with nothing close to being in contention. Avoid him strongly.

Seung-yul Noh

Noh hasn’t missed a cut since the season-opening Frys.com Open back in October. Since, he’s been towards the back of the back with three top-20s, including a T16 last week that was buoyed by an opening-round 69. But it’s time for that streak to end as he faces a GCH course that’s caused him two miss the cut in his only two appearances. There will be times to use the young South Korean, but now is not one of them.

As always, you can find me on Twitter @bricmiller if you want to talk about the Shell Houston Open, the upcoming Masters or want to discuss why Golf Channel is ridiculously including the LPGA event Kraft Nabisco Championship in weekly picks. Good luck!

This week’s picks

Yahoo!

Group A: H. Stenson (S), M. Kuchar

Group B: D. Johnson (S), R. McIlroy (S), G. DeLaet, K. Bradley

Group C: S. Garcia (S), L. Oosthuizen

(Last week: 174 points; Winter segment: 1,993; Rank: 2,090 – 97th percentile)

PGATour.com

D. Johnson, H. Stenson, S. Garcia, R. McIlroy

(Last week: 352 points; Season: 3,623; Rank: 3,946)

Golf Channel

Shell Houston Open

Group 1: D. Johnson

Group 2: L. Oosthuizen

Group 3: B. Davis

Group 4: J.B. Holmes

Kraft Nabisco Championship

Group 1: I. Park

Group 2: S. Pak

Group 3: H. Kyung Seo

Group 4: L. Wright

(Last week: $389,825; Season: $7,311,605; Mulligan: $28,666; Rank: 5,615 of 34,992)

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Brian Miller is a sports writer of over eight years and his work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, Miami Herald and Tallahassee Democrat. He's a fantasy golf nut and his golf novel will be published in spring 2014. You may find him on Twitter @bricmiller.

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Instruction

Why you are probably better at golf than you think (Part 1)

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Golf is hard. I spend my career helping people learn that truth, but golfers are better than they give themselves credit for.

As a golf performance specialist, I give a lot of “first time working together” lessons, and most of them start the same way. I hear about all the ways the golfer is cursed and how s/he is never going to “get it” and how s/he should take up another sport. Granted, the last statement generally applies to an 18-plus handicap player, but I hear lots of negatives from better players as well.

Even though the golfers make convincing arguments for why they are cursed, I know the truth. It’s my job to help them realize the fates aren’t conspiring against them.

All golfers can play well consistently

I know this is a bold statement, but I believe this because I know that “well” does not equate to trophies and personal bests. Playing “well” equates to understanding your margin of error and learning to live within it.

With this said, I have arrived at my first point of proving why golfers are not cursed or bad golfers: They typically do not know what “good” looks like.

What does “good” look like from 150 yards out to a center pin?

Depending on your skill level, the answer can change a lot. I frequently ask golfers this same question when selecting a shot on the golf course during a coaching session and am always surprised at the response. I find that most golfers tend to either have a target that is way too vague or a target that is much too small.

The PGA Tour average proximity to the hole from 150 yards is roughly 30 feet. The reason I mention this statistic is that it gives us a frame of reference. The best players in the world are equivalent to a +4 or better handicap. With that said, a 15-handicap player hitting it to 30 feet from the pin from 150 yards out sounds like a good shot to me.

I always encourage golfers to understand the statistics from the PGA Tour not because that should be our benchmark, but because we need to realize that often our expectations are way out of line with our current skill level. I have found that golfers attempting to hold themselves to unrealistic standards tend to perform worse due to the constant feeling of “failing” they create when they do not hit every fairway and green.

Jim Furyk, while playing a limited PGA Tour schedule, was the most accurate driver of the golf ball during the 2020 season on the PGA Tour hitting 73.96 percent of his fairways (roughly 10/14 per round) and ranked T-136 in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee. Bryson Dechambeau hit the fairway 58.45 percent (roughly 8/14 per round) of the time and ranked first in Strokes Gained: Off-The-Tee.

There are two key takeaways in this comparison

Sometimes the fairway is not the best place to play an approach shot from. Even the best drivers of the golf ball miss fairways.

By using statistics to help athletes gain a better understanding of what “good” looks like, I am able to help them play better golf by being aware that “good” is not always in the middle of the fairway or finishing next to the hole.

Golf is hard. Setting yourself up for failure by having unrealistic expectations is only going to stunt your development as a player. We all know the guy who plays the “tips” or purchases a set of forged blades applying the logic that it will make them better in the long run—how does that story normally end?

Take action

If you are interested in applying some statistics to your golf game, there are a ton of great apps that you can download and use. Also, if you are like me and were unable to pass Math 104 in four attempts and would like to do some reading up on the math behind these statistics, I highly recommend the book by Mark Broadie Every Shot Counts. If you begin to keep statistics and would like how to put them into action and design better strategies for the golf course, then I highly recommend the Decade system designed by Scott Fawcett.

You may not be living up to your expectations on the golf course, but that does not make you a bad or cursed golfer. Human beings are very inconsistent by design, which makes a sport that requires absolute precision exceedingly difficult.

It has been said before: “Golf is not a game of perfect.” It’s time we finally accept that fact and learn to live within our variance.

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Instruction

Walters: Try this practice hack for better bunker shots

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Your ability to hit better bunker shots is dramatically reduced if you have no facility to practice these shots. With so few facilities (especially in the UK) having a practice bunker it’s no wonder I see so many golfers struggle with this skill.

Yet the biggest issue they all seem to have is the inability to get the club to enter the sand (hit the ground) in a consistent spot. So here is a hack to use at the range to improve your bunker shots.

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Golf Blueprint: A plan for productive practice sessions

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Practice range at the Dormie Club. Photo credit: Scott Arden

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

You’ve gotten lessons.  Several of them.  You’ve been custom fitted for everything in your bag.  You even bought another half a dozen driver shafts last year looking for an extra couple of yards.  And yet, you’re still…stuck.  Either your handicap hasn’t moved at all in years or you keep bouncing back and forth between the same two numbers.  You’ve had all the swing fixes and all the technological advances you could realistically hope to achieve, yet no appreciable result has been achieved in lowering your score.  What gives?

Sample Golf Blueprint practice plan for a client.

One could argue that no one scientifically disassembled and then systematically reassembled the game of golf quite like the great Ben Hogan.  His penchant for doing so created a mystique which is still the stuff of legend even today.  A great many people have tried to decipher his secret over the years and the inevitable conclusion is always a somewhat anticlimactic, “The secret’s in the dirt.”  Mr. Hogan’s ball striking prowess was carved one divot at a time from countless hours on the practice range.  In an interview with golf journalist George Peper in 1987, Mr. Hogan once said:

“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. I’d be at the practice tee at the crack of dawn, hit balls for a few hours, then take a break and get right back to it. And I still thoroughly enjoy it. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply—when anyone is— it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

Let me guess.  You’ve tried that before, right?  You’ve hit buckets and buckets of range rocks trying to groove the perfect 7-iron swing and still to no avail, right?  Read that last sentence again closely and you might discover the problem.  There’s a difference between mindful practice and mindless practice.  Mindful practice, like Mr. Hogan undoubtedly employed, is structured, focused, and intentional.  It has specific targets and goals in mind and progresses in a systematic fashion until those goals are met.

This is exactly what Nico Darras and Kevin Moore had in mind when they started Golf Blueprint.  In truth, though, the journey actually started when Nico was a client of Kevin’s Squares2Circles project.  Nico is actually a former DI baseball player who suffered a career-ending injury and took up golf at 22 years old.  In a short time, he was approaching scratch and then getting into some mini tour events.  Kevin, as mentioned in the Squares2Circles piece, is a mathematics education professor and accomplished golfer who has played in several USGA events.  Their conversations quickly changed from refining course strategy to making targeted improvements in Nico’s game.  By analyzing the greatest weaknesses in Nico’s game and designing specific practice sessions (which they call “blueprints”) around them, Nico started reaching his goals.

The transition from client to partners was equal parts swift and organic, as they quickly realized they were on to something.  Nico and Kevin used their experiences to develop an algorithm which, when combined with the client’s feedback, establishes a player profile within Golf Blueprint’s system.  Clients get a plan with weekly, monthly, and long-term goals including all of the specific blueprints that target the areas of their game where they need it most.  Not to mention, clients get direct access to Nico and Kevin through Golf Blueprint.

Nico Darras, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

While this is approaching shades of Mr. Hogan’s practice method above, there is one key distinction here.  Kevin and Nico aren’t recommending practicing for hours at a time.  Far from it.  In Nico’s words:

“We recommend 3 days a week.  You can do more or less, for sure, but we’ve found that 3 days a week is within the realm of possibility for most of our clients.  Practice sessions are roughly 45-70 minutes each, but again, all of this depends on the client and what resources they have at their disposal.  Each blueprint card is roughly 10 minutes each, so you can choose which cards to do if you only have limited time to practice.  Nothing is worse than cranking 7 irons at the range for hours.  We want to make these engaging and rewarding.”

Kevin Moore, co-founder of Golf Blueprint

So far, Golf Blueprint has been working for a wide range of golfers – from tour pros to the No Laying Up crew to amateurs alike.  Kevin shares some key data in that regard:

“When we went into this, we weren’t really sure what to expect.  Were we going to be an elite player product?  Were we going to be an amateur player product?  We didn’t know, honestly.  So far, what’s exciting is that we’ve had success with a huge range of players.  Probably 20-25% of our players (roughly speaking) are in that 7-11 handicap range.  That’s probably the center of the bell curve, if you will, right around that high-single-digit handicap range.  We have a huge range though, scratch handicap and tour players all the way to 20 handicaps.  It runs the full gamut.  What’s been so rewarding is that the handicap dropping has been significantly more than we anticipated.  The average handicap drop for our clients was about 2.7 in just 3 months’ time.”

Needless to say, that’s a pretty significant drop in a short amount of time from only changing how you practice.  Maybe that Hogan guy was on to something.  I think these guys might be too.  To learn more about Golf Blueprint and get involved, visit their website. @Golf_Blueprint is their handle for both Twitter and Instagram.

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