Vivint Houston Open: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

After testing positive for COVID-19, Dustin Johnson is back on the PGA Tour this week in the Vivint Houston Open — his first start since the U.S. Open in September. Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

A tip of the cap this week to the PGA Tour for taking the Houston Open to Memorial Park, a course the public can play for 30 bucks. Metro visitors and residents take advantage annually, playing a whopping 60,000 rounds. Following a recent redesign by Tom Doak, the course measures 7,432 yards as a par 72 with five par 5s and five par 3s.

Public and municipal courses are the backbone of the sport and the true path to helping golf grow. Like any good muni, Memorial Park has surely been the home to many characters through the years and cash money has been exchanged on the course, in the parking lot, on the practice green and, in this case, probably on the double-decker driving range that sits on the property.

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The Tour players are battling for $7 million. The winner receives all the usual spoils. This is Memorial Park’s first time as host in this era and the smart men in Vegas expect a shootout. Jeff Sherman of Golfodds.com set his winning score projection at 22.5 under.

The weather looks great (temperatures in the high 70s, light winds) and the closing stretch of the golf course is built for excitement with reachable par 5s, driveable par 4s, daunting par 3s and a 500-plus yard par 4 to finish.

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The $34 million renovation was funded, in part, by the Astros Golf Foundation. Does that mean the players can improve their lie in the rough, rake 3-footers and toss their ball out of a bunker onto the green? The world champion Los Angeles Dodgers would like to know.

I studied the par-5 and par-3 stats this week, relied heavily on the ballstriking numbers, per usual, and paid attention to the golfers who like Bermudagrass greens. It takes a hot putter to reach 20 under so that club received more weight than usual in our model.

There was a time, when the Houston Tour stop was played at the Woodlands, when a young caddie could drive north to Walden (like the pond, as my friend Pablo described it) on Lake Conroe and get just about all the action he wanted on a Wednesday afternoon during tournament week.

The locals will relish watching the world’s best play their favorite Muni this week. The Tour pros will play better golf but the Muni regulars always tell better stories.

As always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

25. Wyndham Clark​ – After he shook off the disappointment from letting his first PGA Tour victory slip away late Sunday in Bermuda, the 26-year-old pro must have felt good about his overall performance. A top-20 putter on Tour each of the last two years, his power will be useful on the plethora of par 5s at Memorial Park.

24. Si Woo Kim – ​Finished top 25 in his last two starts – the two Vegas events – and has been collecting cash since the restart, making 12 of the last 13 cuts. Exquisite touch around the greens (2.2 SG last 5 events), driver is solid and his iron play, while inconsistent, has been above Tour average in all but three weeks. Wish he putted better on Bermuda (-0.26 SG).

23. Adam Schenk​ – All he does is make cuts – 10 consecutive after a T-26 at Bermuda. While some may lament the lack of high finishes (no top 25s to show for it), there’s something to be said for a sure four-round man in your lineup. Also, he putts his best on Bermudagrass, gaining 0.27 strokes per round.

22. Mackenzie Hughes​ – It feels like a sharp short game will be a crucial piece of navigating the closely mown areas at Memorial Park and nobody chips, pitches and putts better than the mild-mannered Canadian. He should enjoy the options presented by Doak’s redesign and record his eighth top 25 since the Honda Classic in February.

21. Tyrrell Hatton​ – Has gained strokes with his driver, irons and putter throughout the season and consistently played as well as anyone, winning the BMW PGA, the European Tour’s flagship event, and finishing third at the CJ Cup. He can ballstrike his way to a strong finish but a suspect short game may keep him from contending.

20. Cameron Davis​ – He’s made six consecutive cuts, excelling in different weeks in every facet of the game. Played his way into the final group on Sunday at Sanderson Farms and finished T-6.

19. Aaron Wise​ – Not that long ago, your fearless forecaster over here was mega-bullish on young Mr. Wise. He won the 2018 Byron Nelson, was named Rookie of the Year and appeared to be on his way to stardom. Hasn’t worked out that way – yet. Anyway, I sense similarities between the course where he won, Trinity Forest, and this week’s venue. Still only 24 years old, he’s shown signs of life (T-17 Shriners, T-26 Bermuda), so hop on the train early and thank me later.

18. Robby Shelton​ – The former Alabama star’s ballstriking has been inconsistent and the driver has been troublesome, but when swinging well, he cashes in, making four of the last six cuts with a pair of top 25s (not to mention a T-3 at 3M during the summer). He’s gained strokes on approach in his last two starts and thrives in easy scoring conditions.

17. Brian Harman – ​Here’s an important stat: Harman gained 1.6 strokes around the green in a T-26 at Zozo, his 10th consecutive made cut. After three disappointing weeks with the short clubs he’s back on form and his approach game and driving have been strong throughout this moneymaking run. Unafraid to go low, putts well on Bermuda greens.

16. Sergio Garcia​ – Putting stats are trending upward, buoyed by his victory at Sanderson Farms (on Bermuda). That makes him another intriguing darkhorse in Augusta. He remains arguably the best driver in golf. He’s gained strokes off the tee in 14 consecutive tournaments, picking up at least two on the field in 10 of those. Maybe 40 is the new 28.

15. Zach Johnson​ – In a season where 40-somethings have thrived, winning three of eight events, the two-time major champion is enjoying a resurgence of his own. He has four top 25s in his last five starts, highlighted by two top 10s and the precise iron play has returned, gaining an average of 4.9 strokes on approach in his last eight rounds.

14. Adam Scott​ – Absent from pro golf due to a recent positive COVID-19 test and fond of a light schedule anyway, the Aussie is on my deep sleeper list for next week’s invitational in Georgia and his pure swing never accumulates much rust. He’s third in the field in SG: Tee-to-Green over his last 24 rounds on Bermuda in easy scoring conditions.

13. Brooks Koepka​ – He helped Doak redesign the golf course. Actively, per Doak, and not ceremonially. That must be worth something. It’s been a quiet 12 months for the four-time major winner but, he’s healthy by all accounts and pointing toward Augusta. Expect a solid tune-up in Texas.

12. Corey Conners​ – Great ballstriker (4th in field in similar conditions over last 24 rounds), lousy putter (109th), but his only PGA Tour victory came in Texas and he’s feeling good after a T-8 at Zozo last time out. Has gained strokes on the greens in two of the last three starts.

11. James Hahn​ – Dude is red-hot with top 10s at Safeway, Puntacana and Shriners in last three starts to leap toward a return to the FedEx Cup playoffs. Has been sharp on approach and off-the-tee which should carry over. Fair to say he’s underachieved a bit thus far in his career but he’s talented enough to sustain his recent torrid play.

10. Lee Westwood​ – He’s been steady in Europe throughout the year and finished T-13 at the U.S. Open. May not possess ample putting firepower to contend for the championship but his strong iron game should create multiple birdie looks.

9​. ​Dustin Johnson​ – After missing the CJ Cup and Zozo due to COVID-19 (with symptoms), DJ returns to the PGA Tour this week, hoping to fine tune his game for Augusta. The hottest golfer on the planet not so long ago, there’s more uncertainty around him than usual due to the layoff. Tread carefully.

8. Viktor Hovland​ – He’s made 15 of 17 cuts in 2020, winning in Puerto Rico and posting nine other top 25s. Elite ballstriking (2.3 SG: Approach and 1.9 SG: Off-the-Tee in last 20 tournaments) enables the Norwegian Forest Cat to lurk on leaderboards and pounce on the weekend. Likes calm, easy scoring conditions. Also has gained strokes on the greens in five of the last seven starts.

7. Denny McCarthy​ – Closed with a 63 in Bermuda on Bermuda and Tour players would put him high on the short list of best putters (an average of 3.1 strokes gained over his last 20 tournaments). Ballstriking is gradually improving and his irons looked dialed in on Sunday.

6. Scottie Scheffler​ – Back home in Texas looking to build off a T-17 at Zozo two weeks ago. He gained eight strokes tee-to-green in that event at Sherwood CC. You have to go back to Torrey Pines in January to find the last tournament where he was below average off the tee. The future is bright, very bright.

5. Doc Redman​ – His swing was off on Sunday in Bermuda but fought through it to record his third top-5 finish in six starts. Love his attitude and overall on-course demeanor. The putter is his weakness but he’s above average in this field on Bermuda greens in favorable scoring conditions. If he keeps knocking on the door, it will open.

4. Hideki Matsuyama – ​Just when he was making progress on the greens, Hideki went and lost 2-plus strokes in putting in each of the last two tournaments. Still, he’s recorded eight top 30s in his last nine starts and what’s especially appealing this week is his array of shots around the greens.

3. Lanto Griffin​ – The pseudo defending champion (on the other course) has been playing mighty fine golf of late (7th at CJ Cup, 11th at Zozo). His putter was sizzling both weeks, but he’s also gained strokes on approach in four consecutive tournaments. Love his demeanor and sneaky consistency.

2. Russell Henley​ – He’s finished 27th or better in his last five starts with a trio of top 10s and the recipe has remained the same – sizzling iron play (4.7 SG: Approach in last 20 rounds). He rolls his best on Bermudagrass and has good vibes in America’s fourth largest city, winning at the Golf Club of Houston in April 2017.

1. Tony Finau​ – If you’re contemplating a wager on Mr. Finau at Augusta, you may want to place it before he wins in Houston. That’s right, enough with the consistent high finishes propelled by immaculate ballstriking and improving putting. Finau is too good to be sitting tight with one PGA Tour victory. Just as Clayton Kershaw did last week, this week Finau changes the narrative about his career.

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