5 players to watch in Houston

Phil Mickelson
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Phil Mickelson is playing the Shell Houston Open this week, looking for his first PGA Tour top-10 finish since the PGA Championship last August.
By T.J. Auclair
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Wednesday, April 01, 2015 | 1:56 p.m.

For the second straight week on the PGA Tour, some players will be playing a tournament within a tournament.

For those already exempt for next week's Masters, this week's Shell Houston Open is one final chance to prepare for the season's first major. The Golf Club of Houston is a great place for it, too, as the conditions mimic those of Augusta National.

And for those players not exempt for the Masters, this week provides one last opportunity, as the winner punches the final ticket to Augusta. Aussie Matt Jones did just that last year.

RELATED: Houston Open tee times | Tiger plays 18 at Augusta | Masters field

So Houston will be interesting. While some top players will be looking to find some form, others will be hoping to be the one who joins those top players in Georgia a week from now.

Here are five players to keep an eye on.

5. Matt Jones
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
Third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational
Reason to watch: After a missed cut in his first start of the new season back in October, Jones has been incredibly consistent, advancing to the weekend in each of his last 10 starts. He returns to Houston this week as the defending champion after dramatically defeating Matt Kuchar in a playoff a year ago by holing a pitch shot to set up the win (Kuchar missed his chance for birdie to advance the playoff). That victory also earned Jones the last spot in the 2014 Masters. Like this time last year, Jones is not yet in the Masters field. This is his last chance and he needs a win. Can he find the magic again this week and repeat at the site of his first Tour win like Matt Every did a few weeks back at Bay Hill?

4. Phil Mickelson
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
T17 at the Honda Classic
Reason to watch: A slumping Phil Mickelson (by his standards, that is), limps into the Shell Houston Open without a single top-10 this season. If you remember, Mickelson's first top 10 in 2014 didn't come until his runner-up finish at the PGA Championship. The man is all about winning majors. He missed the cut at the Masters for just the second time in his career last year. Many players -- Mickelson, most notably -- feel that the Shell Houston Open is an excellent tune-up for Augusta National because the conditions on the course are very similar. Mickelson needs some good vibes before trying to chase down a fourth green jacket, so how about this week at a place where he won in 2011?

3. Justin Rose
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
T48 at World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions
Reason to watch: It's been a quiet, downright poor, season thus far for Rose. Then again, the 2013 U.S. Open winner hasn't been playing a whole lot either. Like Mickelson, Rose is going to need a boost to gain some confidence before next week. He knows it, too, based on the fact this is his first Shell Houston Open start since 2010.

2. Sergio Garcia
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
T4 at Northern Trust Open
Reason to watch: Garcia finished third in the Shell Houston Open one year ago. Over the last couple of years, the Spaniard has been incredibly consistent. Sure, he's always been a spectacular player, but in the last couple of seasons we've seen him pile up top 10s the way he did back in the mid-2000s. For top players like Garcia, Houston is preparation for next week. He'll approach it as such.

1. Matt Kuchar
Best finish in 2014-15 season:
T2 at Humana Challenge
Reason to watch: OK, aside from the fact that he was the runner-up in this tournament a year ago, Kuchar is No. 1 on this week's list for one reason and one reason alone -- something's got to give. Do you realize he's gone four consecutive tournaments without a top-10 finish? Kuchar is the PGA Tour's modern day Scott Hoch -- a human ATM machine. Since 2010, he's had no less than eight top-10 finishes per season. He's got two so far this year. During this same stretch of three tournaments last year, Kuchar finished second in Houston; tied for fifth in the Masters and won the RBC Heritage. He's about to hit his stride.

Here's how my five to watch fared at last week's Valero Texas Open:

5. Ben Curtis -- Missed cut
4. Ryan Palmer -- T6
3. Zach Johnson -- T20
2. Jimmy Walker -- Won
1. Jordan Spieth -- 2 

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.