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The Valero Texas Open is one of those events that creeps under the radar during the PGA Tour season. The last couple of years it has fallen during the NCAA basketball tournament, it's typically a week too early (or previously held after) to be called a Masters tune up, and isn't played on one of the Texas courses blessed with the mystique of a Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson. In short, it's an outlier.
But what it does have is one of the most difficult par-72 layouts on Tour, and a list of champions that few events can rival. Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Ben Crenshaw, Lee Trevino, Adam Scott and a handful of other major winners each have their name on the trophy at least once.
The TPC San Antonio (Oaks Course) can be, and often is, brutal. Winds are the main defense, but plateaued green complexes wreak havoc on even the best players. Scrambling is essential here -- players will miss a lot of greens, and par is never a bad score. Scott blistered the TPC in its inaugural hosting year (2010, -14), and Marty Laird fired a course record 63 to get to that same number here last year. But in between, the winning score didn't reach double digits. I'm guessing with the forecast of wind and weather this week, guys would take four rounds of 69-70 right now and not tee it up.
It's far from the strongest field we'll see all year, but there are some interesting decisions to make this week. Get ready for plenty of Alamo and cowboy references this week -- maybe they'll mix it up with a nod or two to the Riverwalk and TexMex food. We can only be so lucky!
Big guns currently entered -- and currently is the operative word, with the rash of late WDs we've seen recently -- ranked in order of preference. The good news is that frequent violators Jason Day and Bubba Watson aren't options this week. Hey, on one of my teams last week I had both Bubba AND Hunter Mahan, as well as Justin Rose. That went well. Onto the picks.
- Zach Johnson. Sure, he hasn't won this event since it's been played at the TPC. But he's won it twice in his career and is a top-10 machine in a weak field.
- Jimmy Walker. A local, we picked him here last year and he disappointed with a T31. He's playing a little better these days, and a win would be his fourth (!!!) of the year. That might knock Patrick Reed down to sixth in the world (in his own mind… or maybe not).
- Jordan Spieth. He's rarely out of the top 20 these days, and in this field he's one of the favorites. Texas native has played this event twice already in his young career (MC, T41).
- Jim Furyk. Grinder, straight hitter. T3 here last year. Top 10 is in the cards.
- Matt Kuchar. It's about time for Kuch to get things going, and he has a two top-25's here.
- Phil Mickelson. First appearance at TPC San Antonio. His short game should keep him in contention.
Others I like:
1. Charley Hoffman. Playing the most consistent golf of his career, The Hoff already has six top-25 finishes this year and ranks in the top third in most statistical categories. He has two top-3 finishes at the TPC the last three years, and hasn't finished outside of 13th here in four tries.
2. Freddie Jacobson. Three consecutive top-20 finishes and heads to a course at which he hasn't finished outside of the top 20 in the four prior versions. Consistently one of the better grind-it-out scramblers on Tour.
3. Jason Kokrak. Last three starts: T41, T14, 4th. He's getting better, and now comes to a course on which he finished T15 last year despite an opening-round 74.
4. KJ Choi. Our friends at BirdieWire have been high on him for some time, citing his improved ball striking and putting. Throw in a 6th at TPC San Antonio last year and I'm a buyer.
5. Ryan Palmer. Coming off that playoff loss at the Honda, Palmer has finished T15 and T32 at the TPC the last two years, respectively. He's a West Texas guy who won't be deterred when the wind kicks up and ranks 3rd in the All Around category.
Player To Avoid: Kevin Na. He has a somewhat disturbing history here: remember that 16 he took on No. 9 in 2011, and then the WD after an opening-round 79 in 2012. He's red hot right now, but buyer beware.
- Ryo Ishikawa is starting to play some consistent golf, including his T8 last week at Bay Hill. One of these weeks his putter will heat up and he'll be tough to beat with his iron game.
- Jerry Kelly has taken it low (66, 2012) here before and has three top-13 finishes in his last six events. Can grind and scramble with the best of them.
- Scott Langley might seem an odd pick, but 10 of his last 11 rounds have been at par or better, and his last two starts have been a 3rd (Valspar) and T19 (Puerto Rico). He's ninth on Tour in scrambling, which will come in handy this week.
- Woody Harrelson's father, Charles, shot and killed a federal judge in San Antonio in 1979 -- the first such slaying in the 20th century. So the city has that going for it... which is nice. Here's an engrossing read on the people associated with Harrelson and those guilty of the murder.
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Photo: USA Today Sports Images