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The First Tee at the Valero Texas Open
Congrats to the last week's winner, Brendan Grace, who took down the RBC at Harbour Town Golf Links. Grace won on the strength of weekend rounds of 66 and 69, winning by two strokes over Luke Donald and Russell Knox. Donald and Knox were solid picks with past success at Harbour Town, and Grace was no different, he just only had one edition under his belt. Grace continues to build on last year's impressive performance at the majors and should continue on his upward ascent. He is a super talented player who cut his teeth on the Euro Tour, but being such a young player he has only started to scratch the surface of what he is capable of. Grace has the type of game that can succeed at all four major venues, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him contend at the US and British Open championships...
The Valero Texas Open continues to be one of the better charitable endeavors on Tour, recently surpassing 100 million dollars earned for charity since its inception. With such high contributions, you would think the TPC San Antonio had a way of enticing star power to attend their tournament each year but that is not necessarily the case.
This year, the field is highlighted by recent winner Branden Grace, who comes in with momentum after securing his first Tour victory at the RBC this past weekend. Grace has shot all the way up to #11 in the world, and should command a large crowd this weekend.
Hometown favorite Jimmy Walker, #26 in the world, will be the main draw though. He's playing a home game, and he's entering the week as the defending champion, so expect TV coverage to find his playing group quite a bit throughout the week.
Another native of San Antonio, Patrick Reed, will be in the field and he brings his PGA Tour leading seven Top 10's to TPC this week. Reed is a polarizing player, but he will have the support of the home town crowd and will make quite a story if he is capable of winning this week.
There may not be a ton of star power at the top, but the second tier of players is more than capable of making up the difference. Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Brooks Koepka, JB Holmes and Fed Ex Cup Champion-Billy Horschel are all in the field this week, and each one will be searching for their Tour victory of the year.
The final narrative this week belongs to recently minted professional Bryson DeChambeau. DeChambeau started off his PGA Tour career in style, notching a T4 at Hilton Head after winning low amateur honors at the Masters. DeChambeau played his golf at SMU, so there will no doubt be a lot of support for the talented youngster. If you've watched as much golf as I have, you start to recognize the intangibles that make certain golfers a cut above the rest. DeChambeau has “it", and I'll be surprised if he doesn't notch his first victory during the 2016 calendar year.
The TPC at San Antonio is one of those courses that send a chill down my spine, as I've seen what can happen when weather becomes the main storyline here. Last year, the winds blew at a steady 25-30 MPH clip, with gusts peaking at 40 MPH and subsequently sending the players into a tailspin. In six years as a host course, the winning score has averaged out at (-11), with lowest being (-14) and the lowest being (-7). When you break that down, it becomes clear that playing solid, if unspectacular golf, is the way to find yourself in the winner's circle come Sunday. Of course, playing consistent rounds of -2 or -3 in the weather that has littered this tournament in years past, IS spectacular golf, just not the way we are accustomed to seeing at other venues.
The TPC at San Antonio is a par 72 that can be stretched to play a little over 7,400 yards. With the constant swirling winds of Texas, the 7,400 yards plays very long and certainly yields an advantage to longer hitters. The course was created by former world #1, Greg Norman, who consulted Sergio Garcia during the design process. It features narrow, tree lined fairways that make the sightlines off the tee very difficult, but in general, the fairways expand as each hole progresses, which give the players some more options on approach shots and different routes to the green. The entire complex showcases Bermuda grass, including champion Bermuda greens that give the course a very lush feel. Given the natural surroundings of Texas hill country, there is a nice balance between classic golf architecture and new-school agronomy.
If there is one consistent theme throughout the years at TPC San Antonio, it is that ball-striking seems to trump all other skillsets. This makes sense for two reasons. The first is that there is trouble lurking on every hole, and it is very easy to make a big number if you are loose off the tee. Players who can consistently put the ball in the fairway and get looks at birdies will succeed, regardless of whether they convert birdies at a high clip. The second reason is the weather. When the wind blows, players who can control their ball-flight have an almost unfair advantage. One might think there is a negligible difference between players at the PGA Tour level, but that is simply not true. Players make their livings relying on various skillsets, and not all of them have the ability to control their trajectory in swirling winds…which is one reason I prefer to play native Texans when they are at home in the Lone Star State. The swirling winds of Texas are unique, and the more you've played in them—and even more importantly, feel comfortable in that setting—the better off you will be.
I am using a combination of ball-striking and total driving metrics to identify my go-to players this week. Additionally, course history will trump current form for me this week.
- 1.)Jimmy Walker: Not only is Walker the defending champion, but the Valero is also a home game for the native of San Antonio. Walker has two geographical areas where he seems to shine, the first is the early season swing in Hawaii and California, and the other is when he comes home to Texas. In his last three visits to TPC San Antonio, Walker has finished 1st, 16th and 31st, which is no surprise given the fact that the strength of his game is his approach shots and ball-striking, which tends to be the best indicator of success at the Valero. He and Brendan Grace are the favorites at 17/1, and represent a huge discount salary wise compared to the top tier in recent weeks. Walker knows how to win, and in a relatively weak field that accounts for quite a bit.
- 2.)Patrick Reed: Another native Texan, Reed has been too good this year not to consider him in a field where the top tier is relatively weak. Reed has a PGA Tour leading seven top 10's this year, including two runner up finishes. Reed has the reputation of a closer, so the odds are with him for a win if he can continue knocking on the door like he has been. Sits 19th in Strokes Gained: Tee2Green, 38th in total driving and 50th in ball-striking.
- 3.)Zach Johnson: Speaking of controlling your ball flight, few are as good as Zach Johnson in this department. He's ranked 1st and 4th in SG: T2G the last two years at the Valero, and he is two time champion…albeit at the previous course host. Johnson is always a threat when he's in the field, and if the wind starts to kick up over the weekend as expected, he holds a distinct advantage when things start to get ugly.
- 4.)Charlie Hoffman: Hoffman and Bryson DeChambeau are very close in my PP$ rankings, however since I highlighted DeChambeau HERE: I will champion Hoffman's cause. In six years of competition at the Valero, Hoffman has finished no worse than T13, which includes 2nd and 3rd place finishes. Hoffman should be a popular pick, but much like Daniel Summerhays, he is almost too good a value to pass up. I will have heavy exposure to Hoffman, DeChambeau and Summerhays.
- 5.)Daniel Summerhays: Summerhays represents the best value across the board this week. Course history trumps current form for me at a place like the TPC at San Antonio, and you'd be hard pressed to match another player's success with Summerhays over last three years. He's finished 4th, 2nd and 7th, which is the lowest three year aggregate of any player on Tour. Now comes the bad news, Summerhays has missed three of his last six cuts, and has not been able to string four solid rounds together. This past week at the RBC, Summerhays fired opening rounds of 72 and 68 to be in the hunt going into the weekend, only to blow up and shoot an 80 on Saturday, albeit in very tough conditions that also saw World #1 Jason Day shoot +8. Summerhays did rebound with a final round 69, so I am hopeful he can continue that momentum into this week and find success in familiar confines.