Valero Texas Open
It was a solid enough week for us across the WGC Matchplay and Corales events as we came out with a tiny profit courtesy of 80/1 pick Brian Harman making the Matchplay last eight.
At one stage Harman was four down early on in his last 16 clash with Bubba Watson however he produced an explosive display of scoring around the turn to win six straight holes before hanging on down the stretch.
Unfortunately though he was unable to repeat the performance against Matt Kuchar later in the day and at that point our interest in the event came to an end. Congratulations though to Billy Horschel who landed his first WGC after, by if truth be told scrapping out a series of wins without really having his best stuff.
Over at the Corales our three figure odds pick Ben Martin made a brave run at the places on Sunday before ultimately coming up just shy in ninth place. The congratulations there go to Joel Dahmen who bounced back from a poor run of recent form to land an emotional win and his first PGA Tour title.
Moving on and the tour heads to San Antonio, Texas for the Valero Texas Open for the last stop before the first major of the year, The Masters.
A was the case in 2013 and again in 2019, the last time this event was held, the tournament takes the slot of being the final event pre Masters whereas on other occasions the event has been held in the weeks following the Masters.
The AT & T Oaks course at TPC San Antonio has been host to the event since 2010.
As is usually the case most big names are choosing to swerve the event the week before a Major however Dustin Johnson has made a last minute decision to tee it up as he tries to rediscover his form from earlier in the year and he dominates the market at single figure odds. He is then followed by local man Jordan Spieth, Tony Finau, Matchplay runner up Scottie Scheffler and Hideki Matsuyama.
The course is a Greg Norman Design with consultation from Sergio Garcia. One angle therefore is to look at form at the other Greg Norman design played on the PGA Tour which is the course used for the OHL Mayakoba.
The course is a Par 72 and measures just over 7400 yards.
The greens are Bermudagrass over seeded with velvet bent grass & potrivialis.
The AT & T Oaks course historically has undoubtedly been one of the tougher par 72 cookies on the PGA Tour to crack.
Finding the fairways has always been key here as the rough has been penal and straying off line has lead to all kinds of trouble.
This is something Kevin Na will certainly vouch for as he memorably made a 16 here on the par 4 9th in 2011.
The last couple of editions have seen a noticeable change to the toughness of the test though with a previously unheard of -20 total winning last time out. This certainly in 2019 can be put down to changes that were made in an attempt to replicate Augusta conditions with fairways widened and rough shortened. In addition the level of winds, always a factor in Texas, affects scoring.
The course also features Pete Dye type run of areas around the greens and the chances with the event taking the pre Masters warm up slot these can be shaved in an attempt to replicate ‘Augusta type’ conditions around the greens.
As mentioned Above the AT & T Oaks Course has been the host course for this event since 2010 when the event moved across from La Cantera.
So let’s take a look at the last ten winners here;
2019 Corey Conners
2018 Andrew Landry
2017 Kevin Chappell
2016 Charley Hoffman
2015 Jimmy Walker
2014 Steven Bowditch
2013 Martin Laird
2012 Ben Curtis
2011 Brendan Steele
2010 Adam Scott
As we can see from this list the main strengths of these players as a whole lie in the long game and/or players who have historically performed well on tough golf courses and this ties in to the nature of the course as outlined above.
The two ‘odd ones out’ on the winners list though are Ben Curtis and Steven Bowditch.
Bowditch is a Texas resident and was able to handle a windy week when he won. You could also wonder if, [allowing for Adam Scott being a winner here as well] there is an Aussie link to the course style with Greg Norman being the designer.
As for Curtis, what can you say, he’s Ben Curtis! From what I remember of the year he won he got up and down from everywhere and holed everything.
Looking at this list of winners it would appear therefore that as a norm the ‘identikit’ winner is a solid ball striker who ‘gets it out there’ of the tee.
One other factor, which cannot be ignored here over recent years is the presence of players with Texas connections on the leaderboard and in the last five additions either two or three Lone Star natives/residents have made the frame.
These include Si Woo Kim, Danny Lee, Landry, O’Hair, Walker [x2], Gay, Palmer [x3], Piller, Spieth.
In addition as noted above the 2014 addition was won by a Texas based Aussie, Steven Bowditch.
With the event now holding the pre Augusta slot it is also worth looking at the recent history of the Houston Open when it used to be held in this same slot and if we do that we’ll see the last four editions were won by a player not yet in the Masters field, Poulter, Henley, Herman & Jones, whilst in 2013, when this event held that slot, Martin Laird grabbed an Augusta place with his victory.
Finally of course on this front the 2019 playing here was won by Corey Conners, a player who not only wasn’t in the Augusta field heading in to this week but wasn’t even in this field until he Monday qualified!
The obvious thing to conclude therefore is that this week is very much about motivation. If you are in the Augusta field already you are most likely to be tinkering with your game, thinking ahead to next week and in the case of big names, whether consciously or not, not wanting to peak too early. Whereas if you are not in Augusta you are quite simply here to win.
There have of course been exceptions to this over the years with players like Phil Mickelson not afraid to hack up the week before a Major and then win again the following week, however all in all I would much rather focus on players I see as motivated this week.
Course form here has proved a decent guide to a certain extent over the years, with the likes of Walker and Hoffman in particular course specialists and Chappell as well all having good form here prior to winning, while Conners had put down a marker finishing 26th the previous year on debut. Equally though Landry and Bowditch had no ‘previous’ here to go on so don’t be put off if the man you fancy has not done much here before.
Conners also arrived here on the back of four MC in five events with one 41st placed finish while the previous winner to him Andrew Landry had posted an almost identical run in with four MC and a 42nd place finish so form coming in here does certainly not look too significant!
The winning score has varied over the eight years at the Oaks Course from -8 to -20 from Conners last time out with the wind as well as changes to the course set up as noted earlier, which have eased the difficulty, being the differentiating factor.
The early part of the week shows for the possibility of some rain, which might soften things up a touch before Thursday.
Temperatures look set for the high 60s to low 70s mark for the first three days of the tournament before hitting 80 on Sunday.
Wind is invariably an issue in Texas and this week it looks certain to be a factor with gusts of 20/25mph in the forecast for Thursday and Friday before they ease off a fraction over the weekend.
As I always say though this could all change!
I have gone with five players this week as follows;
BRANDEN GRACE – 66-1 - 1.5pts E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 23rd
When putting my selections together this week I could not get away from the fact that the recent history of the event held the week before the Masters on far more occasions than not has thrown up a winner not yet qualified for the year’s first Major. On that basis that will certainly be the direction of this preview and first up for me this week is a player I can’t get away from at the odds, Branden Grace.
As regular readers will know Grace did us a big favour a few weeks back when landing the trophy and our bet at the Puerto Rico Open.
Grace, who featured in our ‘six to follow for 2021’ column had only returned to the tour a few weeks prior following the sad passing of his Father and after two promising performances at Pebble Beach and Riviera where he finished 34th and 20th he stepped up at a windy Puerto Rico.
Whilst that victory was of huge value to the South African in terms of locking up his playing privileges on the PGA Tour for the next two full seasons one thing it didn’t do was gain him entry in to next weeks Masters as opposite field event winners do not receive an invitation. If Branden is going to make the trip down Magnolia Lane next week then he has to do one thing and one thing only this week, win.
So no doubt then Grace will be 100% motivated but what about his chances on this track? Well the good news is Branden has tee’d it up at TPC San Antonio on four occasions and he has made the cut on each visit finishing ninth and tenth on the last two occasions so we know the course suits his eye.
One other thing that could well suit Grace this week is the fact that the wind, so often a factor in Texas, is due to play its part and as we know and saw again in Puerto Rico he is more than comfortable when things get blustery.
Normally when a player has captured a title unless you are looking at the Johnson’s, Thomas’, McIlroy’s etc of this world the chances of them lifting another soon after are not so likely, however Grace has shown on a couple of occasions in his career that he is more than capable of following up a win with another. Firstly when having a memorable four wins back in 2012 and then again when he won right at the end of 2014 and then in Jan 2015.
All in all what we have in Grace is a world class performer in good form who we know likes the course, should enjoy the conditions and is motivated to win. From that point of view I will confess I expected Branden to be a fair bit shorter this week and therefore the 66/1 on offer makes him a must bet for me.
DOUG GHIM – 80-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 44th
As noted above players with Texas connections have a great record here over recent years and the first of three players with links to the Lone Star State to make our team this week is Doug Ghim.
Ghim who attended the University of Texas in Austin, an hour or so away from this weeks venue, will no doubt have been inspired by the performance of fellow Longhorn Scottie Scheffler last week in the Matchplay and having himself performed so strongly at the recent Players Championship he will fancy his chances of giving the Longhorn’s something more to shout about this time out.
In addition to his Texas connections what also draws me to Ghim this week is that although this is his professional debut here [while I have no firm knowledge I am assuming he will have played the course in his college days] I do believe the course should be one that suits his game to a tee.
My main reason for thinking this is that the biggest strength of Ghim’s game is undoubtedly his approach play, something shown by the fact that he currently sits 20th in strokes-gained-approach-to-the-green on tour this season and it is clear from recent winners here such as Conners and Landry that this is a key asset this week.
Secondly with the course featuring run off areas, which have been likened before to a Pete Dye set up the fact that Ghim was such a big factor for the first three days at Sawgrass and also finished fifth at the Amex earlier in the year, which featured three rounds on a Dye design, gives us plenty of encouragement.
Let’s also not forget that shock 2018 winner here Andrew Landry landed his second tour title at the Amex, which strengthens that link.
A former standout amateur Doug is undoubtedly one of the games young new breed who is destined for big things and having already tee’d it up once at Augusta courtesy of his US Amateur runner up finish he will be desperate to get back there again.
With five top forty finishes in seven starts this calendar year he is trending nicely and I expect him to make a big push for that first tour win this week.
JOHN HUH – 80-1 - 1pt E/W – 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 69th
Another player with Texas links is Dallas resident John Huh.
After landing his maiden tour title way back in 2012 on the Greg Norman designed El Cameleon at the Mayakoba Classic Huh has failed to push on and land a second PGA Tour title.
After being unable to tee it up again in 2019 post TPC Sawgrass due to injury, and not playing after lockdown in the 2019/20 campaign, this season the signs have been really positive from John and five top twenty five finishes in nine starts with the most recent coming on his last outing at PGA National means he is well on his way to satisfying his Major Medical Extension.
Like Ghim Huh is at his strongest from tee to green and his ball striking attributes should certainly stand him in good stead this week. He currently ranks 22nd in strokes-gained-tee-to-green and 46th in approach play on tour, with the putter being the club that is letting him down. Like all players who are struggling with the flat stick then any kind of solid improvement in that department on the week can lead to big things.
We know he likes the course having finished second here on his debut way back in 2012 and Huh also had a chance to win here in 2017 going in to Sunday before faltering on the final day. To back up our view though that the course is one that suits his game John said the following that year when asked if it suited his eye after opening up with a 67.
“I believe so. I believe this golf course requires you to hit a good tee shot and a good second shot, which I feel like that's my strength”
In all honesty big performances have been few and far for John over the recent years even prior to his injury problems, however having now turned thirty and healthy again he appears to be in the most solid form he has been for many a year and I believe he can be a big threat this week as he returns to a favoured venue.
MATTHEW NESMITH – 80-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED 34th
Straying away from the Texas theme and next up for me is Matthew NeSmith.
NeSmith joined the PGA Tour full time at the start of the 19/20 campaign. After a strong which was highlighted by a sixth place finish at Puerto Rico early in the year NeSmith struggled after lookdown managing nothing better than 33rd place at Hilton Head.
Now in his sophomore season the 20/21 campaign has started more promisingly for Matthew and he has already posted two top tens and four further top twenties, results which leave him currently in a solid 74th place in the Fedex Cup standings.
As noted earlier, with an eye on the likes of Conners and Landry, solid ball strikers from tee to green have a strong record here and in this department NeSmith is certainly your man. Matthew currently sits second on tour this season in good old fashioned GIR and tenth in approach play so he really is pretty much as good as they come with the irons.
Looking again at this weeks weather forecast and if the wind is a factor as anticipated, NeSmith who grew up and played golf in the South Carolina area and cites Hilton Head as one of his favourite tracks should certainly be equipped to handle this.
Matthew is making his debut in this event this week, however all pointers tell me this should be a course that suits his game down to a tee and I am happy to chance him at the odds on offer this week.
HARRY HIGGS – 100-1 - 1pt E/W - 1/5 odds 1st 8 - FINISHED MC
Last but not least for me this week it’s another player with Texas connections, Harry Higgs.
In his short time on tour Higgs has earned a reputation as being one of the games fun characters however behind this there is also undoubtedly a big talent who looks pretty much ready to land his first win.
Like NeSmith Higgs is now in his second season on tour and having posted a second place finish in Bermuda in his first campaign he added another in the first event this season at the Safeway Open.
Looking at that latter performance and it is worth noting that it appears to tie in well here as two time winner at Silverado Brendan Steele has been victorious here while Andrew Landry has also got a top ten finish to his name there. Furthermore 2019 Safeway Open runner up Ryan Moore has performed strongly here over the years.
Higgs who went to college in Dallas and now bases himself there has largely struggled since that season opening second place however his last two starts at TPC Sawgrass and at PGA National have seen a big upturn in form with him posting 29th and 19th place finishes.
Like the other Texans to make our squad this week Higgs has been strong in his approach play this season currently ranking 28th in this department.
All in all in an event where Texan’s as we know have a strong record, at three figure odds Higgs really stands out for me this week, and I am more than happy to wrap things up by jumping on board.
UPDATED 30th MARCH
FANTASY DRAFT KINGS PICKS
PICK 1 - KEVIN CHAPPELL - DK VALUE - $6900 - FINISHED MC - DK POINTS 20
The case for Chappell this week down at sub $7K is a fairly obvious one. The Californian's career was severely derailed at the end of 2018 with a back injury and he did not return until September 2019 when he memorably shot 59 at The Greenbrier.
Since then however Kevin has struggled hugely and he did not manage to post a top 20 on tour until last time out at The Honda Classic where he finished 13th.
The timing of that performance could not have been better for Chappell as this week he returns to the scene of his finest hour, TPC San Antonio, where he was victorious in 2017.
As well as that triumph Chappell boasts a second, fourth and 15th place finish here so he clearly loves the track and buoyed by his effort at PGA National last time out I expect him to perform strongly here again this week.
PICK 2 - GRAEME McDOWELL - DK VALUE - $6700 - FINISHED 54th - DK POINTS 51
Another player who has performed strongly here on all three previous visits is Graeme McDowell, having made the cut on all ocassions and posting a best of seventh in 2019.
Gmac had beem struggling lately however he bounced back to life last week at The Corales posting a fourth place finish.
A strong player in the wind Gmac will be more than comfortable here of the gusts pick up as predicted and I fully expect him to be with us for all four days again here this week.