Three's not a crowd as Valero Texas Open makes jump to May

Updated: May 13, 2009

Sometimes it's all about opportunity. The Valero Texas Open has been patiently waiting -- well, maybe not so patiently -- for the chance that came along last year to take a spot in the FedEx Cup portion of the PGA Tour schedule.

Valero Texas Open

Marc Feldman/Getty Images

Although course conditions will likely be different at this year's Valero Texas Open with the move to the spring, one thing will remain: the roller coaster overlooking the course.

So just 214 days after Zach Johnson's victory at San Antonio's La Cantera Golf Course last October, the tournament is here again, the first of a three-tournament swing through Texas that will continue with next week's HP Byron Nelson Championship in Irving and then the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth.

Although the Texas Open is the third-oldest event on the PGA Tour schedule and dates to 1922, it never got the kind of attention and respect long given the other two Texas events.

That largely has to do with its spot on the schedule. The fall has long been the wasteland for PGA Tour golf, and it has become more pronounced since the PGA Tour went to its FedEx Cup schedule, which concludes with the Tour Championship in September.

Sort of like playing major league baseball games that count in the standings after the World Series, the PGA Tour has a handful of Fall Series events that are meaningful mostly to those players who play them. While a win counts, and the money spends, a victory doesn't mean a trip to the Masters, nor does it earn a single FedEx Cup point.

That was the predicament the Texas Open faced, despite being one of the tour's all-stars when it comes to raising charity money. Last year the figure was $8.5 million.

"We've been No. 1 or No. 2 the last four or five years," said tournament director Craig Smith. "Phoenix [the FBR Open] is always right up there and their guys have such a fantastic model, one we try to follow. They do such a great job of building the overall bigness of the event.

"We obviously want the best player field we can get, but we've tried to build it so that it is memorable for people, a place they want to go. We want the best players, no question. But we also want the people to put the Valero Texas Open as a must-attend event for people in the area."

Smith recognizes that following the Quail Hollow Championship and the Players Championship is not conducive to attracting the best field in terms of world rankings. But Anthony Kim is playing, as is Justin Leonard and defending champion Johnson.

And the tournament certainly is not going to quibble. For years it has sought to become part of the tour's spring schedule, and the opportunity presented itself last year when AT&T decided to pull its sponsorship from the Atlanta PGA Tour stop. When local officials there were unable to secure a new title sponsor, the opening on the schedule was filled by the Texas Open and allows for three straight weeks of PGA Tour golf in Texas.

"It's all positive, absolutely," Smith said. "Being on network television [CBS] Saturday and Sunday is great for the community. Moving to the FedEx Cup gets more attention from the players. The purse increased, and hopefully it will pay some dividends linking us up with Dallas and Fort Worth.

"But we've been one of the little guys for so long. We feel like we have a nice laid-back atmosphere. We want to keep that."

With only seven months to turn around the event after last year's tournament, Smith is thankful that it is returning to La Cantera. The tournament is scheduled to move to the AT&T Oaks Course at the TPC San Antonio next year, a venue designed by Greg Norman.

Tiger Talk

The numbers are mystifying. In each of the past two tournaments, Tiger Woods has failed to crack the top 40 in driving accuracy. Same for greens in regulation. He has not been in the top 10 in putts per round, although he did tie for 11th at the Quail Hollow Championship. He wasn't in the top 20 in total distance of putts made, either.

And yet after a fourth-place finish at Quail Hollow, Woods finished eighth -- his first top 10 since winning in 2001 -- at the Players Championship.

There remains plenty of conjecture over Woods' game since he returned in February after an eight-month absence due to knee surgery. The consistency that we have come to expect from his long game is missing, and yet, if he had a better putting week at Augusta National and Quail Hollow, he easily could have won both of those tournaments.

Alex Cejka, who shot a final-round 79 after taking a 5-stroke lead into the final round at the Players, was paired with Woods and suggested that anybody else would have shot in the mid- to high 70s the way Woods hit the ball. Yet Tiger came away with a 73 and now has finished among the top 10 in all five of his stroke-play events this year. It was his 15th straight top-10 at stroke play on the PGA Tour. He leads the PGA Tour in adjusted stroke average.

After losing in the second round of the Match Play, Woods has tied for ninth at Doral, won at Bay Hill, tied for sixth at the Masters, finished fourth at Quail Hollow and eighth at the Players. That's an outstanding year for most players. He's also shot 18 of his 20 rounds at par or better, with only a third-round 71 at Bay Hill and Sunday's 73 over par.

And for what it's worth, Woods does not appear all that concerned.

"We know what it is. It's just a matter of me doing it," Woods said of the work he'll do with his coach, Hank Haney. "I just haven't -- sometimes, as we all know, playing the game is harder to do on the golf course. I just need to do a little better job of it."

It is also interesting to note that Woods finished ahead of every other top-10 player in the world at the Players except for Stenson, who is now ranked fifth: No. 2 Phil Mickelson (T-55), No. 3 Sergio Garcia (T-22), No. 4 Geoff Ogilvy (T-22), No. 6 Kenny Perry (T-22), No. 7 Paul Casey (T-9), No. 8 Padraig Harrington (T-49), No. 9 Vijay Singh (T-9) and No. 10 Camilo Villegas (T-14).

Now what? Woods has a fundraiser this week for his foundation, Tiger Jam VII in Las Vegas. Then it's presumably back to work. Woods is expected to play the Memorial in three weeks before the U.S. Open.

A look at this week's PGA Tour venue

For the 15th and most likely last time, the Valero Texas Open will be played at San Antonio's La Cantera Golf Club, designed by Tom Weiskopf and opened in 1995. The tournament is scheduled to move to the TPC San Antonio next year.

Preceding that move was a move this year to the spring. The tournament has been played in the fall until an opening in the schedule allowed a change to the FedEx Cup part of the schedule. How that will impact the golf course and its conditions will be one of the factors this week.

The par-70 course plays to just 6,896 yards, and players have a history of going low. Since 2000, winners have posted an average score of 261, 19 under par. In 2003, Tommy Armour III set the tour scoring record of 254. Bart Bryant shot 60 at La Cantera in 2004.

The tournament dates to 1922, when Bob Mac Donald won the Texas Open at Brackenridge Park Golf Club. That venue hosted the event more than 20 times, including in 1955, when Mike Souchak shot 257 to set what was then the PGA Tour's scoring record.

Before moving to La Cantera, the tournament was played for 15 years at Oak Hills Country Club, where the Champions Tour now has an event.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


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Birdies and bogeys

Birdies:

1. Henrik Stenson. That was some final-round performance for the Swede at The Players Championship. His 66 was the best by 3 strokes of anyone in the top 30 entering the final round.

2. John Daly. You have to give it up for Big John, who shot a final-round 66 to finish second at the Italian Open, his first top-10 anywhere since a playoff loss to Tiger Woods at the American Express Championship in 2005.

3. Hawaii. The PGA Tour and Kapalua got a big boost with the announcement that SBS (a Korean broadcast network) would be sponsoring the season-opening PGA Tour event through 2019. Now if they can work on that format of inviting just winners from the previous year.

Bogeys:

1. Alex Cejka. He started the final round of the Players with a 5-shot lead and lost by eight: a 13-shot swing.

2. Phil Mickelson. What happened to Lefty? He never shot a round in the 60s at the Players, and ended with a 76 to finish tied for 55th.

3. Anthony Kim. Last year's sensation continues to struggle. He shot 73-82 at the Players to miss the cut and has not posted a top-10 since the season opener.

European Ryder Cup changes

Does one loss have the Europeans panicking? Or is it simply a better idea to give the captain more selections?

The European Tour this week elected to make changes to its selection process for the 12-man team that will try to win back the Cup from the Americans next year in Wales. The process doesn't begin until later this year, as Europe has a one-year qualifying period.

Instead of 10 players qualifying automatically with two picks, European captain Colin Montgomerie has been granted a third at-large selection in what is being viewed as a compromise; Monty had lobbied for four picks.

The team will be comprised of the leading four players from the Ryder Cup World Points list, the leading five players not otherwise qualified from the European points list and three captain's picks.

Europe had gone with 10 automatic qualifiers and two picks since 1995, and went 5-2 in the seven matches.

Before last year's matches, U.S. captain Paul Azinger lobbied for and received four at-large picks, and the Americans won for the first time since 1999.

Notables

• There continue to be signs that Poppy Hills will be dropped from the three-course rotation at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which uses Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Poppy as venues for the first 54 holes, with all players competing at Pebble during the final round. KSBW-TV in Monterey, Calif., reported this week that Monterey Peninsula Country Club could replace Poppy Hills as early as 2010.

• Arnold Palmer and Justin Leonard are the only players to have won the Texas Open three times since the event's inception back in 1922.

• Dustin Johnson, who won at Pebble Beach earlier this year, remains the only player to lead the field in driving distance and win the event.

• Brian Davis and Jeff Klauk were the only players who managed to match or break par in all four rounds at the Players Championship. Davis tied for fifth and Klauk tied for 14th.

• Three players -- Scott Verplank, Jason Bohn and Michael Letzig -- eagled TPC Sawgrass' par-4 15th hole last week, a feat that occurred just twice in the previous 27 years at the hole.

• Bob Tway turned 50 on May 4 and makes his Champions Tour debut this week at the Regions Charity Classic.

Quotable

"I think it's the only part of the telecast that Elin Woods is enjoying."
-- NBC's Johnny Miller, commenting on an overheard conversation between Players Championship winner Henrik Stenson and his caddie, Fanny Sunesson, which was all in Swedish.

Catching up with last year's champ

It had been a relatively poor year for Zach Johnson leading up to the Valero Texas Open. The 2007 Masters champion had posted a single top-10 -- a tie for ninth in March at Doral -- and had missed the cut at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. When he missed the cut at The Barclays, Johnson was eliminated from the FedEx Cup playoffs.

So he had some time to put a game plan together, and he decided to focus on the Fall Series as a way of getting back to where he was, hoping to use it as a springboard for 2009. And then, in his first start back, he wins. Johnson captured the Valero Texas Open by 2 shots, and all of a sudden his year didn't look so bad.

That momentum carried over to this year, where he tied for sixth at the season-opening Mercedes, then won the Sony Open, his fifth career PGA Tour victory.

Johnson went on to finish third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and was in contention a few weeks ago at Quail Hollow, where he tied for 11th. He has earned more than $2 million this year and ranks sixth in the FedEx Cup standings.

The Valero Texas Open picks

Horse for the Course: Justin Leonard. He has three victories in the tournament (2000, 2001, 2007) as well as two second-place finishes, and in 11 starts has been 15th or better nine times.

Birdie Buster: John Mallinger. Coming off a tie for third at The Players Championship, Mallinger quietly keeps knocking at the door. He was also sixth at the Shell Houston Open.

Super Sleeper: Cameron Beckman. A resident of San Antonio, Beckman, who won last year's Frys.com Open, is making his 14th start in his hometown tournament, although he has failed to post a top-10 this year.

Winner: Chad Campbell. He's never finished in the top-10 in the event, but Campbell -- who lost in a playoff at the Masters to Angel Cabrera -- gets his fifth career PGA Tour victory in a tournament he's played six times.