Valero Texas Open won't be cakewalk

The ninth hole of the AT&T Oaks Course at the TPC San Antonio is a tough 474-yard par-4. In 2011 at the Valero Texas Open, it ranked as the hardest hole on the course, with a 4.351 stroke average. It was here last year that Kevin Na took a record-setting 16 shots to finish the hole. His comedy of errors from the woods was broadcast on highlight reels around the world.

On Monday, Na returned to the scene of the crime wielding a chainsaw in a playful spoof of that fateful Thursday one year ago. Yet in many ways, his 16 on No. 9 was a true testament to the difficulty of the Greg Norman-designed course: an outlandish example of how a very hard course can make fools out of the best players in the world.

In 2011, Brendan Steele won the Valero Texas Open with an 8-under par total that was the highest winning score at the event since 1934, when a New York club pro named Wiffy Cox shot 5-under par to beat Byron Nelson by a shot at the Brackenridge Park Golf Course in San Antonio.

With a 73.665 scoring average last year, the AT&T Oaks Course -- set in the rugged Texas hill country -- was the hardest of the 22 par-72s on the PGA Tour.

Through the years, the players had seen the event, which dates back to 1922, as a place where birdies were plentiful. The event was once the heart and soul of the old Texas swing that once brought all the best players to San Antonio. Ben Hogan, Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Ben Crenshaw all won the Texas Open, but it never tried to be the U.S. Open or the Masters.

When it was held at the La Cantera Golf Club in 2003, Tommy Armour III set the PGA Tour 72-hole record relative to par with a 26 under total. Mike Souchak had set the record at the tournament in 1955 when he shot 27-under par at Brackenridge Park.

The 2012 field is the tournament's weakest in many years, and the tour's weakest of the season for an event not going head-to-head with a World Golf Championship. At 15th in the world, Matt Kuchar is the highest-ranked player in the field.

Prior to the tournament's move from La Cantera after 15 years to the TPC San Antonio in 2010, Cameron Beckman in an article for Sports Illustrated warned that the new venue in his hometown would send shock waves through players accustomed to shooting low scores at the tournament.

"I've probably played the new course about two dozen times, more than any other tour pro, I believe," Beckman wrote. "One day, three friends -- all low-handicap players -- and I decided to play it from the back tees, about 7,500 yards. I shot a 38 on the front nine and played pretty darn well. They shot 43, 45 and 46. We stopped right there.

"I'd say that anyone who shoots four rounds of 68 will win by a lot. In fact, I'll take 10 under par right now, go sit in the clubhouse and wait for the trophy while listening to the critiques."

Adam Scott won with a 14-under par total in the first year on the Oaks course, but not before some players called it unfair. In 2010, the course had the highest first-round stroke average (73.705) on tour.

On Tuesday, Steele tried to defend the layout after he was asked if he believed the difficulty of the course had anything to do with the tournament's poor field.

"Yeah, very possible," he said. "But, I mean the U.S. Open is a rugged place to play, too, right? All the majors are. I think it prepares you for a lot of things out here.

"I don't think there's anything about the course that's unfair even when the wind blows that hard. It demands really good shots and if you don't hit them, you're going to pay the price. You know, there's nothing -- there's a difference between it being unfair and just being hard and there's definitely nothing that's unfair about it."

You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. Nowadays only a handful of events outside of the majors and the WGCs are guaranteed good fields. Not even Arnold Palmer could persuade Rory McIlroy to come to Bay Hill this year. Since Nelson died in 2006, his eponymous tournament is no longer a must-play for the tour elite.

An event like the Valero Texas Open that is in a twilight zone between the Masters and the U.S. Open has to try to attract players with a golf course that players love and want to play year after year. The tournament director can offer the world to attract a great field, but it's the players who create the buzz about a tournament. In just a few years, Quail Hollow has become one of the most popular venues on tour because the top players love the course. If Tiger, Phil and Rory put the Texas Open on their schedule, other top players would follow.

But then what was wrong with the old Texas Open that's survived 16 U.S. Presidents? Tournament venues should change to raise sponsor, player and fan interests, but it might not always be a good thing if those tweaks change the character of the tournament.

Over the years, many have called for the PGA Tour to force its players to enter all of its events at least once every four years, a rule that the LPGA already has in place. That way Tiger Woods would have to play less prestigious events like the Valero Texas Open and in places like Reno. But a provision like that would probably cause anarchy on the PGA Tour. Tiger might give up his PGA Tour card and just play a very select worldwide schedule if the tour tried to force him to play events he didn't like.

The Valero Texas Open has already turned the corner in its efforts to bring a top field to a world-class golf course. It's got a difficult -- and if you believe Steele -- fair golf course. It's never going to be the birdie fest that it was when Armour III shot 64-62-63-65 to win in 2003 by seven shots. Yet in the short run, it looks as if it's not gaining anything by delivering a more challenging venue.

On paper, Kuchar should be the favorite to win this week. Come Sunday afternoon, it would be a big surprise to not see him on the leaderboard. The Oaks Course is a big sprawling place that could favor a player who can hit it long and straight off the tee. But there are lots of long hitters in the field every week on the PGA Tour. So this could be one of the most wide-open tournaments of the season.

Steele had missed six of his first 11 cuts when he won here last year as a rookie. His best finish had been a tie for 17th at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. And the former University of California Riverside star wasn't one of the longer hitters in the field, but he fought through some very windy conditions to shoot a 1-under 71 on Sunday to beat Kevin Chappell by a shot. It was a Texas Open performance that few living people had ever seen. The 28-year-old had a run of 12 consecutive pars.

The 2011 event had the feel of major championship golf: Armour III and Souchak were memories now from easier, freewheeling times on the old Texas swing.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.