The Valero Texas Open marks the penultimate PGA Tour event before the season's first major, the Masters, so many of golf's elite are teeing it up in San Antonio to tune up for Augusta National.
A demanding TPC San Antonio Oaks Course awaits, with its difficulty dependent on what Mother Nature has in store. Gusty winds can make the lengthy venue a tough track for shorter hitters, and the daunting par fives don't concede a customary number of birdie opportunities.
Martin Laird won last year's tournament by shooting a final-round 63 to beat Rory McIlroy—who won't be teeing it up this time around—by two strokes. That denied McIlroy some much needed momentum and allowed Laird to automatically qualify for the Masters.
Headlining the 2014 field along with Laird is freewheeling veteran Phil Mickelson, who is a slightly surprise entrant since he has a penchant for competing the week before a major. Golf Channel's Jason Sobel poked fun at that in his analysis:
Previous back problems aside, Mickelson feels fit enough to play not only this week but also at the subsequent Shell Houston Open. At age 43, "Phil the Thrill" continues to live up to his well intended moniker.
Executive tournament director Larson Segerdahl was certainly glad to welcome Mickelson to the fold in an event Lefty has played in just once prior, per PGATour.com:
Phil brings another level of excitement when he enters a tournament and we are grateful he has decided to join us next week. The fans in the San Antonio area will have a chance to see one of the great players in the world compete against a tremendous field of PGA TOUR players. Without question, this will be a memorable week.
Mickelson and Laird will play alongside American phenom Jordan Spieth, who figures to be a favorite to notch his second professional victory after several close calls since his maiden triumph at the 2013 John Deere Classic.
One of the two men Spieth beat in a playoff for that first win was Zach Johnson—another big name who is a former Masters champion and won the Valero Texas Open in both 2008 and 2009.
See the synergy at play here? Never a dull moment on the PGA Tour. Now let's look ahead to the basic tournament information, including when and where to watch the golf and what to expect between the ropes.
When: Thursday, March 27 through Sunday, March 30
Where: JW Marriott, TPC San Antonio (Oaks Course) in San Antonio, Texas
Tee Times: For a complete list of tee times for the first two rounds, visit PGATOUR.com.
Purse: $6,200,000; Winner's Share: $1,116,000
FedEx Cup Points: 500
|2014 Valero Texas Open TV Schedule|
|Thursday, March 27||3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Friday, March 28||3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel|
|Saturday, March 29||1-3 p.m., 3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, NBC|
|Sunday, March 30||1-3 p.m., 3-6 p.m.||Golf Channel, NBC|
Analysis of Marquee Groups
Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Martin Laird
Much of what Mickelson's presence brings to the tournament has been discussed already, but he's also the No. 1 favorite with 14-to-1 odds as the prospective winner.
The reigning British Open winner has not gotten off to an ideal start this season with the back pain and zero top 10s to date. It makes sense that Mickelson is pressing himself into action if he is indeed healthy, because he needs to get some competitive reps under his belt before the majors commence.
A ton of young talent litters the game of golf today, but this side of McIlroy, perhaps no one generates the buzz that Spieth does. The 20-year-old Dallas native attended the University of Texas, but left early to become a fully-fledged professional.
Well, more like a fledgling youngster with no status before last season. That changed in a hurry, as Spieth has taken the golf world by storm and risen all the way to No. 13 in the world rankings.
Six top-25 efforts in eight official starts this season show that Spieth is mature and consistent beyond his years. A third-round scoring average of 71.86 ranks 149th on tour in 2013-14, so Spieth must turn that around and make the most of moving day so he can threaten for the trophy.
Laird missed two cuts following his win here last season and finished tied for fifth at the Players Championship, but he hasn't placed better than a tie for 19th since. The Scot will seek a spark at these familiar stomping grounds.
John Senden, Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk
Golf is hard. Senden could tell plenty about that. Despite his amazing ball-striking over the years and numerous chances to win far more tournaments than he has, the talent never quite matched the results.
A win or two can change that perception in a hurry, though, and Senden won the recent Valspar Championship with sensational stuff down the stretch. Senden birdied Nos. 16 and 17 and nearly birdied the last in the final round, navigating the finish known as the "Snake Pit" with far more ease than expected considering the circumstances.
Two PGA Tour wins are now under Senden's belt, so keep an eye on him to see how he responds coming off his first and only other victory on the top circuit since the 2006 John Deere Classic.
Johnson's prowess at this tournament was mentioned before. Both of his wins came when it was played at La Cantera Golf Club, yet he should still be regarded as one of the odds-on favorites.
Distance isn't Johnson's forte, but driving accuracy is vital at this course, where he ranks third on tour this season in finding 73.33 percent of fairways. He's also 10th in greens in regulation percentage, sixth in all-around ranking and is due for a good showing.
Need any more reasons to take him seriously? It seems as though Johnson is always an underdog, even now that he's ranked 10th in the world.
The last competitive shot Furyk hit at TPC San Antonio was a memorable one—a hole-out for eagle from the fairway at the par-five 18th that catapulted him up to a tie for third in 2013:
Say what you will about his stoic exterior, slow, methodical pace of play and his corkscrewed, quirky swing; the bottom line about Furyk is that he just wins. He's consistent. With last year's success to draw on, look for him to be in the hunt for his 17th victory on tour.
Jimmy Walker, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard
The FedEx Cup points leader, Walker, lives in San Antonio. Not a Texas ranger, but a three-time winner on tour this season, Walker is blooming later in his career, a la Jason Dufner.
A long break that began following the WGC-Cadillac Championship precedes this hometown stop for Walker, so he'd benefit from a strong showing before taking his game to the major stage in April. If his form this season is any sign of things to come, he should be in contention by the weekend.
With all that the Hall of Famer Els has accomplished, it'd be easy for the Big Easy to just lay low away from the limelight. However, the sweet-swinging South African has the talent to continue pursuing the career Grand Slam, the third leg of which he can seize at Augusta National with a green jacket.
Els will need a boost of confidence this week after some shaky form following his fourth-place effort at the WGC-Match Play Championship. Perhaps playing with Walker will aid that effort.
It helps that another man in this trio is seeking a similar jolt. Since the event's inauguration in 1922, Leonard is one of four champions to have ever successfully defended the title.
The Dallas native and former University of Texas star is no stranger to the winner's circle here. Leonard has not played well as of late, failing to back up two top 10s early in the season. Unfortunately, his three wins in this event didn't come at TPC San Antonio, but Leonard should see significant support from the gallery.
A Mickelson surprise, local ties and golf that's easy on the eyes promise to make the 2014 Valero Texas Open an exciting PGA Tour showcase yet again. It isn't the tournament immediately before the Masters as it was last season, but that didn't prevent organizers from pulling in a quality field.
The Florida Swing was an entertaining four weeks of golf, so this brief stint in the Lone Star State has a lot to live up to before a select few make the prestigious trip down Magnolia Lane. As one of the oldest, most historic tournaments on tour, this week's golf in the Alamo City figures to foster further greatness.