The PGA Tour rolls along to San Antonio this weekend for the annual Valero Texas Open at the JW Marriott TPC. Last year's champion Steven Bowditch faced stiff competition in 2015 with the likes of Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson in the field and swirling winds.
This is the penultimate tuneup before the Masters starts April 9, so a lot of players who aren't necessarily expecting to win want to get their feet under them heading into Augusta.
None of this is to say that any competitor would take part in a tournament hoping for anything less than a title. In previous years, there have been some out-of-the-box winners, like Bowditch and Brendan Steele (2011).
The man who emerged as this year's champion, Jimmy Walker, was hardly a surprise after a magnificent performance over 72 holes. Read on to find out how Walker got it done in spite of a hard-charging Spieth.
Day 4 Recap
Texan Jordan Spieth got hot late in his round, but San Antonio resident Jimmy Walker held on for a hometown win, marking his fifth PGA Tour victory.
Walker, who matched Spieth with a two-under 70 to win by four strokes on 11 under par, has collected all his wins within the past season-plus, ascending into the elite stratosphere in the process. As much pressure as Spieth applied late in his bid for a third win, his senior playing competitor always had an answer.
The following up and down from the greenside bunker netted Walker a birdie at the par-five eighth hole just before he made the turn at level par, courtesy of PGA Tour on Twitter:
So much was going right for Spieth down the stretch as he poured in four straight birdies from Nos. 14 to 17. Ben Coley of Sky Sports pointed out how locked in Spieth was in his comeback effort:
Even the victor himself acknowledged how tough Spieth proved to be, per Golf Channel's Ryan Lavner:
But Walker was just too much. Even when Spieth hit approach shots at the 16th and 17th inside Walker's ball, the wily veteran calmly drained his birdie attempts. The first of those is captured below:
The two big putts to keep distance between him and Spieth were preceded by a clutch par save on the par-four 15th by Walker.
Justin Ray of Golf Channel demonstrates how much of a surge Walker has made in the midst of his prime:
Golf Digest's Alex Myers had high praise following Walker's clutch performance:
This triumph makes Walker the first multiple winner on tour this season, further proving that his breakout 2013-14 campaign wasn't a fluke. It also puts his name in the mix as a Masters favorite.
The fact that the list of PGA Tour winners has been so diverse is a testament to how deep fields are and how well many of the world's best golfers are playing. Although Walker can't be discounted, Spieth is a true Masters contender in his own right.
Last year's Masters saw Spieth in the final pairing with eventual two-time champion Bubba Watson. Despite being just 21 years old, there's no question Spieth has the stuff to be a major winner soon enough.
Day 3 Recap
Jordan Spieth, who had been lurking in the shadows for the first two rounds, hurt himself in the quest for a second win in two weeks. He wasn't on point all day but seemed to find a groove as things progressed by getting to six under and one shot behind the lead after 15 holes.
Unfortunately, the 16th hole would knock Spieth on the ground. He took a double bogey on the 16th hole thanks to an errant tee shot that went into the bleacher seats.
The day wasn't all bad for Spieth, who did have a run of four birdies in five holes from No. 5 through 9, including this one on seven, via PGA Tour on Twitter:
Spieth's misery turned out to be Jimmy Walker's gain, as the 37-year-old was his usual solid self with a round of three under par that gave him a four-stroke lead heading into the final 18 holes.
After grabbing the lead on Friday, Walker did tell reporters that he believed there was a reason for his uptick in performance, via The Associated Press (h/t USA Today):
"It's nice to have friends and family here," Walker said. "Good vibes and good mojo, and I believe in all that stuff. Positive energy is good."
This hasn't been a course that's produced too many low scores, as Walker tied for the lowest score in the second round with a 67, so the fact he's able to maintain this consistency from day to day is a testament to how well his swing is working right now.
Will Gray of the Golf Channel also pointed out that Walker is likely to end the run of 54-hole leaders without a victory:
You can tell how difficult players are finding this course by the fact no one was able to put a serious run together that challenged Walker on Saturday. Spieth looked like he would do it before the 16th hole pushed him back.
Yet Spieth was able to recover on the 17th hole with a birdie to set up a Sunday that Jason Sobel of the Golf Channel claimed will feature two stars fighting for Texas' soul:
There are four players at two under par or better who have shot in the 70s all three rounds, which tells you how well the course is playing overall.
One player who took a tumble after starting strong is Phil Mickelson. Lefty seemed like he was on the right track with a 70 on Thursday, fell back a couple of shots on Friday and lost two more strokes with a 74 on Saturday.
He's gone from a tie for second place after the first round to tied for 11th with 18 holes to play. The front nine dragged Mickelson down, as he shot four over par before rebounding with a solid 34 on the final nine holes, including an eagle on No. 14.
The PGA Tour tweeted out this highlight of Mickelson nearly holing the 14th hole on his second shot:
A loss of consistency from hole to hole, let alone round to round, is what's destroyed Mickelson. You can see the erratic nature of his play in his results this year, ranging from a 17th-place finish at the Honda Classic to two missed cuts in six tournaments.
Even though Mickelson didn't have a round to remember, it looks Herculean compared to the rapid descent of Charley Hoffman, who went from five under par after two rounds to three over par thanks to a 79 on Saturday.
Hoffman's front nine was a disaster with two double bogeys and three bogeys for a 43 at the turn. By that measure, his 36 on the final nine holes gave him something positive to take away from Saturday.
Based on how the tournament has gone thus far, Walker is firmly in the driver's seat. Three strokes is a titanic lead in an event with only three players at three under par or better after 54 holes. He's also bouncing back from three consecutive tournament finishes outside the top 20, which bodes well for his prospects heading into the Masters.
Other contenders like Spieth and Billy Horschel should be happy with another strong round on Sunday, knowing if Walker stumbles it will give them a chance to pull off a surprise comeback. Everyone else is basically trying to keep their game in order, jockeying for position and momentum before the Shell Houston Open.
Day 2 Recap
There was a stark difference between Thursday and Friday in terms of playing conditions. Wind was a nightmare to deal with in the first round, but things calmed down for the second round to provide plenty of low-scoring opportunities.
In fact, per Golf Channel's Justin Ray, early-round scores were more than six shots better on Friday compared to the first round:
As far as players who took advantage of the scoring conditions, Jimmy Walker tied Carlos Ortiz for the best round on Friday with a five-under 67 to take a one-shot lead into the weekend.
There was a specific reason for Walker's success, aside from only hitting one bogey with six birdies, and it came on the green with his putter. Per the PGA Tour's official Twitter account, the 36-year-old was on point when he got close to the hole:
Sticking with the putting theme, while also expanding out to overall success, Ray tweeted out three stats to show that Walker's dominance on the course Friday is not an accident:
The interesting thing about Walker, as well as golf's fickle nature, is he was mired in a short slump with three consecutive finishes outside the top 20. Whatever the problems were, the hometown kid has figured things out through two rounds.
Further down the leaderboard, Phil Mickelson continues to have a solid tournament. He didn't build on Thursday's two under par, but he remained in contention with an even-par 72. The big blemish on his scorecard was a double-bogey on No. 6.
At least Mickelson was able to save some shots off the green, like this chip on No. 4 that gave him a birdie (via PGA Tour):
That's the kind of highlight Mickelson wants, as opposed to the opening round when he broke a club on a swing out of the bunker. There are still those holes in his game, as evidenced by the double-bogey, to be skeptical everything is coming together. Yet he's still staying around the leader heading into Saturday, which is progress.
Moving back up the leaderboard, as impressive as Walker's run over the last two years has been, Jordan Spieth is on the verge of going from potential to phenomenon two weeks away from the Masters. The Texas native is only two shots back after a strong three-under 69.
Every talented young athlete reaches a moment in their career when they take that leap everyone expects or never puts it all together. Spieth is so close to the former category, noting his confidence is in a great place heading into the first major of the year (via Jonathan Wall of PGA.com):
I feel better going in than I did last year. Last year at this point, I'd actually had a really good season. I had chances to close tournaments out early in the year, but this year I feel better having closed the (Valspar Championship) out. I also missed the cut in Houston last year, so I went in with some questions, I guess, right off an early finish.
Spieth is going to be one of the favorites at Augusta, and those cries are only going to get louder if he earns a victory this weekend.
Kevin Na, who has a checkered past at the Valero Texas Open, put himself in position to win with a four-under 68. Just as important for the 31-year-old is a birdie on the ninth hole, which was the sight for one of golf's great meltdowns in 2011, per Golf Central:
Even though Na's implosion occurred four years ago and he's since won on the PGA Tour, there has to be some part of him that will always think about that unfortunate moment whenever that hole comes up at this tournament.
Whether Na can capitalize on his strong start is a question that will be answered over the next 36 holes. He's got plenty of company, with Walker, Spieth, Aaron Baddeley and Charley Hoffman bunched together at the top of the leaderboard.
There's also a big contingent at two under par, including Mickelson, that looks to be on the verge of making a move up the leaderboard with lower scores on the course. Friday was a turning point for the Valero Texas Open with good results for many marquee players.
Day 1 Recap
The first round of this year's Valero Texas Open was like something out of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. It started out as the worst of times, with vicious winds wreaking havoc on the scores, but would improve in the afternoon session, with players finally breaking par.
Here's how bad things got for players who were forced onto the course in the morning, per Justin Ray of the Golf Channel:
Going deeper than that, per the PGA Tour, the average score for a player in the morning session was nearly 80, or eight shots over par:
Some players, like Cameron Percy, got a nice boost from the wind off the tee, as this highlight from the PGA Tour shows:
As you can see by looking at the leaderboard after the round, that dreadful pace didn't continue.
Aaron Baddeley was the leader in the clubhouse when he walked off the course at four under par. The only blemish for him was on the seventh hole, where he bogeyed, though it was offset by five birdies.
In addition to a stellar day, considering the course conditions, Baddeley had one of the most unique hole-in-one moments that you will ever see. He first hit an unplayable shot off the tee on the par-four 17th hole—then proceeded to hit a tee shot into the bottom of the cup for a birdie.
Even though the shot didn't technically qualify as a hole-in-one for Baddeley, it was still an impressive save, considering that even a bogey would have been a miracle.
Here's the shot chart, per the PGA Tour:
The 34-year-old is seeking his first PGA Tour win since the Northern Trust Open in 2011. He has a lot of golf left to play but at least showed something Thursday to suggest he can stick around through the weekend.
However, Charley Hoffman's bogey-free five-under beat out Baddeley for round of the day. Hoffman has won more recently on tour, taking the OHL Classic at Mayakoba last November.
Just below Hoffman and Baddeley was one of the players everyone wanted to keep a close eye on: Phil Mickelson. Lefty has been a mess this season, finishing inside the top 20 only once and missing two cuts in five tournaments.
To his credit, Mickelson hasn't shied away from admitting that he's had problems with his confidence. Here's what he told Mark Cannizarro of the New York Post:
“I think last year, after having such a rough year [no wins in a season for the first time since 2003], coming back out I think my confidence has slipped a bit, and I’ve got some work to do on that,’’ Mickelson said. “But I think the more I play, the more it will slowly come around.’’
While there's still plenty of time for things to go wrong, Mickelson found something that worked by firing a two-under 70 to finish tied for third. He had some issues, with three bogeys, but found a groove on the back nine with three birdies from holes No. 14 through No. 18.
Mickelson also had this miscue on the 12th hole, which did provide a moment of levity, per the PGA Tour:
Mickelson has always seemed to need momentum to succeed, as his swing often gets lost without it. His finish was excellent and makes him a threat heading into Friday.
Spieth, the rising American star who figures to be a major player at Augusta, also got off to a strong start with a one-under 71. His round was saved by an eagle on the 14th hole, which brought his score back to an even par. A birdie on hole No. 17 got him to his finishing point.
It's not shocking to see Spieth hovering around the leaderboard, as Golf Central noted he's tied for the most top-10 finishes in PGA Tour events:
Spieth seems to be peaking at the right time, coming off a win at the Valspar Championship two weeks ago and finishing inside the top 10 in four of his last five events. It's not going to take long before the 21-year-old is a major winner, possibly as soon as April 12.
Jonathan Wall of PGATour.com provided more depth to Spieth's run by including worldwide performances:
Even though he's four shots behind the leader after Round 1, Spieth is lurking around—just waiting to make his move. Friday will be a big day for the talented young Texan.
All things considered, Thursday's opening round turned out to be better than it originally seemed like it would be.
Some people like to see the pros struggle in the elements to feel better about their own games, but it makes for a bad viewing experience.
Seeing Hoffman, Baddeley and everyone else find a groove once the afternoon started gives hope that things will get more interesting as this tournament moves along. No one really stood far enough above the pack to suggest that there won't be a cluster of contenders by the time Saturday and Sunday roll around.