Sneak peek: Valero Texas Open; TPC San Antonio losing its bite?

“Change” was the operative word at last year’s Valero Texas Open. For the first time, the tournament was played the week before the Masters. One of Greg Norman’s companies was brought in to manage the event. And the infamously difficult Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio was smoothed over with a few changes tooled onto the course.

Martin Laird could barely see the reason for the fuss.

“None of the changes to the golf course were drastic,” said Laird, who ended up winning the event over Rory McIlroy. “If you didn’t know there were changes made, you could play 18 holes out here and maybe only notice one of them. That’s how simple they were.”

Well, something had to change, because scores on the Oaks Course came down significantly from previous years. And it had nothing to do with the fact that Kevin Na decided to stay home rather than risk scoring a 16 on No. 9 like he did three years ago. The scoring average came down so much it was like the event had been moved to the short municipal layout at Brackenridge Park. Laird shot a final-round 63 in windy conditions to win.

Stroke average at the 2011 Valero Texas Open was 1.665 strokes over par. Two years ago it topped out at 1.989 over par, which made the Oaks play as the fourth most difficult course on the PGA Tour. Finally, last year it tumbled down to only .740 over par.

Those changes again? Laird can only think of two that specifically caught his eye. The rearward portion of the green at No. 12 had its contours noticeably softened. “It was a little severe back there,” Laird said. And the biggest change at No. 10 came when the mower was kept away from right slope building up to the elevated green. “You could hit a pretty good shot into there, and the next thing you knew (your ball was rolling) 25 yards away where they had shaved that slope. Small things like that can change a half a stroke here and a half a stroke there.”

As for Laird’s contention that the course is “starting to grow on guys,” perhaps there’s something to that. When some of the early commitments were announced this week, Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk were listed. Kuchar, currently No. 8 in the Official World Golf Rankings, will be playing his for the third year in a row. Furyk came here for the first time last year and expressed his concerns over the reputation of the course. Apparently nothing scared him away.

Other commitments include Sergio Garcia (a spot behind Kuchar in the World Rankings at No. 9), who was the player consultant to Greg Norman when the Oaks was under construction. Jimmy Walker intends to play here again, along with Billy Horschel, Padraig Harrington, Retief Goosen and Champions Tour regular Mark Calcavecchia (he made the cut last week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open). Tournament officials expect more headliner names in the weeks ahead.

“We’re having a lot of positive conversations with the top segment of the World Golf Rankings,” tournament director Larson Segerdahl said. “Quite honestly we have a chance to really blow it out this year in terms of our field strength — a killer event.”

The Valero Texas Open will be played March 27-30, and commitments will be rolling in until March 21.



About longlostgolfer

This is the correspondent in San Antonio.
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