The always-demanding layout at the TPC San Antonio’s Oaks course will offer a different challenge this week at the 94th edition of the Valero Texas Open thanks to more than two inches of rain in the past few days that has softened the putting surfaces and saturated the fairways, assuring that the course will play even longer than normal.
The Oaks course, playing at 7,435 yards and to a par of 72, ranked as the toughest on the PGA Tour (of the non-majors) in 2015 and remains one of the most demanding courses the world’s best golfers face anywhere in the world.
But that hasn’t stopped a field of 156 of those players, including golfers from 19 different countries, from answering the challenge.
The 72-hole tournament runs Thursday through Sunday, with the winner – or is it survivor – receiving more than $1.1 million of the $6.2 million purse. The defending champion is Jimmy Walker, the Boerne resident and 26th-ranked player in the world. Walker considers the Valero Texas Open his home tournament. He finished four shots ahead of fellow Texan Jordan Spieth – who is not in this year’s field – for his fifth PGA Tour win.
Walker will seek to become the third man this century to win back-to-back VTO titles, joining Justin Leonard (2000-01) and Zach Johnson (2008-09).
“It’s always good to be home, it’s good to be in Texas and get to sleep in your own bed,” Walker said. “It feels a little more relaxed, I think, honestly. Yes, you do have a lot of people around but everybody is here to support and have a good time and show you a good time and hopefully see some good stuff.
“Everybody was great last year and finishing the way we did it was just awesome, it really was,” he added. “It was a lot of fun. I carry a lot of fond memories and you bring that into this week, too.”
Nine players from the top 30 of the World Rankings will tee it up in the Alamo City’s northern confines, led by 11th-ranked Branden Grace of South Africa, who won last week’s RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Grace, who’s played at the Valero Texas Open twice under sponsor exemptions, tied for 30th last year. He said he’s ready for the change in condition from his previous trips around the course.
“I know the golf course, and it’s a little bit wet,” Grace said. “It’s going to play totally different than the past couple of years. The course still has its own obstacles – you really have to hit it straight and everybody knows this place has some funky greens out there. You have to place the ball well on the greens to give yourself some opportunities.”
Designed by Greg Norman, with an assist from Sergio Garcia, the Oaks course features narrow fairways, bunkers as deep as 12 feet and native vegetation where unplayable lies loom.
Four years ago, Kevin Na famously recorded a 16 at the par-4 ninth hole after struggling to free himself from rocks and underbrush. The next year he returned to the “scene of the crime” with a chain saw and removed some of the trees he hit.
Also in the field are No. 13 Patrick Reed, 16th-ranked Brandt Snedeker, No. 17 Zach Johnson, 18th-ranked Brooks Koepka, No. 19 Phil Mickelson, 21st-ranked J.B. Holmes and No. 27 Matt Kuchar.
Including Grace, 11 players who finished either tied or solo among spots in the top ten last week at the RBC Heritage are in the field in San Antonio. They include Luke Donald (T2), Bryson DeChambeau (T4), Bryce Molder (T6), Whee Kim (T6), Jason Kokrak (T6), Ricky Barnes (T9), Aaron Baddley (T9), William McGirt (T9) and Kevin Chappell (T9).
Prior to his top-10 finish in Hilton Head on Sunday, DeChambeau had received a sponsor exemption to the VTO, which will be his second start as professional. DeChambeau played collegiately at Southern Methodist University, was the low amateur at the Masters two weeks ago and has had a whirlwind beginning to his pro career.
“I can tell you it’s definitely been a new page in my life, that’s for sure,” DeChambeau said. “It’s been different. I’ve embraced it and love it and it’s exciting to be out here playing. I’m really just honored to be a part of this field and trying to compete with the best players in the world.”
Top image: Jordan Spieth hits out of the bunker on the 18th hole during the final round of the Valero Texas Open at TPC San Antonio AT&T Oaks Course on March 29, 2015 in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images.