The post-Masters swing on the PGA Tour got off to a good start last week, with a thrilling back nine at the RBC Heritage making way for a playoff, won by little-known Satoshi Kodaira on the third extra hole.
It will be difficult to follow what happened in South Carolina, but this week’s event, the Valero Texas Open has traditionally been up to the task, with 10 of the last 11 editions being settled by two strokes or fewer.
The tournament itself has been held in the San Antonio area since 1922, making it one of the longer-running events on Tour, with this year’s edition being the ninth consecutive held at TPC San Antonio’s AT&T Oaks Course, a Greg Norman re-design.
Among the stories to watch closely this week:
1. CHAPPELL DEFENDS
Kevin Chappell’s victory at last year’s Valero Texas Open, where he had a one-stroke lead through 54 holes and held off strong rallies from Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau on Sunday’s back nine, was more than an enormous relief to the then 30-year-old UCLA product.
Chappell had been winless in 180 career starts, and had come close a frustrating number of times, collecting four runner-up finishes in 2016 alone, including a playoff loss at the season-ending Tour Championship.
Chappell was tired of being a bridesmaid, a feeling which was palpable as he sunk an 8-foot birdie on the final hole at TPC San Antonio to break a tie he had fallen into two holes earlier. He expressed considerable joy in post-round interviews that he would no longer have to answer questions about what he needed to do to finally win.
In the months after his Valero breakthrough, Chappell had a tendency to be a bit boom-or-bust – not winning again, but racking up five finishes inside the top 13, and playing well enough to earn his way onto the Presidents Cup team (Chappell finished just a fraction of a point ahead of Charley Hoffman for the final automatic spot), where his 1-1-1 record earned 1.5 points for the winning American side.
The 2018 season has been more of the same for Chappell. He has not yet found his way back into the winner’s circle, but he has tallied three top 10s in 12 events, with a high finish of T6 at the CareerBuilder Challenge in late January. He has been solid statistically, with his best work coming with his driver, as he ranks 8th on Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee.
However, despite good enough form to be sitting a respectable 52nd in the FedExCup standings, Chappell has been awful in his last three outings.
Four weeks ago, at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Chappell won his first match in group play, a 3&2 beating of Daniel Berger, but then he was absolutely blasted 7&6 in his second match by Tommy Fleetwood, and then he conceded his third match, to group winner Ian Poulter, after he was 3-down through nine holes.
In his two following starts, he missed the cut badly at The Masters after a 77-76 start, and he also missed the cut last week at the RBC Heritage, as a 73-70 start put him one stroke off the wrong side of the line.
As the defending champion, who has been mostly good since, Chappell should be coming into the week confident, but if he wants to become the third back-to-back Valero Texas winner since Arnold Palmer’s early 60s three-peat, he will need to overcome what has ailed him for the past month.
2. SERGIO SET TO PLAY
Sergio Garcia may be from Spain, but he has often professed his love of the state of Texas. He has had great success on Texan courses, spends a great amount of his time in Austin, and his wife, Angela, is a diehard Longhorn fan, having played college golf at the University of Texas.
He was also a consultant in the construction of AT&T Oaks course at TPC San Antonio, the course where the Valero Texas Open has been played since 2010.
Strangely though, despite his Texas ties and his influence on the host course, Sergio has not played this event since 2010, the first Valero edition played at TPC San Antonio. A Friday 68 was his highlight, surrounded by three 73s, leading to a 1-under final score and a tie for 45th place.
This year, Garcia was finally convinced to return competitively to the course he helped design, and he could be the biggest name in the field; at No. 10 in the world, he is the highest ranked.
His play over the last year, has been mostly phenomenal, but Sergio will have the challenge of playing this tournament as his first start since his nightmare defense of his 2017 Masters title, just two weeks ago.
Playing as the defending champion for the first time at a major tournament, Sergio hacked his way to a 81-78 start, and at 15-over par, he was tied, with 61-year-old Mark O’Meara and 17-year-old Chinese amateur Yuxin Lin, for the third-worst score in the field.
A lot of that damage was done on one record-setting terrible hole: the par-5 13th, where he hit five consecutive shots into the water in round one, leading to an octuple-bogey 13.
Masters disaster aside, Sergio has looked good in 2018. He had a string of three straight top 10s coming into Augusta, with two of those coming in WGC events, and he won the Asian Tour’s Singapore Open in January by five strokes.
If he can put what happened two weeks ago aside, perhaps something that will be easier given the fact that his first child was born just one month ago, and remember that he is Sergio Garcia, it is difficult to not see him contending.
3. CAN SI WOO KIM REBOUND?
Sergio Garcia is not the only player in the Valero Texas Open field hoping to forget something that happened recently. Reigning PLAYERS Champion Si Woo Kim appeared to have last week’s PGA tournament, the RBC Heritage, in hand late on Sunday, a win which would have been the third of the 22-year-old’s career.
Well illustrating how impressive that would have been, only five players in Tour history have three wins before the age of 23: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, and Jordan Spieth.
Unfortunately for Kim, that win did not happen, as he struggled down the stretch and fell into a playoff with Satoshi Kodaira, who would win on the third extra hole.
Kodaira’s RBC Heritage triumph, which happened on just his 15th career PGA Tour start was impressive, but it never should have happened. Kim unfathomably missed putts of 4, 5, 7, and 6 feet, respectively, on the final four holes, which forced that playoff.
Some may call that unlucky, especially on a day where a lot of the contenders forgot how to putt, but looking deeper, it appears that Kim is just a really, really bad putter.
Kim ranks 202nd on Tour in strokes gained: putting, 184th in putting inside 10 feet, 191st from 10-15 feet, and 203rd from 20-25 feet, where he has made less than 3% of his attempts this season. It is difficult to find any good spin on that.
Still, Kim has been much more consistent than he was last season, and already has double the top 10s in 15 starts (4) that he had last year in 30 starts. His tee to green game has improved prodigiously, and that solid work with everything except his putter allowed him to co-lead the field in birdies last week.
Many players would let last week’s finish get in their head, but if Kim has a short enough memory and finds a way to get anything with the flat stick in San Antonio, a fourth-straight top 25 finish could be in the cards. He placed T22 in this tournament last year, despite having only made four of his previous 14 cuts coming into the week, with nothing better than a T30 in that span.
4. TEXAS TIES
As Texas-based events seem to do so well, the Valero Texas Open draws a lot of Tour pros with ties to the state, making them among the more popular players for the crowds in San Antonio. Here are a few to watch extra closely:
A Baylor University standout, Jimmy Walker has six career victories, including the 2016 PGA Championship. He also won the 2015 Valero Texas Open, taking the title by four strokes over Jordan Spieth.
Walker has mostly struggled since his major championship two seasons ago, but a great deal of those can be imputed to a Lyme Disease diagnosis.
However, with a recent T8 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and a T20 at The Masters, Walker seems to finally be feeling himself again. Even in poor health, he finished T13 in this event last year.
The 23-year-old Hossler was a recent collegiate star at the University of Texas, just turning pro in 2016. Hossler gained his PGA Tour card by finishing 23rd on last year’s Web.com Tour money list, and has flashed immense talent on the big Tour this year.
After slumping in February and March, Hossler has really come around lately. At the Houston Open just three weeks ago, Hossler was inches from a Masters invite, barely missing a winning Sunday birdie putt on 18 before falling to match-play extraordinaire Ian Poulter in a playoff.
He kept sharp at Harbour Town last week, shooting all four rounds under par in a T16 finish. He is currently 10th on Tour in strokes gained: putting.
Another player in this field that was an excellent college golfer for the University of Texas, Frittelli started his professional career on the European Tour, where he won twice last year.
In 2018, the 27-year-old has been playing more stateside, and this will be his 7th PGA Tour start of the season. He has flashed a great deal of talent in Europe, and many believe his U.S. breakout is coming soon.
The 22-year-old standout at Texas A&M has a reputation as long hitter, even among the long hitters. Over the past year, he has made just one cut in five events, but that one cut was at the U.S. Open, where he was T8 through two rounds.
Champ plays mostly on the Web.com Tour, but is expected to be an impact player on the PGA once he gets there. His length makes him one of the more exciting players to watch in this field.
Other Notable Texas Natives In The Field: Brian Gay, J.J. Henry, Andrew Landry, Hunter Mahan, Ryan Palmer, Ollie Schniederjans, Shawn Stefani, Johnson Wagner
5. NIEMANN’S PRO DEBUT
One of the most talented amateur players in some time, Chile’s Joaquin Niemann is making the Valero Texas Open his professional debut.
Just 19 years old, Niemann has held the No. 1 spot in the world amateur rankings for the past 48 weeks, second-most all time (Patrick Cantlay, 54 weeks).
Niemann is already credited with six professional wins, mostly tearing up South America, and his amateur successes has opened up some PGA Tour events; he qualified for the U.S. Open last year and The Masters this year. His other PGA Tour start was a T29 result at last year’s Greenbrier Classic, where he finished very strongly, shooting a Sunday 6-under 64.
There had been speculation for a while about when Niemann would turn pro, and that ended up being after The Masters. TPC San Antonio will be the first start in what looks almost guaranteed to be a long, prolific professional career.