Billy to bounce back in Texas
Ben Coley previews the Valero Texas Open and fancies Billy Horschel to take inspiration from Matt Every's win last week.
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The PGA Tour arrives at TPC San Antonio for the Valero Texas Open and organisers will have been delighted to see Phil Mickelson's name among a reasonably strong entry list, as Augusta and the season's first major draws ever closer.
Mickelson has never played this event before let alone made a competitive appearance at the TPC San Antonio but he does have a very solid bank of Texas form and should probably be clear favourite for this week's event given the frequency with which he wins.
However, there's no doubt that his eyes are firmly fixed on the Masters and 18/1 isn't quite enough to tempt me in. Nor is the 18s quoted about Matt Kuchar, whose consistency counts for plenty on tour but often means he's no value from a betting perspective, while Zach Johnson's pair of wins in this event came elsewhere and his early-season form has cooled off somewhat.
As I wrote last week, we've seen a lot of high-profile players denied by the so-called lesser lights of the PGA Tour this season and that confirms two things: firstly, that there's depth to every field and secondly that we should never be afraid to try and get the favourites beaten. It was the case again last week with Matt Every and the first thing I want to do here in Texas is look beyond the market leaders.
This event last year provided an upset of sorts as Martin Laird held off a Rory McIlroy charge and that's been the case since Brendan Steele's shock success in 2011, so while Mickelson may emulate McIlroy in going close in this surprising addition to the schedule, it may well be that we're again reflecting on a somewhat less predictable champion come Sunday night.
As for the course, similar with those we've visited in Florida of late it will provide a stern test and wind is likely to be a factor. Laird emulated Adam Scott's 2010 winning total of 14-under par but the two champions in between managed just eight-under, so anyone who can get to double-figures under par should at least hit the frame.
In keeping with the strengths of course designer Greg Norman and consultant Sergio Garcia, driving the ball well is certainly a benefit around this course but those who sit towards the top of the scrambling stats are the most likely to contend. Three of the four winners here ranked inside the top five for scrambling during the week, albeit not all are renowned for their short game prowess.
Course form tends to be pretty solid at San Antonio and the likes of Brendan Steele and Freddie Jacobson will do for many this week, but at a slightly bigger price I prefer the claims of Billy Horschel.
The fiery Floridian led the field heading into the final round last year only to falter as he continued to serve his apprenticeship on tour, before graduating in style with victory in New Orleans not long after.
Given that before 2013 we didn't know for certain that Horschel could score at this course let alone cross the line and become a winner, there's plenty to recommend him this time around in a field which doesn't include McIlroy and lacks some depth, especially at the available odds.
There are, of course, reasons for his price, chief of which being that he hasn't contended for a title for some time and his best finish this season came when tied for sixth back in January and that in a limited field event.
However, I'm encouraged by his ball-striking statistics which remain really strong - in particular I like the fact he's eighth in total driving - and while his short game has been poor he might be able to turn that around here, given that last year he led the field in putting average.
Regular readers will probably be aware by now that I do value the small, immeasurable factors which to my mind can prove the difference between good and spectacular golf, so it'll be no surprise that I consider the victory of Every last week as relevant to Horschel's prospects. Both are Florida Gators and very good friends who are not dissimilar in character.
Even if that argument doesn't wash with some, the fact that Horschel told his Twitter followers that his game feels as good as it has for a long time is surely worth bearing in mind and for a player who was being heralded as a potential Ryder Cup star - and could yet feature at Gleneagles - I think 50/1 and upwards looks generous in this field.
Unlike Horschel, Kevin Chappell hasn't yet won on the PGA Tour but his turn looks near and the Texas Open represents a fine opportunity.
Chappell is perhaps most famous for his exploits in a pair of US Opens and they help to show that he's perhaps at his most dangerous on a tough course like TPC San Antonio, where he was second behind Steele in 2011. He was then forced to withdraw in 2012 before returning with a share of 15th last year to demonstrate that the course very much suits his game.
Recently we've seen him produce some really solid golf, including four under-par rounds at the Arnold Palmer Invitational where he drove superbly, ranking 24th for distance and fifth for accuracy, and also putted well as he has done for much of 2014.
Like Horschel, Chappell has also played well at the Shell Houston Open and the way he played when second to Kuchar at The Memorial Tournament last year leaves me in no doubt as to his ability to perform under pressure, as he did so well here three years ago.
Chappell is a former Haskins Award winner - a collegiate honour that's gone the way of Kuchar, Ryan Moore, Hunter Mahan, Bill Haas, Graeme McDowell, Russell Henley, Luke Donald and Tiger Woods - and I don't think it'll be long before he fulfills his abundant potential.
Brian Gay is a player who has undoubtedly fulfilled his potential and then some and the four-time PGA Tour winner is worth chancing at massive odds.
Gay is among the shortest hitters on the circuit which helps explain why he's prone to severe slumps in form, as if his long irons aren't perfectly dialled in then he's simply not going to be able to compete on most of the courses on the rotation.
However, here at San Antonio that shouldn't be too much of an issue and the PGA Tour's current seventh-best scrambler might be able to return to the sort of form which saw him finish fourth here a couple of years ago.
So far this season he's shown flashes of form including at the McGladrey Classic where he finished fourth after an opening 63, and while recent efforts aren't nearly as encouraging that's reflected in quotes towards the 200/1 mark.
Gay is from Texas and as a realistic he knows this is his level, so he'll be determined to add a fifth PGA Tour win in front of his own crowd having gone close in both this tournament and the Byron Nelson in the past. He could fail spectacularly, but if he's in the mix on Sunday we can be confident he has what it takes to get over the line.
JB Holmes showed signs of a return to his brilliant best when sharing 10th last week and, on a course which may suit him even better, it's worth speculating that he really is back close to the form which saw him play a leading role for the last victorious US Ryder Cup team back in 2008.
Clearly, six long years have passed since that performance at Valhalla and for a time it looked as though big-hitting Holmes had no future as a professional as he underwent emergency brain surgery in late 2011.
Having somehow completed a return to the PGA Tour despite developing tennis elbow while in rehab, Holmes then saw his career suffer another blow as he broke his ankle in 2013. However, he's shown encouraging signs this season with six cuts made in seven starts, and finally gained real reward for his efforts at Bay Hill last week.
Encouragingly, Holmes is putting really well and doesn't appear to have lost any of his famous distance so gradually the pieces are being put back together and at just 31 years of age, there's plenty of time for him to work his way back towards the top of the sport.
His renaissance could continue this week at TPC San Antonio, where Holmes led after 54 holes in 2010 before slipping to 13th and then finished 11th a year later. He's also gone close in the Shell Houston Open, losing a play-off to Paul Casey, and while on the face of it you'd expect that venue to suit better he can clearly work his way around this course.
It may well be that it's asking too much for Holmes to win another title at this relatively early stage of his comeback but equally he may be able to adopt a more relaxed approach than many as, clearly, he's just delighted to be back out there playing.
Finally, Danny Lee is worth chancing to build on an eye-catching second at the Puerto Rico Open a couple of weeks ago.
Lee gave everything in his pursuit of Chesson Hadley that day before opening up with a fine 68 at the Valspar Championship, after which he hailed not only his ball-striking but his work on the greens which includes switching to a Sergio Garcia-style claw grip.
Unfortunately, a second round 79 and resulting missed cut rather undermined what he told reporters but we can forgive him that and instead focus on last week's play at Bay Hill, where he carded four very solid rounds to finish 31st on just his second visit.
As a former US Amateur champion it's clear that Lee has a lot of potential and to an extent he's already realised it, with a European Tour victory plus one on the Web.com Tour which came in Texas where he also lives and practices.
I think he has the game to step up and win in this sort of company at some point soon and while only 63rd here on his sole visit two years ago he did at least make the weekend, and it's possible we'll see vast improvement this time around.