2.5pts e.w. Hideki Matsuyama at 22/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
2pts e.w. Abraham Ancer at 25/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Cameron Davis at 55/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Harry Higgs at 100/1 (Sky Bet, Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Sepp Straka at 100/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
Preview written and published prior to the withdrawal of Dustin Johnson
Adam Scott, Brendan Steele, Martin Laird, Charley Hoffman, Kevin Chappell, Andrew Landry, Corey Conners. Seven Valero Texas Open champions, all at TPC San Antonio, and a collective who tell us so much about the formula for this Greg Norman-designed course, one we haven't seen for almost exactly two years now.
At least three of those names — Scott, Chappell and Conners — are associated with horrible putting, but it's the flip side that explains why they've enjoyed sustained success on the PGA Tour. Just like the others, they're quality ball-strikers and, in particular, they drive the ball brilliantly. I don't know as there's an active course on the roster, not now that Firestone and Doral have departed, which points us in a specific direction quite like San Antonio.
Maybe that's because Norman was one of the finest drivers there ever was, and so has been his consultant on this project, Sergio Garcia. Maybe it's a coincidence. But one way or another, the roll-of-honour here, plus names like Trey Mullinax, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy in the runners-up column, is explicit.
Conners was the eighth-best driver on the circuit during the year of his win, the fact he triumphed as a Monday qualifier without full status underlining just how tilted his game was, and to some extent is, towards what he does off the tee. A year before him, Landry stands out as a top-third-on-tour driver despite below-average distance, and had Mullinax held his nerve, the 19th-ranked driver would've won. Chappell was 30th, one place better than Hoffman, one worse than Laird. Scott was 20th in 2010 and spent the next seven or eight years as one of the best around.
It's worth saying that the details of victories for this group support the theory. Conners ranked fourth off the tee and first in approaches in beating Hoffman by two, both of them hitting the ball to an incredible standard and getting by with their short-games. Conners gained a total of 16.5 strokes on the field, and almost 15 of those came before he started chipping and putting. Landry, who also led in strokes-gained approach, happened upon one of those killer weeks with the putter, but it wasn't decisive in his victory over Mullinax, who led the field in that department.
Chappell? Same: outstanding approaches and off the tee, moderate around the greens, decent on them. And then there's the most surprising winner here, one not yet mentioned. Steven Bowditch was the 64th-ranked putter out of 71 players when he took this title, although his anomalous around-the-green stats and some kind of movement in the force are the only things that really explain that. Still, another winner who hit it far and didn't really make much.
This trip down memory lane is a bit much, isn't it, but it has been a couple of years since Conners donned the cowboy boots, and I do only have one preview to write this week. More to the point, we can count ourselves a little unfortunate if the formula has changed in the interim. Here, in the Texas desert, the very best ball-strikers are at an enormous advantage, and with that made clear it might be a good event for a bet.
I had hoped for many weeks that Will Zalatoris would realise all this, and how good a chance this would be for a PGA Tour breakthrough like those won by the champions of 2017, 2018 and 2019, but he's a surprise absentee, and at the top of the market is a surprise entrant. Dustin Johnson, down the driving rankings but plainly among the best there's ever been when firing, comes here after an early exit at the Match Play in a sign that he feels a fraction short of Augusta-winning form.
Given that he's defending next week, I really do think it's a concern that Johnson feels the need to return to a course where he was sixth in a windy 2015 edition. Nevertheless, he's seldom all that far away and isn't one to turn down an opportunity. On the eve of the last Masters he was second in Houston, looking every inch the winner for much of the week, and he's a bigger price now than he was a few weeks ago for stronger events.
But it's Johnson's driving which is behind his dip in form and for that reason I'll look beyond him to one of those maidens who is playing at the right course, perhaps even at the right time. Step forward CAMERON DAVIS at 55/1.
Davis's last outing, at the Honda Classic, demonstrated what he's about and why San Antonio will be a good fit for him. He ranked eighth off the tee and 13th with his approach shots but, not for the first time lately, some clumsiness around the greens combined with the nature of that penal course saw him finish in the middle of the pack.
Nevertheless, it was an encouraging return to form from a player who was third in The American Express back in January. That's another desert event, it was won by past play-off loser Landry in 2020, and looks a decent pointer. Certainly, it's a better form guide than Davis's sole start here, when he missed the cut on the number at a time when he was best described as an out-of-form rookie.
Two years down the line and this sweet swinger has had a few looks and, having won the Australian Open and on the Korn Ferry Tour, he should be ready to stand up tall when next granted an opportunity, just as he did in California in fairness. That's the second time this season he's had a chance, and there was clear improvement from the first. Third time lucky could be the call come Sunday.
At 16th in strokes-gained off-the-tee he's one of the very best drivers in this field and having won in Nashville and contended in Jackson, he can make another successful trip south and supplement compatriot Matt Jones's victory two weeks ago.
Further up the betting, Jordan Spieth is of course respected despite a mixed record here. Only in 2015, when it blew a gale, has he had a genuine chance to win and perhaps this too comes back to the driver, which while not always a weakness has never been his major strength.
Lately, Spieth looks as confident as he has for a long time off the tee and there's been a welcome consistency to his game. In fact the only thing keeping him from winning again has been that killer instinct of his, its absence felt keenly last Saturday when he let Matt Kuchar steal his way through in a winnable World Match Play.
Were we elsewhere in Texas, at Colonial perhaps, he would probably have been given the chance to win just in time for his Masters return. But these eve-of-the-major events often lend themselves to a breakthrough champion, as this particular tournament has regardless of the calendar, and I'll look to ABRAHAM ANCER instead.
Ancer is more the Landry type in terms of past winners, in that he punches above his weight off the tee owing to above-average accuracy and enough power to get by. Driver is certainly among the more reliable clubs in his bag and he's figured highly in the season-long rankings: 10th in 2019, 33rd last year, and ticking along nicely so far this.
The Mexican actually missed out to Landry in that renewal of the AmEx last year and was in the frame there again a couple of months back, while his form on home soil at El Camaleon is interesting to some degree as that's another Norman design. Charley Hoffman has won at both courses, and both John Huh and Matt Kuchar have gone close to securing the double.
Here at San Antonio, Ancer's form doesn't appear all that strong but he's made the weekend in all three visits, driving the ball as well as you'd expect and making more than his share. It's hard to explain, but his iron play has been particularly poor here, and that's where the risk appears to lie. Yet he's been good with his approaches throughout this year, and I suspect those numbers from past renewals don't really tell us much.
Second after round one on his last visit and having improved again since, he looks an ideal candidate for a mid-tier event, where scoring is neither really low nor especially high (except for in gale-force winds, which are not forecast), and perhaps even on the eve of a major when others have an eye on what's to come.
Arguably the best maiden on the circuit, Ancer's focus should be on the here and now and Texas would be a great place for the breakthrough — he was actually born in the Lone Star State, again like Landry, and lives in San Antonio.
Last week he was very unfortunate to be eliminated by Kevin Streelman in the Match Play, losing a play-off to an opponent he'd previously beaten. Prior to that he'd been 22nd in The PLAYERS and 18th in the WGC-Workday, his missed cut at Riviera coming at a course where he's yet to look comfortable.
This looks a great chance to break his duck, adding his name to a long list of Texas natives or residents who have done so well in this established event.
Speaking of the Match Play and those who played better than the bare results imply, HIDEKI MATSUYAMA looks an interesting candidate here having been eliminated from a group which produced some of the best golf in the competition.
Although Wednesday's opening defeat to Carlos Ortiz doesn't look like strong form, the Mexican buried a 43-foot putt on the first and hit it to concession distance on the third, three birdies out of the gate putting Matsuyama on the back foot from the start.
On day two, Brian Harman made a 30-foot eagle putt to take control of a match which went down the last before Friday saw Matsuyama dish out a thrashing to Patrick Cantlay, who had looked a potential champion to that point. The Japanese putted well in a 4&2 win which saw him make nine birdies in 16 holes at a really tricky course over in Austin.
All of this is a bit Matsuyama, that is to say glorious failure has become his thing since looking like the best player on the planet four years ago. Winless since, he is undoubtedly frustrating and you have to think twice before backing him as one of the fancied runners in any event, even one such as this where the field isn't strong and the favourites — including a surely spent Scottie Scheffler (!) — are there to be opposed.
But I really like the way this course sets up for him. Matsuyama's driving stats are a little down this year, but he remains a premiere ball-striker who could very easily end the season within that top 30 or so, which is just about where you'd expect him to be. His approach play remains stellar, ranking 31st this season and fifth last, and if anyone can repeat the Conners trick it might just be the underachieving world number 25.
Form at Scottsdale, another desert course, looks a good guide through the likes of Steele, Koepka, Hoffman and even Branden Grace. Matsuyama is a two-time champion there. So does form at Silverado, where the likes of Bowditch, Kevin Tway and Andrew Loupe help establish a strange but significant connection with San Antonio, and where Matsuyama was third on debut.
Having missed the cut on the number at Sawgrass because of a nightmare start, prior to which he'd put together back-to-back top-20 finishes powered by his iron play, Matsuyama appears in the same sort of form which preceded second place in Houston last November.
As was the case then, he's fancied to boost his Masters claims at a course which looks perfect for him, with both he and Ancer surely focused on overdue wins regardless of what's to come next week.
That Silverado link really does interest me, because Loupe, Tway and Bowditch are not players who pop up often, and there are others who have featured at the business end of both events. And while that might suggest Cameron Champ might return to form, he's yet to make a cut in 2021 and I prefer HARRY HIGGS this time.
After wins for Max Homa and Joel Dahmen, Higgs would be a fitting addition to this year's roll-of-honour and he looks to be coming to the boil having been 29th at Sawgrass and then 19th last time out in the Honda Classic, where for the first time in his PGA Tour career he led the field in strokes-gained approach.
A few ragged performances this season hold down his off-the-tee stats, but Higgs ranked 35th as a rookie and it's this quality long-game which almost saw him break through in the Safeway Open at Silverado, where Stewart Cink just got the better of him on a tight Sunday.
That performance came after a similarly encouraging fortnight, and this Dallas resident with winning form to his name at a lower level is one of the most interesting outsiders along with SEPP STRAKA.
Austrian-born but having moved to Georgia at the age of 14, Straka now lives in Alabama and is a dual national who I suspect might find it really difficult to decide which side to represent in the Ryder Cup, should his career progress that far.
Such a dilemma remains a little way off but he's been threatening a PGA Tour breakthrough for a while now, with so much of his form nicely tied to San Antonio. It includes fourth place behind Landry in the AmEx, 14th in the aforementioned Safeway Open where a year earlier he shot 63, and back-to-back top-fives in Houston, including on the eve of last year's Masters.
Unlike that event, the Texas Open does come with a Masters place for the winner and all these maidens would have that obstacle to overcome on Sunday, but down the years plenty have proven capable of focusing on the task at hand or even finding a little extra for the more significant prize. Jim Herman, Ian Poulter, Russell Henley, Matt Jones and DA Points all won in Houston to secure a place at Augusta — that's five of the six winners there before it was moved — and Conners and Laird have done it here.
Straka, whose approach play was outstanding despite a missed cut on the number here on debut two years ago, arrives in the kind of shape which suggests he could be the latest addition to that list. He was ninth in the Dominican Republic last week, three bogeys over the final four holes costing him a top-five, and before that finished 33rd in the Honda Classic despite a quiet week on the greens.
Like Higgs, his driving numbers this year are strong and along with his approach play have been the foundations of a PGA Tour career now in its third season, and I'm hopeful he can contend in better company after a promising effort in an opposite field. That's precisely what he did back in November, and he completes the staking plan.
At huge odds, the fact that teenage prospect Akshay Bhatia secured his first top-10 finish at Silverado caught my eye, and he opened with a round of 64 at Pebble Beach when last we saw him at PGA Tour level. Since then he's come up short in a couple of Monday qualifiers but also won a minor tour event and given his talent, 250/1 holds some kind of appeal.
Back at the front of the market, it's obviously tempting to go in again on Charley Hoffman, who was on course to finish inside the top 10 at the Corales before dropping five shots over the final two holes. That aberration aside he continued on what's been an excellent run of form, and there's nowhere he plays as well as San Antonio — except perhaps for Augusta.
Winning here to qualify for the Masters is within his capabilities but he will have to bounce back from that jarring finish, and his long-game stats, limited though they are, were poor in the Dominican Republic.
Hoffman is still the one I would regret missing out on and Brendan Steele is the only other at the front end of the market who holds serious appeal. Steele is a former champion here who has always played well at San Antonio when the putter has behaved (1-4-8-13) but has struggled when it hasn't (46-MC-62-30-42).
That tells you how much this quality driver loves the place, and he's ranked 12th and sixth in putting across his last two starts. Should that continue he will surely play well again following third place in the Honda, as he seeks to win for a second time here, something he's already done at Silverado.
The reason Steele and Hoffman are among the most reliable San Antonio specialists is plain to see, and it points us in a clear direction. Now for at least a couple of these to do what they do best and, in the case of Matsuyama and Ancer, demonstrate that a little motivation can go a long way on the eve of Augusta.
Posted at 1750 BST on 29/03/21
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