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If you were to dream up a set of circumstances ripe for each-way punting, they’d include 14/1 the field, a vulnerable favourite, a bunch of infrequent winners right in behind, none of the world’s truly elite players and a golf course we know a bit about. That’s exactly what we have in front of us at the Valero Texas Open.
It’s not that Sergio Garcia is easy to dismiss, having helped design host course TPC San Antonio, but the Spaniard shot 81-78 when last seen and was 45th on his sole start here some eight years ago. Garcia now has Texas connections through his wife and had been playing well in the run-up to Augusta, but even the idea that fatherhood might inspire a brilliant summer isn’t enough to side with him here at a fairly short price.
Matt Kuchar’s claims are obvious, as they were last week, but not only is he not winning, he’s not really contending. It’s almost two years since the affable veteran started a final round within two strokes of the lead and while there’s plenty to indicate that he’s just about as good as ever, that’s not enough to be confident at prices no bigger than 20/1.
Charley Hoffman can play this place blindfolded and will become the default selection for many, but it’s another former champion in the reliable Brendan Steele who looks better value at around the 40/1 mark.
TPC San Antonio is a fairly long, very demanding course which we know plays to Steele’s strengths. This excellent driver of the ball is favoured when there’s punishment for straying offline and we saw a demonstration of that on his debut here in 2011, when he saw off Hoffman and another subsequent Texas Open champion in Kevin Chappell.
A year later, Steele finished fourth when defending his title and he’s also been eighth in 2015, and started with a brilliant round of 64 before fading to 13th in 2016. In more than half of his seven visits he’s been a definite factor and as we’ve seen since he won the second renewal to be played at this golf course, an affinity for the layout has been an absolutely key pointer towards success.
What’s more, Steele happens to be one of those players who really comes alive when returning to one of his favourite tracks. His other two PGA Tour victories have both come at Silverado, home of the Safeway Open; four of his best 20 performances in terms of world ranking points have come at TPC Scottsdale in the Phoenix Open; three visits to Paris and Le Golf National have resulted in finishes of seventh, seventh and sixth; twice he’s gone close at the CareerBuilder Challenge. If only those events mattered, he’d be a good thing to book a return to LGN via a Ryder Cup spot.
That all bodes well for his return to Texas and, having started the season with a bang, there’s little to suggest the 35-year-old is in anything but excellent form. The one obvious negative is his performance at Augusta last time where he missed the cut, but it was far from disastrous and it’s worth noting that his fourth place here in 2012 came on his return to action after shooting a second-round 80 on his Masters debut.
Statistically speaking, quality ball-striking and a dominance over the par-fives has proven to be an increasingly good pointer at San Antonio – the latter helps explain even shock winner Steven Bowditch – and that’s Steele’s game to a tee. This season he’s been strong off the tee as ever, ranks 34th for approach shots, eighth in greens hit and 19th in par-five scoring average.
Prior to Augusta he’d won two of his three group games at the Match Play, eliminated only in overtime against in-form Tyrrell Hatton, and for my money he deserves to be much closer to the front of the market. As you’d expect, Steele says he loves coming back here and he’s worth a decent bet to enjoy himself in contention once more.
After all that I wrote about the shape of this market, I find others towards the top of it hard to fancy quite strongly enough. Brandt Snedeker said last week that he’s playing as well as he has in a long time yet still only produced one hot round in four, a continuing theme as he settles into a new set-up, while Ollie Schniederjans will need to hit it better and class act Xander Schauffele just looks like he needs a few more rounds to show his absolute best once more.
The latter is the most tempting of the lot, while I did pay attention to Zach Johnson’s putting improvement in the RBC Heritage having been looking for positives in that regard for some time. He’s a two-time winner of the Texas Open but they both came at La Cantera and while he’s got bits and pieces of form here, it’s clear from Johnson’s comments that he feels far less comfortable. Again, it’ll be a close eye and nothing more from me.
As such there are just two more outright selections, starting with J.B. Holmes.
Since upsetting the world – myself included – with his snail-like fourth place in the Farmers Insurance Open, Holmes appears to have gone off the boil a little but he’s making cuts and everything in the bag has been working nicely except for a troublesome putter.
Holmes has struggled on these greens in the past, too, but he’s still managed three top-15 finishes including in 2010, when he was in command through 54 holes but lost his rhythm in miserable weather as organisers rushed the field through to the finish.
Last time out he was bogey-free through the middle two rounds and kept it going deep into Sunday in Houston, where he’s a past champion, and that came thanks to a brilliant tee-to-green performance, just as we’d seen at both Bay Hill and in the Valspar Championship previously.
At the Honda Classic, his short-game was nice and sharp only for the putter to again cost him ground but despite this persistent issue his form figures are improving week-to-week, and a course which is so demanding from tee-to-green and plays to his big-hitting strengths may prompt another step forward.
Holmes is best served by a tricky but not impossible par 72 like this one and is selected on the grounds that both his current and course form are a shade better than they appear, while his ability to win puts him ahead of several others in the same sort of price bracket. He could threaten a place putting badly and it’s in the hope that a few weeks off have helped him find something that the Kentucky native gets the vote.
Of the many tempting options at three-figure prices, it’s Andrew Landry who stands out.
Born in Texas, Landry won a couple of minor tour events in his home state before turning professional and hinting that difficult conditions may bring out his best when scoring a five-shot victory in 11-under-par on the Web.com Tour.
Almost two years later, he won by three in 16-under and in-between those efforts, he shot to fame by contending for the US Open at Oakmont before falling to a more than respectable share of 15th having made his way through sectional qualifying.
It was no surprise to see him coast through the Web.com Tour last season and Landry has already done just about enough to keep hold of his card for 2019, finishing fourth in the RSM Classic before taking Jon Rahm the distance at the CareerBuilder Challenge, an event which is much more demanding than used to be the case.
Bar those two efforts it had otherwise been a disappointing start to the year for the 30-year-old, but he had more on his mind with the arrival of his first child imminent. That explains why he didn’t tee it up in March and it was encouraging to see him sit 12th through 54 holes last week on his first start since becoming a father, before a difficult back-nine on Sunday undid much of the good work.
We often talk about Keith Elliott’s nappy factor as a potential trigger for improved play and while it’s far from an exact science, given Landry’s local ties, preference for a tough course, brace of top-five finishes this season and sneakily-good effort at Harbour Town last week, I’m more than willing to chance him at the odds.
Local ties have been important here in the past with the likes of Bowditch and Jimmy Walker taking the title, and they point towards Tom Hoge perhaps going better than many expect.
Hoge is a strong iron player who, like Landry, fell down the leaderboard last week having played nicely throughout the first three days, something we saw earlier in the year when he produced his best-ever finish on the PGA Tour in taking third at the Sony Open.
Rather than back the former Texas Christian graduate outright, I’d rather take heed of those regular fast starts of his and back him in the first-round leader market. Hoge has led or shared the lead in five of his last 75 PGA Tour events, typically on golf courses which demand strong ball-striking, and he was sixth after round one here last year.
Back in 2016, he closed with a superb round of 65 to climb from 54th to nine and the hope is he can find something similar – only on Thursday this time.
Posted at 1245 BST on 17/04/18.