SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Zach Johnson is the defending champion at the Valero Texas Open, though he doesn’t know much about its reputation.
Oh, where to begin?
An exhausting, rugged course to hike. A tournament all but dead before securing a major sponsor in 2001. And, worst of all for players and prestige, relegated to the PGA’s slow fall calendar and squeezed among the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup to boot.
“Dates wise, it hasn’t been great,” Johnson said Wednesday.
That much will be remedied starting Thursday, when the third-oldest PGA tournament tees off in the spring for the first since 1969. Along with returning to a more favorable date, the Texas Open is also closing out a 15-year run at La Cantera Golf Club before moving to a Greg Norman-designed TPC course in 2010.
Johnson headlines a field that includes Justin Leonard, who is seeking his fourth Texas Open title and first since 2007. Other notables are Anthony Kim and Alex Cejka, fresh off a stunning collapse at The Players Champions in Florida on Sunday when he blew a five-shot lead heading into the final round.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters winner, won the Texas Open in October with a two-shot victory for his first tour victory outside Georgia. Now the tournament kicks off a new Texas Swing that continues with the HP Byron Nelson Championship in Irving next week, and wraps up May with the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth.
Like usual, the Texas Open field isn’t flush with biggest names. But for Texas Open regulars like Leonard and tournament officials, the move to the May this year and to the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio next year are steps toward improving stature.
For Leonard, who also won in San Antonio in 2000 and 2001, one last swing through La Cantera in the shadow of Six Flags roller coasters is a touch bittersweet.
“Probably a little bit because I’ve had a lot of success on this golf course,” Leonard said. “But I think in the grand scheme of things, to boost the level of this event, it needs a golf course that can handle that.”
The par-70, 6,896-yard course certainly has its distinctions. No more was its reputation for low scores secured than 2003, when Tommy Armour III shot a 26-under 254 to set a PGA record.
But the price for shooting under at La Cantera can be the course’s notoriously grueling walk.
“We’ve kind of outgrown the venue,” said Tony Piazzi, president and CEO of Golf San Antonio. “Certainly, there was some player feedback that was not positive. That word of mouth … is the kind of thing where if one person here something negative, and they tell five and they tell five, all of the sudden it’s a domino effect. Certainly, we understood that was an issue for us.”
Johnson, who is eighth on the tour money earnings list, got another win in January at the Sony Open and had a two-shot lead at the Quail Hollow Championship this month before faltering in the final round. Winning the Texas Open last October helped me get on that roll.
“I love coming back to places where I’ve got good feelings,” Johnson said. “Granted, it was only seven month ago, so it’s going to be even more fresh than a year.”