It’s getting towards that time of year again. You can almost smell the blooming azaleas, perhaps you’ve have started listening to the Masters theme song just to whet the appetite or have been watching some Masters re-runs on YouTube?
That must wait another week though as attentions turn to the Valero Texas Open where it’s a case of the top players preparing for Augusta National and other players entering the last chance saloon where only a win will get them fitted for a pair of cowboy boots and ensure they book a ticket to Georgia at the eleventh hour.
Rory McIlroy makes his first appearance in this event since 2013 as he joins Graeme McDowell in San Antonio, looking to play himself into form heading down Magnolia Lane.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” said McIlroy. “I played well here back in 2013 and 2013 wasn’t a great year for me anyway, but I definitely thought that the finish here gave me some confidence going into Augusta, and ended up having a decent week there.
“Yeah, I just wanted to mix it up. I sort of haven’t really enjoyed the format of the Match Play the last couple years and I just wanted to mix it up and I still wanted to feel like I was sharp going into Augusta.
“I don’t want to make this week all about Augusta, I still want to be here and compete and try to win this golf tournament, but yeah, I just wanted to mix it up and I’m glad to be back. I played the week before the Masters a few times when it was in Houston and now here.
“Yeah, glad to be back, at least got to refamiliarize myself with the golf course a little bit this morning. It looks like hopefully the wind’s going to die down for the tournament days and it’s going to be a good week,” he added.
McIlroy is certainly the man to beat having opted to skip the marathon WGC Match Play and he finished runner-up in this event in his sole visit to date so there is reason to be optimistic that a good showing this week could give him a boost heading to Augusta, where a potential career grand slam bid has almost been forgotten about.
The Holywood native has a formidable desert record, having enjoyed success on the Tour’s desert swing in the past. The risk-reward style of golf plays into his wheelhouse as he looks to claim his 21st PGA Tour win while he also feels the setup around the greens can serve as useful preparation for the Masters.
“I think it [playing in Texas] was more just getting four competitive rounds in. I wanted to play stroke play as well, I think that’s the other thing. I wanted my last competitive start before Augusta to be a stroke play event instead of match play. It’s two completely different mindsets, so that was part of the reason, too.
“I think around the greens here is, it can prepare you. I think the runoffs around the greens, the undulations on the greens, some of the shots you face if you do, if you do miss it, I think that’s — and some of the bunkering around this course, the bunkers are pretty deep around the greenside. I think more so around the greens and sort of off the tee. This is a generous course off the tee, Augusta’s somewhat generous as well, but it’s just a different look. I think around the greens more sort of the chipping and pitching aspects are good preparation.”
Graeme McDowell is back in action after what might have been last week at the Corales Puntacana Championship, a PGA Tour event played in tandem with the WGC Match Play.
GMac was just one shot off the pace when he tweaked his back on the eighth hole of his third round and consequently tumbled down the leaderboard over the remainder of the weekend.
In the end, it was a share of 50th for the 2010 US Open champion who boasts a strong record in the Dominican Republic and hopefully he has got over his back issues and can build on what was an excellent start last week.
McDowell has been showing signs of life this season without necessarily putting four rounds together and would most likely have bettered his season-best of T-13th last week had he not been injured.
The field this week might be lacking in depth but there are no shortage of storylines heading into the tournament with many players vying for one final spot at Augusta.
Richard Bland is the highest ranked player in action at TPC San Antonio not already assured of a place at the Masters despite an impressive performance last week in the Match Play.
Ian Poulter knows what it’s like to book a spot at the last minute after he won the Houston Open in 2018 the week before the Masters and he will need to do so again if he is avoid failing to qualify for just the third time since his debut in 2004.
McDowell also needs a win to punch his ticket to Augusta as do Rickie Fowler and former PGA Champion Keegan Bradley.
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