By Tim Price, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Greg Norman designed a demanding track at TPC San Antonio’s AT&T Oaks Course, yet a reputation for a challenging test has not chased off some of the TOUR's biggest names at this week's Valero Texas Open.
Having a spot on the calendar the week before the Masters also has enticed players seeking to get their games in shape for Augusta National.
Twelve of the top 30 players in the FedExCup standings are in the field this week. Rory McIlroy is not in that group -- his struggles this season has him at 122nd in points -- but he will tee off in Thursday's first round as the No. 2 ranked player in the world after deciding to add the Valero Texas Open to his playing schedule last week.
“Obviously a bit of a last-minute decision, (that) I just felt like I needed a bit more competitive golf heading into The Masters,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “From what I see, I really like it.”
McIlroy is one of four players inside the top 15 in the Official World Golf Ranking who are in town this week: Matt Kuchar (ninth), Ian Poulter (12th) and Charl Schwartzel (15th) are the others.
It’s McIlroy's first trip here, and he’ll be paired in the opening two rounds with Kuchar and 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, who made the cut last year while still playing for the national champion Texas Longhorns.
"I'm surprised I wasn't paired with some better players," Spieth joked before turning serious, saying that being paired "in the same group with two of the best players in the world, it's a great opportunity for me. It's something that I think I can learn from, and I just need to get out and be comfortable."
The McIlroy-Kuchar-Spieth threesome is just one of several notable groups in the first two rounds.
A year ago, the event attracted just two of the world’s top 50 last year when it was played in the week following The Masters. The date switch for this year brought in a total of nine top-50 players: the four mentioned above, as well as Peter Hanson (22nd), Jim Furyk (26th), Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (28th), Jamie Donaldson (33rd) and Freddie Jacobson (47th).
It’s also managed to get Marcel Siem and D.A. Points the week following their respective wins in Morocco and Houston, and 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis is here to defend his Valero Texas Open championship.
Like McIlroy, Poulter didn't originally have the Valero Texas Open on his schedule but he decided to add it a few weeks ago.
"Not having a Green Jacket in the trophy cabinet, then why not mix it up and play the week before? I've never done it before, so it obviously hasn't worked so far, so let's try something new," Poulter explained. "So I figured putting this in there to play the week before could be a good thing. ...
"I feel that it's the right thing to do to get myself as ready as I can to play Augusta."
Poulter, McIlroy and the others will find a course that has a reputation as a bear: a second-round scoring average of 75.3 in 2011 that was highest on Tour since the 2008 British Open, and a 73.9 for all four rounds last year that was the season’s second-highest next to the PGA Championship.
But it didn’t have much bite when Matt Every stepped up in the first round last year and shot a 63, a 9-under score that broke the course record by a stroke and got the young Floridian going to an eventual second-place finish.
It didn’t take Every 24 hours to figure out how AT&T Oaks can raise the hairs on its back.
“The next day, when half the field came out in the morning, the wind laid down and they got right back in the tournament,” Every said. “And I came out in the afternoon and it was like a hurricane out here.”
Every shot 74, and, as he said, “That round (of 63) lost its value.”\
Although it doesn't shape up the same way as Augusta National, TPC San Antonio can still help prepare players for next week's first major.
"It's quite a testing golf course," three-time major winner Padraig Harrington said. "You've got to mind where you hit your golf ball out there, and that is the same thing at Augusta."
Wind often plays a role on a golf course in Texas, and in San Antonio at this time of year it’s no exception. Winds that blow 15 mph out of the south one day can spin right around like a two-stepper on a sawdust-covered, honky-tonk dance floor and howl at 30 mph from the north.
“I always tell guys that on a hole like No. 10, I’ve had 3-wood, wedge in there one day and the next day driver, 5-iron,” said Brendan Steele, who won on AT&T Oaks in his rookie season two years ago.
It looks like the field is in for another wind-whipping this week.
Storms that blew in Wednesday morning tugged a north wind screaming and kicking along with it. Thursday’s first round will start under a chill including winds forecast to blow from 15-25 mph. That’ll likely settle down Friday, and warming should come over the course to bring more Texas-like temperatures -- at least into the 80s. By that time the winds should switch directions and blow out of the south as much as 20 mph.
The set-up of the course this year has tried to “wind-proof” as much as possible, specifically on a few of the green complexes that hump up from jagged bunkers that appear to be torn from the earth like a Great White Shark has ripped a bite away.
Changes were particularly ambitious at No. 12, a docile-looking 410-yarder that could take a 3-metal or hybrid off the tee with a south wind to a driver and mid-iron when the wind switches north. The green looks much more tame now, particularly the back left pin position.
“In the past there was only maybe 12 or 15 feet of green there,” Curtis said. “If you didn’t get it up there, it was either 20 yards over the green or 45 feet short of the pin.”
Fairways at the opening hole (454 yards) and No. 4 (481 yards) have been widened. But other trouble spots to the right of the 8th and 9th holes still lurk like the a dark forest. Kevin Na had to scribble a 16 onto his card two years ago at No. 9.
“When you go into this stuff,” Spieth said, “you don’t really come out of it."