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The Five: Questions top players need to answer at Valero Texas Open

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    Written by Paul Hodowanic @PaulHodowanic

    This week’s Valero Texas Open boasts one of its best fields in recent memory. Nine top-20 players are teeing it up at TPC San Antonio, including Rory McIlroy, Max Homa, Brian Harman and Ludvig Åberg. Thirty players in the field also are exempt for the Masters Tournament, giving them one last opportunity to compete before the first major championship of the year. The rest of the Valero field will be hoping to nab the final invitation to Augusta National Golf Club, an extra perk added to the benefits that this week’s winner will accumulate

    The Valero Texas Open’s origins date back to 1922. It is the third-longest-running event on the PGA TOUR and the longest held in one city. This week, The Five will focus on the top names in the field, and the biggest questions they need to answer as the start of the major season looms.

    1. Will McIlroy’s preseason plan come to fruition?

    McIlroy had an edict to start 2024: play early and often to arrive at Augusta National in peak form.

    The PGA TOUR superstar has tried everything in his quest for the lone title standing between him and the career Grand Slam. He’s tried to treat the Masters like every other week. He’s tried to embrace the importance of the week, accepting the pedestal upon which it stands. There are years he’s made several early scouting trips and others where he’s arrived cold turkey, seeing the course for the first time during the week of the Masters.

    None of those approaches have netted him a green jacket. His focus this year was to come in with good form. He added several events to his schedule on the PGA TOUR and DP World Tour to ensure it. The Valero will be his eighth event of an eventful year.

    By adding a couple more events to his pre-Masters schedule, “I'll hopefully be a bit sharper and know exactly where my game really is,” he told Golf Digest in January.

    "Sharp" is not how he would describe his game in recent weeks, however. His performances have been unpredictable in 2024. He had a win and runner-up in a pair of season-opening events in Dubai but has not finished better than T19 in five PGA TOUR starts. For a while, he felt like his putting was holding him back. Then his ball-striking was inconsistent in his most recent start, a T19 at THE PLAYERS Championship.

    “Just a lot of volatility in my game,” McIlroy said at TPC Sawgrass. “The good is good. The bad is still quite destructive. … I honestly expect a lot more from myself.”

    Rory McIlroy’s 10 birdies to tie THE PLAYERS single-round record

    That week was a microcosm. He shot a 7-under 65 in the first round to co-lead but played the last three rounds in just 2-under. After notching 10 consecutive finishes inside the top 11 to close out the 2023 season, McIlroy is still searching for his first on TOUR this season. He hasn’t gone without a top-10 before the Masters since 2010. McIlroy is 66th in the FedExCup and 41st in Strokes Gained: Total.

    This will be his third appearance at TPC San Antonio and first since 2022. The event hasn’t served as a harbinger of his Augusta showing, however, he finished runner-up at the 2013 Valero before posting a T25 at the Masters. McIlroy missed the cut in Texas two years ago but was runner-up at Augusta National the following week.

    2. Where is Spieth’s psyche?

    By Spieth’s admission, he’s had a weird year.

    There’s been some good. The 13-time PGA TOUR winner has contended multiple times this season, finishing third at The Sentry and in a tie for sixth at the WM Phoenix Open.

    The season has also been filled with anomalies. He cracked his driver ahead of the season opener at The Sentry and spent a few weeks finding an adequate replacement. He shot an opening-round 66 at The Genesis Invitational, then caught the flu and signed for an incorrect scorecard after the second round to get disqualified. His statistical profile has flipped in comparison to the past two seasons. His putting is keeping him in tournaments, not his iron play.

    “I'm kind of a little uncertain of where things are," Spieth said after a first-round 69 at the Valspar Championship. "So hopefully I feel a little more stable this week and can continue to shoot under par each round."

    He shot 74 in the second round to miss back-to-back cuts. Not the stability Spieth was looking for.

    Spieth has always lived on the edge of erraticism. When he controlled his swing and psyche, it led to success rarely seen outside of Tiger Woods. But it has gone the other way if one piece was missing.

    So where is Spieth’s mind heading into the major season? This is typically a time of year when Spieth excels. He’s won the Valspar before and the Valero, too. Then there’s the Masters, the tournament in which Spieth seemingly always reaches his ceiling, regardless of his form. His 2015 win was one of four top-three finishes in his first five Masters. He also finished fourth last year after finishing outside the top 20 in each of the previous three seasons.

    3. Can Åberg add another accolade before his first major?

    List Åberg’s accomplishments like a resume and it’s remarkable what the Swede has amassed in his first 10 months as a professional.

    He’s already ninth in the Official World Golf Ranking, has won on the PGA TOUR and DP World Tour and has been part of a victorious Ryder Cup team. He’s missed the cut just one time in 16 starts as a pro. That includes his two wins, two more runners-up and a total of 10 top-10s. Notably missing? A major championship start. No, not a top result in a major or even a made cut. Åberg, 24, has never appeared in a major. That will change next week at Augusta National, where Åberg enters as one of the most accomplished pros to make their major championship debut. That Åberg hasn’t played in a major is a mere coincidence of when he turned pro (just before the 2023 U.S. Open as the No. 1 player in PGA TOUR University). Still, it sets up a storyline not often seen – a player with immense talent and the accolades to boot, without a shred of experience in some of the sport’s biggest events.

    Åberg is in his adopted home state of Texas this week – he starred at Texas Tech, winning back-to-back Ben Hogan Awards before turning pro – before heading to his Masters debut. TPC San Antonio plays into his strengths, requiring accurate driving. He’s among the world’s best off the tee, which is one reason many think Åberg can contend next week. He’s coming off a top-10 finish in his debut at another big event played on a course that presents unique challenges. Åberg finished T8 at THE PLAYERS in his most recent event.

    4. Can Morikawa and Fitzpatrick find consistency?

    Scan through Morikawa and Matt Fitzpatrick’s stats in 2024 and you won’t find anything too concerning. Both players rank just inside the top 40 of the FedExCup. Fitzpatrick finished fifth at THE PLAYERS and has three other top-25s. Morikawa finished in a tie for fifth at The Sentry and backed it up with two top-20s in the next two Signature Events.

    Yet both are searching for what every top player craves: consistency. Ask any pro what has been most impressive about Scottie Scheffler and almost all will marvel at the consistency. It wasn’t the one or two peak weeks, but what Scheffler did when his game wasn’t sharp. He still found ways to contend and finish in the top 10.

    For Morikawa and Fitzpatrick, that is a work in progress. Morikawa shot 80 in the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard to miss the cut. After shooting 67 in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open, he shot 75 the next day to miss the cut. Morikawa, who ended a two-year winless drought with his win at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP in the fall, has been within four shots of the lead entering the final round just once this season. Perhaps he can change that in his tournament debut at Valero. He’s still just a couple of months into his switch to swing coach Mark Blackburn, which came just before his win in Japan.

    Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, has yet to replicate his good form in back-to-back starts. Missed cuts have followed in each start after a top-25. He could buck the trend at Valero, his first start since THE PLAYERS. It was there that Fitzpatrick revealed that he’d discovered a forgotten 4-gram weight in his driver earlier in the year, and it was his hope that its removal would help him excel off the tee again. Morikawa, a two-time major winner, has four top 15s in majors over the last two seasons. Fitzpatrick has made seven of his last eight cuts in majors, a stretch that includes his 2022 U.S. Open win and four other top 20s.

    Matt Fitzpatrick on removing 4-gram weight from driver

    5. Any last chance Masters invite?

    Last week’s Texas Children’s Houston Open was the last week players could qualify for the Masters by playing their way into the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking. Stephan Jaeger was the only player to do so, though he earned his spot at Augusta National with his victory.

    That leaves just one possible addition to the Masters field, if a player who has not already qualified wins the Valero.

    So, who could that be? The PGA TOUR season has been defined by longshots, from Grayson Murray at the Sony Open in Hawaii to Nick Dunlap and Matthieu Pavon in back-to-back weeks on the West Coast. Even Jake Knapp and Jaeger would qualify as surprises.

    All that is to say, it’s hard to predict. Based on who is playing well, here are some possible candidates:

    • Tom Hoge – No. 57 in the OWGR, Hoge needed a solo fifth in Houston last week to get inside the top 50 and earn a Masters berth. Hoge played well, finishing T14, but not well enough. On the bright side, it was his sixth top-20 this season and moved him to 13th in the FedExCup standings. Hoge has two top 20s in six appearances at Valero, including a T12 in his last appearance in 2021.
    • Akshay Bhatia – It’s been a boom or bust season for the 22-year-old. He’s made five of nine cuts and in each of those five events, he’s finished T17 or better. That’s the formula for picking off Valero and earning a spot in the Masters. Bhatia finished T11 at the Texas Children’s Houston Open and briefly held the lead on Sunday afternoon. He’s likely among the most talented players without a Masters invite, and he could right that wrong with a special week in San Antonio.
    • Charley Hoffman – The Valero Texas Open is always a special week for Hoffman, who will make his 18th appearance at the event. It’s made more special considering it will be his 500th overall career start. There’s likely not a better venue to mark the occasion. Hoffman won this event in 2016 and has finished runner-up on three occasions, most recently in 2021. He has 13 top 25s and seven top 10s here. Hoffman very nearly won earlier this year, pushing Nick Taylor to a playoff at the WM Phoenix Open in February. Taylor ultimately prevailed, but it was a sign that Hoffman still has elite golf in his arsenal. If it comes out at Valero, it could set up a special week for Hoffman and another trip to the Masters, where he is 6-for-6 in made cuts with two top 15s.
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