Now in 90th year, Valero stop has survived and thrived

April 17, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

In the nine decades since a relatively obscure Scottish pro named Robert MacDonald won the first Valero Texas Open in 1922, San Antonio's annual PGA TOUR event has shown itself to be as durable as Longhorn steer hide.

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Although MacDonald didn't quite live up to his billing of "Big Bob" at the box office, Walter Hagen won in '23 to give birth to a run of big-time winners that has continued, with few interruptions, to this day. World Golf Hall of Famers and major championship winners have included Hagen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer (three straight in 1960-62), Lee Trevino, Nick Price, Justin Leonard and Zach Johnson.

Last year the crowds at San Antonio got a look at the future PGA Championship winner, Keegan Bradley, who tied for ninth.

Despite multiple switches of venue, dates and tournament names, the Valero Texas Open has emerged as a model of constancy in a sea of shifting sports fortunes. The tournament that has had 15 venue switches and 16 name changes without once leaving San Antonio, will now ponder another impending date change after this week while celebrating its 90th birthday in the same city that spawned it.

So, what's another date change among friends? We're about to find out. The Valero Texas Open will be moving to the week before the Masters in 2013, its second date switch in three years. And Valero's neighboring PGA TOUR event, the Shell Houston Open, will move back one week from that spot it has happily occupied since 2008, to a new one two weeks before the Masters.

Shifting dates occur regularly on TOUR, and this one has a rather involved explanation having to do with where Easter Sunday falls on the 2013 schedule. Suffice to say that Valero was moved forward because its contract precludes an Easter finish that would disrupt logistics for a massive citywide charity pro-am each year on the Monday after Easter. The event, staged on 12 different courses across San Antonio, attracts participants from around the country and last year raised well over $8 million to fund a variety of children's causes.

Any switch in dates can disrupt a tournament's flow in the public consciousness, but this one should help Valero attract more international stars to its field. With the exception of Rory McIlroy this year, the internationals seem to prefer playing the week before a major to acclimate to time changes.

Among those in the field at Houston the week before this year's Masters were the Masters runner-up, Louis Oosthuizen, along with Lee Westwood, Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington.

Before he begins to celebrate what could turn out to be a temporary move to the sweet spot in the run-up to the Masters, Tony Piazzi, the President and CEO of Golf San Antonio, is taking first things first.

"Candidly, we're completely focused, and have been for the last several months, on this week's tournament and our 90th birthday celebration," said Piazzi. "I think immediately following the tournament we're going to be having the conversations with the PGA TOUR Properties team, the agronomy group, the folks here at TPC San Antonio and start talking about what all this means."

All this means plenty for both San Antonio and Houston, just about a three-hour drive from San Antonio on I-10 East. The Shell Houston Open has maximized the value of the pre-Masters week dates for the past four years, and the Tournament Director, Steve Timms, is cautiously optimistic that it can continue to draw a strong field two weeks before the year's first major championship.

"We're still pre-Masters, there just happens to be a week between us and the Masters for the first time since we got these dates in 2008," said Timms, who has been the Shell Houston Open tournament director for 11 years. "To be pre-Masters on the schedule is something we've wanted since we got the date. Our strategy doesn't change at all."

The successful Shell strategy has been to set up the Redstone Golf Club Tournament Course in the Houston suburb of Humble to closely approximate playing conditions at Augusta National Golf Club. The generous fairways are mowed toward tees, with the nap of the grass lying down. There is very little rough, emulating Augusta's second cut and closely-mown areas that have created chipping areas around greens.

"And there are steep banks around our greenside water hazards that we've mown at fairway heights to emulate that trickle effect," Timms added. "So that won't change, and we feel that that's among the positives we have going for us is the players have enjoyed a lot of predictability with our golf course setup and with respect to the conditioning of the golf course."

Timms also pointed out that the dates for events falling two weeks before majors tend to attract many players who favor skipping the week directly before a tournament so as to rest from competition while fine-tuning specific things they've been working on.

Timms didn't mention any names, but the strategy he described has long been employed by many, including former World No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods, who has never played at the Shell Houston Open. This year, Phil Mickelson played both events leading into Augusta -- the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard and the Shell Houston Open.

So why didn't the TOUR leave well enough alone? Andy Pazder, the executive vice president and chief of operations for the PGA TOUR, candidly admitted that "some players that I talked to when they heard this news thought that we'd lost our minds because we had a pretty good thing going with Houston being the week prior.

"But once you explained to them the kind of conundrum with Easter, and about the commitment Valero has with the Monday after Easter, you could see the light bulb go off, like, 'OK, that makes perfect sense.' "

In San Antonio, where everything except the host city has changed over the course of 90 years, this makes a lot of sense. And in Houston, which could very well return to the week before the Masters on the 2014 schedule, it's another chance to see how strong the Shell Houston Open has become.

It was just a couple months ago that Valero renewed its title sponsorship through 2018. As San Antonio has demonstrated through nine decades, durability and flexibility are the keys to longevity on the PGA TOUR.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.