Yes, that's a bunker in the middle of the 16th green

Inside the PGA TOUR
2018 Valero Texas Open preview

SAN ANTONIO – In a Hall of Fame career that took him all over the world, Greg Norman spent very little time at historic Riviera. He played a couple of PGA Championships there but was never in contention. He made one start at the regular PGA TOUR stop, missing the cut. Ten total rounds.

Still, his limited visits left an impression.

Riviera was on his mind less than a decade ago when he was designing the AT&T Oaks course at TPC San Antonio. Specifically, Riviera’s sixth hole, memorable because it has a pot bunker in the middle of the green, dividing the putting surface essentially into four quadrants.

“I always liked that hole,” Norman said. “I liked the concept. Can’t do it everywhere. Just has to be the right topo (topography), the right distance.”

Norman thought he found the right spot as he sketched out the holes for TPC San Antonio. But he wanted to make sure. Luckily, the player-consultant on his design was Sergio Garcia, who at that point in his career had played Riviera in 22 competitive rounds, more than double Norman’s total.

Garcia loves Riviera. When Norman brought up the idea, Garcia was quickly on board. They discussed it, tinkered with it, then finally went through with the idea.

The end result is the 183-yard 16th hole. Inspired by George Thomas’ masterpiece, but distinctly Norman, on display again this week at the Valero Texas Open.

“He obviously liked the sixth hole there, so he wanted to do something kind of similar but with his touch and a different flair to it,” said Garcia, playing at TPC San Antonio for the first time since 2010. “I think this one, the nice thing about it is you have more pin positions than you do at Riviera.

“For example, the green is a little bit bigger, the bunker is also a little bit bigger. It just brings a different element to it. It’s a different look and it’s just kind of like a par 3 with two greens if you look at it that way.”

More than that, according to Norman.

“Once we drew it out and you could actually see that there were like three or four different greens in one, depending on where the PGA TOUR puts the tee markers,” he said. “It’s a challenging hole because it’s not just a regular par 3. It’s like three or four different par 3s in one.”

A year ago, the first round pin placement was front right, the second was back right, the third was back left, and the final round was front left. Different looks each day, and with the wind that often whips through the course, different conditions.

Brendan Steele, the 2011 Valero Texas Open champ, recalled having a 185-yard tee shot last year with a helping wind. He took out a wedge and finished pin-high.

“It gets so windy here that it can play really different,” Steele said. “… It’s basically four different greens – and they’re all very small.”

Adam Scott, who won at TPC San Antonio the first time it hosted the event in 2010, said he played a 6-iron into a front pin placement with the wind into his face during Wednesday’s practice round.

“It’s interesting for sure, but it’s got us talking about it, which is a good thing,” said Scott, making his first start here since 2011.

Most players are adept at avoiding the bunker in the middle of the green. In fact, in last year’s final round, just three players found that bunker with their tee shots; in the second round, it was just two, with the majority of misses being far right of the green. Overall, less than 25 tee shots in the four rounds landed in the middle bunker (there are four other bunkers guarding the green).

A look at where Kevin Chappell hit his tee shot at the 16th in each round during his 2017 win at TPC San Antonio.

“The bunker’s actually OK to the back pins and not very good to the front pins,” Steele said. “You have to kind of know where your miss is and then stand in there and hit a great shot in order to get it close to the hole. There’s not a lot of room for error.”

Of course, finding the bunker is not the quirkiest result about the 16th tee shot. Instead, it’s finding the green – but on the wrong side of the bunker, forcing players to chip over the bunker to the pin.

That’s what happened to Kevin Chappell in the first round in 2013. With the pin set in the back right, his tee shot landed 20 yards away on the front left of the green, forcing him to use a wedge.

“I think I did all right,” Chappell said, recalling the shot.

Indeed, he did. Finished 4 feet from the pin for par.

That’s the only time in 25 career rounds at TPC San Antonio that Chappell has landed on the wrong side of the bunker. A year ago when he broke through for his first PGA TOUR win, he played the hole in 1 under, saving par from the middle bunker in the first round, and rolling in a 11-1/2 foot birdie putt to the back left pin in the third round.

Chappell doesn’t worry about the middle bunker. Depending on the set-up, he has bigger concerns.

“I was talking to my pro-am group today about it,” Chappell said Wednesday on the eve of his title defense. “That back right pin or middle right pin’s one of the scarier pins we play all year. Not because of penalty shots and that side of it, but the pin is 9 feet from the people, so you can hit a good shot and hit someone.

“That’s never a comfortable feeling.”

And it’s never comfortable having to take out a wedge when you’re on the putting surface. Steele hasn’t had to during his seven starts at TPC San Antonio. But he has been on greens that required him to chip over an obstacle to reach the pin. It happened once on the 18th green at Bay Hill when his approach landed front right, with the pin tucked to the back right on the green that wraps around the back portion of the pond.

At the time, Arnold Palmer was waiting to greet players as they finished – making an uncomfortable shot even more nervy in front of the legend.

“I’ve heard a lot of guys say, well, they shouldn’t put the pin over here and put the green over there if they don’t want us to hit a chip,” Steele said. “I mean, how else are we supposed to get it there?

“I didn’t want Arnie to see me take a big chunk out of Bay Hill – but that’s the shot. I needed to play it that way.”

And at various times this week, players will play a similar shot at the 16th. Sticking a bunker in the middle of the green may challenge the traditional approach of golf course design, but if it was good enough for George Thomas, then it’s good enough for Greg Norman.

Plus, it just makes livens up things.

“It’s just a bigger version of Riviera,” said Martin Piller, who tied for fourth at Valero last year and made his first TOUR start at Riviera this season. “I think it’s fun. It’s cool. It gives a lot of different looks at it. It’s like every day is a new hole, with the bunker in the middle of it. Everytime you play it, based on where the pin is, it’s got a new set of challenges.”


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