The Texas Triangle gets started this week in San Antonio, the second of three straight TPC courses on the PGA Tour schedule. This will be the tour's first glance at the Greg Norman-designed TPC San Antonio, a course that's design was leant a bit of perspective from Sergio Garcia. (Does that mean the greens will be flat and forgiving? Hey, I kid.)
Trivia questionZach Johnson is the defending champion and a back-to-back winner at the Valero Texas Open. Who is the only player to win the event three consecutive times? (Answer below.)
Last year at La Cantera, Zach Johnson and Co. made the course their personal playground, torching the grounds for a 69.55 scoring average. That number was the third-lowest on the PGA Tour in 2009 for any course not involved in the Bob Hope, an event that should probably be exiled from all tour statistical records because of its ease of play and the frequency of celebrity shenanigans.
Before Johnson went back-to-back the past two years, Dallas native and Texas Longhorn Justin Leonard won his third Texas Open in 2007, back when the event was still played during the Fall Series. Leonard's three wins at the event account for a quarter of his career PGA Tour victories, but does he enjoy consistent success across the Lone Star State? Not so much.
Compare his finishes at this event to those at the other three regular Texas stops on the PGA Tour -- the Shell Houston Open, the Byron Nelson and the Colonial. Leonard has never won any of them. At Houston, he has managed only a pair of top-10s and has never finished higher than T-4. More of the same at the Nelson: two top-10s, nothing higher than sixth. He has had some success at the Colonial, finishing in the top 10 a total of five times. But he hasn't placed higher than 13th since 2003.
A man-eater?: All reports on TPC San Antonio suggest the course has great length, sharp teeth and plays like something you might find Down Under. Scores should be higher across the board at this new venue; at La Cantera, the winner had finished double-digit strokes under par every year since 1998. At 7,522 yards, the new course is the second-longest among primary PGA Tour stops so far this year -- only the Torrey Pines South Course has played longer in 2010.
Comparing the two tracks, La Cantera played 641 yards shorter as a par 70 than TPC San Antonio will. The new course's par 4s play an average of 6 yards longer. Looking for a winner this week? Try the top of the ball-striking ranks: Each member of the top five in this tour statistic is in the field this week. Among them is Bo Van Pelt, who, if you've noticed, has played quite well recently. Van Pelt has three straight top-five finishes, with nine of his past 10 rounds coming in below par. Nick Watney might not be a bad call, either -- he has four top-10s already this year, including a seventh at the Masters a month ago.
Putt 'er there: The defending champion of this week's event has had his struggles so far in 2010. Johnson has yet to finish inside the top 10 in 11 PGA Tour starts this year, and he has seen his world ranking slide to 32nd. He has managed just five finishes inside the top 25 this year after logging 16 in 2009.
Johnson's ball-striking hasn't even been his biggest statistical problem so far in 2010. He has hit better than 60 percent of greens in regulation in eight of 10 stroke play events, and he ranks 17th in driving accuracy (at nearly 69 percent). But his putting has gone awry this year. Johnson's 1-putt percentage is just 38.6, which ranks 61st on tour. Hardly any of the big ones have fallen for him -- just 1.3 putts from 20 feet or longer per round -- and he has made a total of 6.4 percent of his putts inside 20 feet. That's good enough for just 118th on the circuit.
But those figures aren't necessarily a harbinger of bad things to come in San Antonio. In his win last year, Johnson failed to make a single putt longer than 20 feet, and his putting average was just 27th in the field. When you're pin-seeking with every approach shot, you can overcome inadequacy with the flatstick.
A few chip shots from last week at TPC
The 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass is signature in its look but not so much in its toughness these days. This year, just 29 balls found the water all week at 17, the lowest total since 2003. Juxtapose that with the 70 birdies made on the hole. In 2009, there were 32 shots in the water and 80 birdies. So in the past two years, there have been 89 more birdies at 17 than balls dropped into the drink. Still, it's difficult to envy a man standing over that tee shot with a 1-stroke lead on Sunday.
Question: Zach Johnson is the defending champion and a back-to-back winner at the Valero Texas Open. Who is the only player to win the event three consecutive times?
Answer: Arnold Palmer, from 1960-62.
Lee Westwood failed to seal the deal with a 54-hole lead again on Sunday, but maybe we shouldn't take this most recent result as further condemnation of his closing acumen. Since the Players moved to Sawgrass in 1982, the third-round leader has gone on to win only 37.9 percent of the time (11-for-29). In the past 10 years, only three men have won after holding a 54-hole lead: Stephen Ames, Adam Scott and Hal "Be the right club today" Sutton.
Tim Clark became just the second player ever to bag a win at TPC in his first career victory on the PGA Tour. The only other golfer to do it? The immortal Craig Perks in 2002. Perks is no longer playing professional golf. Clark can only hope the arc of his career follows a starkly different trend.
Justin Ray has been a studio researcher for ESPN since June 2008 and is the lead researcher for "The Scott Van Pelt Show." He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, where he studied convergence media. Send comments and suggestions to Justin.Ray@espn.com.