The week before the Masters is one of the most interesting schedule stops on the PGA Tour. On one hand, the golf world is in, arguably, its most alert and enthusiastic state with the year’s first major on the immediate horizon. On the other, everyone knows this is not the main attraction, and many of the top-ranked players are at home tuning up for Augusta National.
TPC San Antonio’s Oaks course, host of the Valero Texas Open since 2010, slid into the opening act role in 2019 and is back there again this year (last year’s event was canceled due to COVID-19). Playing through the dry outlands north of the city, the Greg Norman design bears few similarities to Augusta, and it doesn’t exactly prepare players to hit the same types of shots. But it is one of the most strategically compelling courses on tour with aggressive bunkering, some wonderful short par 4s and several uniquely demanding par 5s, including the 18th, one of the most underrated and frustrating closing holes the professionals play.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE LAYOUT
The hole is listed at 591 yards but can stretch to nearly 620 yards for the tournament, calling for drives playing straight out to a slim, 25-yard-wide fairway. The second shot sets up similar to the famed 11th hole at TPC Sawgrass' Players Stadium Course, with the option of firing at a well-guarded the green in two with an aerial shot (in this case it’s set above a boulder-strewn stream), lay up straight ahead down the fairway for a third shot across the stream, or lay up to a narrow secondary fairway on the left to set up a pitch that plays more along the deep axis of the green.
WHY IT'S SO FRUSTRATING
For tournament pros, two conflicting matters are at stake. 1. This is a par 5, and tour players expect to make 4s on par 5s. The problem here is not just that the hole is among the lengthiest they play, putting longer clubs in their hands on the second shot, but that there’s no good place to miss around the green if they try to reach it in two—the hazard runs tight to the front edge, and rough and three bunkers surround the other sides. 2. This is the 18th hole, so the outcome has the potentially to matter a ton. If birdie is needed to win, tie, to make a cut or improve position, it’s usually going to have to be done the old-fashioned way, as a three-shot hole. That’s a hard pill to swallow psychologically—especially given issue No. 1.
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE GREEN
The green helps slow down long, incoming approaches due to a ridge that runs left to right through the middle and an upturned back edge. The question is whether second shots can be carried all the way onto the putting surface because anything short bounces down into the stream. It also offers no help to second or third shots that travel too far, leading to recoveries that are played from delicate positions toward a green that slopes away toward the hazard.
TPC San Antonio’s 18th is not a hole that beckons attack, and the contestants treat it with respect. Since 2015 only 319 out of over 2200 players have felt bold enough to take on the long second shot, and only 60 have gotten home—about 12 per tournament. That makes this an unsatisfactory scoring hole for the pros and one of the tour’s rare par 5s that usually plays close to par, with a 4.93 stroke average since 2015.
(Opening photo: Courtesy of TPC San Antonio • Green-reading map: Courtesy of StrackaLine)