To play the week before the Masters, or not to play? For many pros, that is the question

rickie fowler

Rickie Fowler doesn't usually play the week before the Masters. This year, he has no choice.

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SAN ANTONIO — The field at this week’s Valero Texas Open is engaged in its own version of the Rorschach test in advance of next week’s Masters.

That’s because there are a few ways to interpret this long-running PGA Tour event:

(1) As a chance to hone one’s game and come in hot to Augusta National, (2) as an opportunity to earn the final coveted invitation to the Masters or (3) as an obvious week to take off to rest up and/or practice for the demanding test that awaits in Augusta.

There is no wrong or right answer, of course — not for the 23 players in both the Texas Open and Masters fields, or for the dozens more players, including many of the Masters favorites, who decided to skip out. Only eight of the world’s top-50 players are competing at TPC-San Antonio, with Tony Finau the highest at 13.

“I have a pretty set routine and I like to take off the week before a major because it takes a lot out of you, mentally and physically, to win a golf tournament,” said Justin Thomas, speaking for many of those who decided to take this week off. “When I go to play, I plan and hope to win, so I would be at a disadvantage at Augusta.”

Justin Thomas says playing the week before Augusta would hurt his chances.

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“I’ve played every time going into the Masters,” countered Jordan Spieth, a native Texan who is playing this week and was the last Masters champion to play the week before his title defense, at the 2016 Houston Open. “Each tournament round I’m gaining a little bit more confidence, I’m learning a little bit about kind of where things are at, and on‑the‑course repetitions are different than practice repetitions. So I can just progress just a little bit that much quicker.”

At least one high-profile player seemed to see the benefit of playing this week before having a sudden change of heart: Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1 and defending Masters champion.

After last Friday’s 1-up loss to Kevin Na at the WGC-Dell Match Play, Johnson told his management team that he felt like he was playing well and wanted to keep it going this week in San Antonio.

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That sent Johnson’s manager, David Winkle, scrambling to get Johnson committed to the Texas Open before the 5 p.m. CST Friday deadline.

“We were pleasantly surprised to stay the least,” said Texas Open tournament director Larson Segerdahl, who quickly churned out a press release trumpeting the news of Johnson coming to San Antonio.

But then, at about 2:30 p.m. Monday, Segerdahl received another surprise, by way of text from Winkle. Johnson, Winkle said, had decided to withdraw from the Texas Open to concentrate on his Masters defense at his Florida home.

Kevin Kisner, who also is sitting out the Texas Open, said he likes playing the week before a major, but only if the course suits his eye.

“I don’t need to play just because it’s the week before a major,” Kisner said. “I can do that playing at home.”

Only two players have won a PGA Tour event the week before they won the Masters. Phil Mickelson, who is playing in San Antonio this week, won the 2006 Bell South, in Atlanta, before claiming his second green jacket a week later. And Sandy Lyle won the 1988 Masters a week after winning in Greensboro.

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For players who aren’t already in the Masters field, the event the week before the Masters traditionally has represented their last chance to punch a ticket to Augusta, which brings up the do-or-die case of Rickie Fowler.

On the verge of sitting out his first major since the 2010 U.S. Open. Fowler is in the Texas Open field more out of necessity than routine. Fowler declined all pre-tournament interviews this week but earlier this year spoke about the slump that has him fighting for his Augusta life.

“I would much rather be playing the week of the Masters,” Fowler said, as opposed to the week before. “If I’m able to do something special, we’ll be there, if not, we will keep grinding and be back in the winner’s circle soon.”

On Sunday afternoon, the winner here will get a check for a $1.3 million, along with a pair of cowboy boots. But if that victor hasn’t already secured his spot in the Masters, the real prize will be something else.  

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Art Stricklin

Golf.com