SAN ANTONIO — Matt Kuchar sauntered up the 18th fairway, his ninth hole of the day since he started on the back during the opening round of the Valero Texas Open, knowing his gameplan was to layup with his second shot on the 591-yard par 5.
For the 44-year-old veteran, the TPC San Antonio Oaks Course offers a few opportunities to get aggressive, but Kuchar knows where and when to take his chances. Meanwhile, his two playing partners — young bucks Matt Wallace and Nico Echavarria — boomed drives and eagerly hustled up to see if they could reach the creek-protected green in two. Wallace waffled, originally waiting while the group on the green putted out, but then switched to an iron and played it safe. Coming off his first Tour victory at the Corales Puntacana Championship, Wallace eventually made par.
Kuchar calmly hit his second shot to 70 yards, stuck a wedge to four feet and tapped in for the group’s only birdie.
Chalk one up to experience.
On Thursday, after a lengthy fog delay and through whipping Texas winds and occasional rain, those with a few more wrinkles and gray hairs had their way at a course designed by Greg Norman with some input from Sergio Garcia.
It’s certainly not surprising that Kuchar would post a solid number — the nine-time PGA Tour winner has finished in the top 25 on seven of 10 starts here, including a runner-up showing last year behind J.J. Spaun in what marked Kuchar’s 500th start.
On Thursday, he started with a bogey but got rolling from there, finishing the front at 33 and posted a 68 at day’s end.
Others over the age of 40 joined the party as well. Jimmy Walker, a 44-year-old who won this event in 2015, had a hot stretch and was firmly in contention after the opening day.
And at the ripe age of 51, Padraig Harrington made a late push to get atop the leaderboard, sitting even with Kuchar at 4 under after the earliest players got through the day.
For Kuchar, a win in San Antonio would earn him a precious invite to Augusta National, where he’s posted four top-8 finishes in 12 appearances. Kuchar had his string of Masters appearances snapped in 2022 and would love the opportunity to return to the first major.
But he insisted he’s not focusing on that, and even scoffed at a question about a potential appearance at Augusta.
“You’ve gotten way ahead of yourself,” Kuchar said. “That’s too far ahead for me to worry about.”
Still, there’s no denying he’s in a place where he feels comfortable. Kuchar finished fourth at this course in 2014, then seventh in 2019, and tied for second last year.
“It’s a tough golf course, but I do like it. I think there’s a big effort to just find fairways out here. I’ve always thought I could find fairways, even though today I had a couple waywards,” Kuchar said. “For the most part you’ve really got to hit every shot is tested here. If you start playing some indifferent golf, this course can really jump up and bite you. I was lucky to get away with a couple loose ones today, but for the most part games on some pretty good form and I enjoy this golf course a lot.”
Harrington has only played two events on the PGA Tour this season but is fresh off a T-5 at the new Galleri Classic on the Champions circuit. Recently announced as a 2024 World Golf Hall of Fame inductee, he played both the front and back in 34 and looked in command throughout.
T1 in the clubhouse
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Thursday marked the first time he’d been inside the top three after the first round since the 2015 Honda Classic, a tournament where he claimed the title.
“Tough conditions, which generally suit me. And I kept my head down, I never saw the leaderboard until I finished. I didn’t know I was leading and
that’s what you’ve got to do on a tough day,” Harrington said. “You’ve got to hit sensible shots and sometimes the sensible shot isn’t trying to hit the middle of the fairway, it’s squeezing it up one side of it. Even if it goes in the rough, it’s fine. Got to really have your thinking hat on and I did a good job mentally today.”
Wallace also looked impressive after winning his first title, playing in a featured group with Kuchar and Nico Echavarria. The Englishman finished the day in a logjam at 3 under with Chez Reavie, Garrick Higgo and Nick Taylor. Two years ago, Wallace finished third at TPC San Antonio in his debut, but he missed the cut last year. He attributes confidence to getting him back into a good position.
“This golf course, it tends to lead to the person who’s playing well,” Wallace said. “You can’t really mask it around here, especially off the tee. I made a couple bogeys out there from just hitting my tee shots offline, so if you can hit your tee shots well, you’ll have a lot of chances and I managed to give myself a bunch of those.”