Els headlines field for new-feel Texas Open

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — It's the third-oldest event on the PGA Tour, but almost everything about this week's Texas Open has a new feel.

After 15 years at the Resort at La Cantera, the tournament on Thursday makes its debut at the Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio, which opened in January.

The dates are relatively new: After being scheduled in the fall since 1972 and frequently going head-to-head with the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup, the Texas Open is part of the FedEx Cup schedule for the second straight year. It kicks off a three-tournament Texas swing that continues with next week's Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas and concludes with the Colonial in Fort Worth.

By Texas Open standards, the field is considered stronger than usual. Eleven players who have won a total of 17 majors highlight the entrants.

But current money and FedEx Cup points leader Ernie Els is the only top 10-ranked player here, and there are two fewer top-100 players (13) than there were in last year's tournament.

"I think the word of mouth on this change here has been very positive in terms of the facilities and the golf courses," said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who as recently as 2001 was in discussions about dissolving the tournament. He now cites it as one of the tour's strongest in areas such as charitable contributions ($8 million) and sponsorship.

"Players who aren't here will watch it on television; they'll see how it plays," he said Wednesday. "And then the word of mouth, the quality of operations here (and) this unbelievable setting will help solidify the quality for the future."

The par-72 course will play at 7,522 yards. Its elevation varies no more than 100 feet, as opposed to the dramatic climbs and drops at La Cantera — "birdie-fest," as Els labeled the course on which Tommy Armour III in 2003 set the tour record for lowest 72-hole score.

Els, who has won twice this season, is trying to rebound from missing the cut at last week's Players Championship. That, and the changes in dates and facilities, led him to make his first San Antonio appearance.

"I felt like I needed to play soon, especially feeling that my game came around Friday afternoon at TPC," said Els, whose second-round 71 at Sawgrass followed an opening 74. "I'm glad we have a fairly tough challenge here this week.

"Hopefully with Vijay (Singh) and Adam Scott and Sergio (Garcia) here — some of the top players — that changes the view of other players and you'll probably start seeing a lot stronger fields, and especially with this date. The date plays a big part. It fits in very well."

Els and Singh, another first-time Texas Open participant, will be in the same group the first two days.

The move to the Oaks Course is especially meaningful for Garcia, who was the player consultant for the Greg Norman-Pete Dye design.

"I think the golf course has come out great, probably just a little bit tougher than we expected at the beginning," said Garcia, who last played in the Texas Open in 2003 at La Cantera. "La Cantera was a fun golf course to play, but I think overall this is a much better golf course. This is a better test of golf. This is not just a putting contest. Here, you're going to have to make a lot of putts for par. At La Cantera, you had to make a lot of putts for birdie or eagle."

Of course, change is not for everyone. Zach Johnson is the two-time defending Texas Open champion, an advantage negated by the move from La Cantera.

"Focusing on last year's win isn't going to help me make the cut or help me win this golf tournament," Johnson said Tuesday. "I certainly like looking at shots and the way I executed shots during those wins, but all in all it's a new week on a new golf course at a new facility."

Three other players who have won PGA Tour events this season — Ryan Palmer, Ben Crane and Cameron Beckman — are in the field. Other past Texas Open champions entered are Armour, three-time winner Justin Leonard, Eric Axley, Robert Gamez, Tim Herron and Bob Estes.