The Spring Swing (hopping south of the border has removed Florida from the marketing) continues with, arguably, the best test of golf for the entire month. Sadly, that Mexican spring break trip has stunted some of the momentum this Tour stop had been building. Three of the last five playings of this annual Tampa stop have ended in playoffs, with the Jordan Spieth – Patrick Reed duel (yes, Sean O’Hair was also there) in 2015 making the Valspar Championship the most delicious appetizer of that year’s Tour schedule. No matter the field this year, if you want good golf, this is your week.
The Course – The Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort is a non-Florida course residing in the state of Florida. It wraps around a piece of property with elevation changes of up to 100 feet, which is rare for the gulf coast. There are only nine water hazards, with most being specifically located and remote. The course is also heavily wooded in many parts, with errant shots more likely to be stymied than wet. A par 71 that stretches over 7,300 yards, it offers a rare combination of four par 5s and five par 3s. It is defined by the Snake Pit, the three-hole finishing stretch that starts with the difficult par-4 16th hole that can cost any contender the tournament.
Last Year – Charl Schwartzel (above) closed with a 67 to run down 54-hole leader Bill Haas, triumphing in a playoff. Each would parlay that good finish into a solid run at the Dell Match Play two weeks later. While there have been first-time winners and surprise performances, winners of this tournament have carried solid form forward, showcasing how the Valspar Championship is a predictor of future success.
The Field – With added travel to the new March schedule, this field has taken a bit of hit, with only Henrik Stenson and Justin Thomas representing the top 10 in the world. Match Play is two weeks away and the first trip to Bay Hill since Arnold Palmer’s passing is next week, so this week has been a popular rest stop for the 2017 schedule. There is a strong veteran presence on a golf course that doesn’t punish average length off the tee. Jim Furyk headlines that group, a winner in 2010 here also has top 10’s in 2012 and 2013. The Ryder Cup captain could jump start his season with a good performance.
Weather – It is looking ideal for the week, with temperatures in the mid to upper 70’s the first three rounds. Rain chances increase on Sunday with friskier winds, which could make for a fun finish.
Holes to Watch – The Snake Pit gets the attention, but the double dogleg at the par-5 14th hole is the signature hole on the course. If the wind isn’t in, players can try to reach from 590 out, but any birdies here set up a strong finish. The following hole, the par-3 15th, played as the most difficult on the property last year. With a stroke average of over 3.3, it surrendered just 25 birdies all week.
A Bow on Mexico – There were so many questions surrounding the new home of the World Golf Championships event, and they were all answered with glowing praise. It would be expected for the glow from that tournament to carry over to this week. Old school golf purists had to love the way a tight golf course protected itself. Modern fans had to enjoy the way Dustin Johnson surgically took it apart on the weekend to validate his rise to the top of the golf world. Collectively, watching the field get better every day, learning on the job, was fascinating to witness.
For Real – Even with a light field, this week will add a few names to the list of “contenders” for Match Play and the Masters in the coming weeks. Does Stenson keep the trend of top-level golfers winning? Does Justin Thomas get win number four of the season to send Vegas bookmakers scrambling to drop his odds? Beyond that duo, there is a solid group of breakout contenders who could jumpstart momentum with a win this week. That includes Bubba Watson, in the midst of his worst stretch of golf in a while. This is a good week to steal a little spotlight.
Championship Pedigree – The winning score of this tournament has gone lower than 10-under just three times since the tournament moved its date to the spring portion of the schedule in 2007. Schwartzel rode a hot putter (144 feet of makes in final round) last year to the title, but ballstriking is what is needed to survive four days at Copperhead. The top six last year were all top 16 in strokes gained: tee to green. A look at the champions also shows what type of player does well here. Power has become playable everywhere, but even a bomber like Thomas will have to keep it in the fairway and hit lots of greens.
Top Five –
Henrik Stenson – Montezuma forced his early exit from Mexico City, which may provide even more reason for him to be the favorite here this week. He has gone 4th, T11 in two starts the last two seasons at this tournament. With the winds forecast to be down most of the week, his precision iron play is ideal for Copperhead. Given how golf’s best have won, he feels as close to even money this week.
Justin Thomas – He let the Mexico Championship slip away on Sunday, but the performance was a strong bounce back after a three tournament swoon. Without much of the top players in the world providing resistance this week, his talent is too much to ignore. He is also top five in strokes gained: tee to green.
Gary Woodland – The 2011 champion is close to headlining the list of ‘guy playing the best who hasn’t won in a while.’ Four top six performances in his last six starts, including a runner-up to Rickie Fowler at Honda, becoming a two-time Valspar champ isn’t out of the equation.
Billy Horschel – Ballstriking and hot play. The course, a week of rest and his form make Billy Ho a perfect cocktail of winning potential. He is leading the Tour in greens in regulation.
Sean O’Hair – Fifth on tour with the longest cut made streak (12 in a row), O’Hair won this event in a survival test in 2008. He made the playoff two years ago, but has a long history of MCs here too. His form can come and go, so any fantasy usage is a gamble, but the marriage of his recent consistency and top-heavy history here is intriguing.
One-and-Done Fantasy Consideration (if you can only take a player once all season) – O’Hair seemed like the play here for a while, but finishing near the bottom in Mexico City should scare many away. If you’ve planned ahead in saving many of the top 10 for majors and the FedEx Cup Playoffs, burning Stenson this week could help your team get healthy. Woodland is probably the best overall play, given his trend and history.
Fantasy Tip – Stenson and Thomas will price you out of a deep roster this week, but a guaranteed high finish may be hard to ignore as you assemble your roster in many DFS games. You can get better value out of perfect course fits like Kevin Na, Ryan Moore or Brian Harman (a steal at $7,200 on DraftKings). Past champs Luke Donald and Furyk are incredible values this week too.