Tournament: Valspar Championship, March 8-11, 2018
Course: Innisbrook Resort (Copperhead), 7,340 yards, par 71 (Palm Harbor, FL, just outside Tampa)
Defending Champion: Adam Hadwin. The Candian had his eh-eh? moment when his final round lead pretty much evaporated before steadying the ship and finishing a stroke ahead of a hard-charging Patrick Cantlay.
Fun Fact: Before this course became a regular PGA Tour stop in 2000, it was the site of the JC Penney team challenge, which paired professionals from both the PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour.
Television: Thursday-Friday, 2-6 p.m. ET (Golf Channel). Saturday-Sunday, 1-3 p.m. (GC), 3-6 p.m. (NBC).
Former 'Dawgs in the Field (4-ish): Harris English, Chris Kirk, Hudson Swafford, Keith Mitchell (alternate)
Once again the PGA Tour schedulers decided it made sense to hold a tournament in south Florida one week, then skip across to Mexico the next week, only to come back a couple of hours north of the first tournament. Thank goodness these players can put the NetJets corporate logo on their shirt sleeve and get steep discounts on private airfare all over the country.
Moving ahead, we’re back to a “normal” tour stop with a full field and a mix of just about everything. First we’ve got a pretty nice field, nothing like last week which was filled with the world’s top 50, but it does include 5 of the world’s top 13. Rory McIlroy makes his first appearance at this particular tourney, and Sergio Garcia is returning for the first time in 5 years. Jordan Spieth comes back after a year hiatus. Also making his debut at Valspar is Eldrick Woods.
This will make 3 tournaments in 4 weeks for El Tigre, and we haven’t seen that in quite a while (Tiger wasn’t qualified for last week’s WGC). In addition, Tiger has committed to next week’s Bay Hill Invitational. For those of you who wonder, once you win 20 PGA titles, you have a lifetime exemption. Tiger has 79 titles and 3 Grand Slams, so he is qualified for everything except tourneys based on current point standings like World Golf Championships and FedEx Cup playoff events.
The course is no pushover, especially after a redesign in the last several years. It is narrow, tree-lined, and enough elevation to make you think. And like courses are wont to do in recent times, it has named a closing stretch of holes to intimidate golfers. In this case, holes 16-18 are now collectively known as “The Snake Pit”. Copperhead Course... tough stretch of holes... Snake Pit... get it? Yeah, me neither. There’s even a large statue of a serpentine monster/copperhead snake as you make your way to the 16th tee. Situated perfectly for selfies and FaceBook posts by 50 year old men.
There are only 3 ‘Dawgs in the field confirmed as of this writing, but we may add Keith Mitchell (currently alternate status waiting on someone to withdraw). Keith has had a very successful rookie year on the PGA Tour by any measure, with 6 of 10 cuts made and about $120k in earnings. If he gets a few top 25s and maybe a top 10, at this rate he can qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Harris English is #100 on the points list (#222 in the world), mostly due to improvements made since the calendar turned to 2018. He’s made 4 of his last 6 cuts with 3 of those no worse than 33rd. English is putting pretty well, but the big hitter is missing fairways and subsequently greens. I don’t expect much from him on this track.
Chris Kirk is 47th on the points list (#165 in the world) but this could be a good week for him. His putting and driving are both about average, but he excels with his irons and around the green. Considering how tight this course will play, and the premium on shot-making approaches, he can matriculate his way around Innisbrook in fewer shots than most.
Hudson Swafford is 108th in points and 112th in the world. Big Hud has been consistent, much more so after his first Tour victory last season. He’s made 8 of 9 cuts but no high finishes to date. Stats don’t lie, and his stats don’t either. While driving and approach shots are above average, his putting has been woeful. Thus he’s just not scoring well. If the flat stick gets hot, he could challenge a leaderboard.
My pick this week? Of the Bulldogs, I like Kirk the best - his game is suited to this course. For a dark horse I will take Martin Laird. Out of the big names, either Sergio will be fully warmed up or Jordan Speith will get the putter magic back. So if you’re in need of something to do besides watch other SEC teams punch a dance ticket, flip it on over to NBC and watch ‘Dawgs chasing little while balls.
And as always….