The PGA Tour hits the second leg of the abbreviated Florida Swing this week outside of Tampa for the Valspar Championship.
Justin Thomas, Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed headline the field, while a group of big names like Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, and defending champion Charl Schwartzel figure to threaten for the title.
The Valspar has a deep field and one of the most challenging courses on the PGA Tour calendar, but the biggest hindrance for the tournament is its position on the schedule. The championship finds itself in a very crowded portion of the calendar and is surrounded by tournaments that are staples on the PGA Tour.
It is this reason why former champion Jordan Spieth decided to skip the event for the first time in his career.
With all that being said, this event used to be an opposite-field tournament in the fall so its stature has risen immensely since the inaugural playing in 2000. While the field is not elite, it certainly has plenty of big names and a challenging course.
The tournament is also good for drama down the stretch. There has been a playoff in the previous two tournaments and in three of the last five. There has only been three instances in tournament history where the winner won by more than two strokes.
Sidenote, switching back-and-forth between the final holes on Sunday and the NCAA Selection Show is always the grandest annual test of a man’s TV remote skills.
The Innisbrook Copperhead course is one of the most well-respected tracks on the PGA Tour. The players enjoy it because the par-71 layout has no tricks, everything is in front of the players. Copperhead is a long, narrow course and is best known for “The Snake Pit.”
“The Snake Pit’ encompasses the bruising final thee holes of the Copperhead course. This brutal stretch commences with the long par-4 16th that challenges the players on the drive with water bordering the entire right side of the fairway.
The next leg is the 215 yard par-3 17th hole. The tee shot is uphill to an undulated green and with the swirling winds, players often have a difficult time pulling the right club.
The final hole is a narrow par-4. The tee shot plays downhill before the approach shot is played to an elevated green. The overhanging trees on the tee shot are visually intimidating, especially with the mounting pressure of a Sunday afternoon.
Last Year’s Event:
Charl Schwartzel earned his second PGA Tour victory with a playoff victory at last year’s Valspar Championship. Schwartzel began the final round five shots off the lead of Bill Haas, but a final round 67 put him in a playoff with Haas.
After Haas was unable to get up-and-down from the greenside bunker on the first playoff hole, Schwartzel two-putted to clinch the title.
Most Memorable Moment:
What the Valspar lacks in longevity, it makes up for with exciting finishes and the most memorable finish came at the 2015 tournament.
The 2015 event saw a crowded leaderboard on Sunday with marquee names like Henrik Stenson, Jordan Spieth, and Patrick Reed vying for the title.
Stenson finished one back, but veteran Sean O’Hair was able to post -10 with Spieth and Reed still on the course. Reed drained a 30-foot birdie putt on 18 to get to -10 and Spieth answered by holing a downhill 10-footer for par to join the playoff.
After all three players parred the first playoff hole (Reed was able to earn his par by getting up-and-down after being buried underneath the lip of the greenside bunker), Spieth rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole for the win.
This came at a time in Spieth’s career where he was (unfairly) facing criticism for getting into contention on Sundays, but being unable to finish off wins.
This playoff victory over a fellow young gun and a steady veteran put to rest any final round shakiness and cemented himself as a force on tour.
K.J. Choi: This is the second time I am picking Choi as my dark horse this year. While the first time did not pan out so well, Choi has as impressive of a track record at this event as anybody on tour. The Korean is a two-time champion and both wins came in impressive fashion. In 2006, Choi won the event by four strokes and in 2002, he cruised to a whopping seven shot victory.
Otter Room Pick:
Henrik Stenson (-9): The Swede seems to put on a ball striking clinic every time he tees it up and he has had success at the Copperhead course in the past. Because of the narrow fairways and the precision required with a player’s iron play, the Copperhead course in a ball strikers paradise.
If Stenson is able to have his putter cooperate at all, he will find himself on the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon.