Sam Burns Has His Eyes Set On A 3-Peat At The Valspar Championship in Tampa, FL
Welcome back to the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort, one of the Tour's most dangerous and challenging tracks.
It's a little bit of a down week on Tour, with this week being a breather among an onslaught of big time tournaments. Torrey, Scottsdale, Riv, Bay Hill, and Sawgrass in a 7 week span has got top guys clamoring for a breather before next week's Match Play. It's also why LIV is teeing it up, as they try to fade the PGA Tour schedule and grab some of the spotlight.
With that said, there's still a decent field here this week. The JT/Spieth duo are here, along with a few other vets and middle-of-the-road PGA Tour guys hungry to grab some key world rankings and FEC points and earn their way into that exclusive Top 50 for next season and beyond.
Sam Burns is your back-to-back defending champ after beating out Davis Riley on the 2nd playoff hole last year with a clutch 32-foot bomb for birdie.
Last year's leaderboard and recent winners…
The Copperhead Course is the premier course among 4 courses at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, all of which were designed by Larry Packard. It's a par 71, but not by way that Par 71's are usually constructed. A typical par 71 just means it has one less par 5 than a traditional par 72 course. This course has four par 5's and FIVE par 3's, the shortest of which clocks in at 199 yards. So this is a test of the mid and long irons for sure.
As you can see in the map above, the course is heavily tree-lined with plenty of sharp doglegs thrown in. There's not a lot of spots to catch your breath, and the most dangerous trouble is reserved for the end.
Holes 16-18 are referred to as the Snake Pit. Everything I pretty much said about the Bear Trap at PGA National can apply here. They've even got their own snake to show it.
No lead is safe until you've cleaned up at 18, and makes for a ton of drama. All 3 play over par annually with the dogleg right 16th being the toughest hole on the course playing roughly +0.3. 17 and 18 are no picnic either and should make for a ton of great drama down the stretch. As you can see from the margin of victories in the past, this tournament always plays down to the wire.
Best Hole - 16th Hole, 458 yards Par 4
As I just mentioned, super tough dogleg right here to kick off the Snake Pit. There's really nowhere to hide on this hole. The water right encourages you to try to play it safe down the left side, but the fairway cuts off quick and the rough tends to be gnarly if you miss left. You're really just pushing your risk onto your approach shot if you chicken out and tug it there. The trees and bunker protecting the right side of the green can give you fits if you're not positioned well off the tee. Great challenge for these guys, and was a fitting finishing hole in last year's playoff.
Tiger's Ridiculous Highlight of the Week
Tiger rarely played this event early in his career but it was a crucial stepping stone on the 2018 comeback trail in his preparation for that year's Masters. This was the first true sign that he could still do this. That he could still contend and make a charge and put some pressure on the field on a back 9 Sunday. He came up one shot short but him burying that putt on 17 to cut the lead to 1 was so electric. He may not have won that year's Masters and didn't notch a win until much later that year at East Lake, but this was an important event for him regardless.
Look out for that Upper-level energy Wednesday…. and don't you dare rule out a passing sprinkle.
s/o to Stewie Williams for bringing the gas on these weather forecasts every week. Wish the forecast for the weekend was better, but the man knows how to craft a weather narrative.
By the way, wouldn't be the worst thing for a Monday finish as we're going through March Madness withdrawals… but the Tour's gotta turn around and start the Match Play up on Wednesday in Austin. Gotta think they're going to do everything they can to get this in Sunday.
It's NBC's show for the next couple weeks, as CBS is firmly in March Madness mode.
Featured Groups to come…
This trophy stinks. No two ways about it. This doesn't belong on the fireplace mantle, this belongs under the slop sink in the basement. Trash trash trash. Overreach by the sponsor and nothing redeeming about it. Worst one yet. Tiger probably laid up off the 72nd tee in 2018 just to avoid having to drop this thing off in his mom's garage. Poor Sam Burns to be stuck with two of these things. 1/10.
Justin Thomas is your tournament favorite at +900 at the Barstool Sportsbook. He's made a habit of playing this tournament most years, having played it the past two years and 5 previous times overall. He's also choosing to skip next week's Match Play, eschewing the guaranteed paycheck at a tournament he's only made it out of the group stage of once in 6 tries. Here he's had better success, having missed the playoff by a shot last year, and finishing 13th, MC, 18th, and 10th going back to 2015.
He's the play this week. It's a challenging target golf course where you need to plod your way around the property, and that's a strong suit of JT's game. There are tons of doglegs that fit the eye of a shot-shaper and plenty of forced lay-ups and long par 3's that will bring long irons into play. That all screams JT. You could say a lot of the same about Spieth (who is a former champ here in 2015) and I wouldn't be shocked if we get a long-awaited Sunday duel between the two, I just like JT's game better overall. Hell, DataGolf has JT at nearly twice (8.5%) the probability of winning as Spieth (4.8%), who's the next best guy.
As for Burnsy… maybe he can conjure up the good feels here a bit, but his game just isn't in the same place as it has been the past two years. He's a fade for me this week.
Adam Hadwin To Win +2200/Top 10 +275 - Hadwin has his only career PGA Tour win here back in 2017 and is actually one of a handful of guys on the outside looking in of the OWGR Top 50 at #61. Why does this matter? Well… Hadwin has not otherwise qualified for The Masters, and would need to be inside that Top 50 heading into Masters week to do so (or win a tournament between now and then, but that would effectively get him into the Top 50 anyway). We like guys incentivized on multiple fronts.
Denny McCarthy To Win +3300/Top 10 +335 - As if my insistence on him winning a tournament soon wasn't enough, Denny is in a similar boat at #57. This could be the one for ol Denny.
Small tangent here… bold move by Rickie Fowler to skip this one and try to rely on the Match Play next week to get into the Masters for the first time since 2020. If he draws a horse like Rahm or Scheffler in his group, he's virtually toast. He's gone from 185th at the start of the season all the way to 59th in the OWGR, and it'd be a shame for him to come up just short. Major storyline to watch next week…
Maverick McNealy To Win +4000/Top 10 +350 - Mav WD'd from a couple of events with a shoulder injury and was a concern to play Sawgrass, but he battled thru and made the cut. Before that injury stint, he was posting consistently strong results, including 6 top 20's in a stretch of 8 events. He's actually been far and away the best putter on Tour this season, gaining close to a stroke and a half on the field per round on the greens. Here's to him bouncing back and contending this week.
Akshay Bhatia Top 10 +750 - It feels like Bhatia is just around the corner from truly breaking through and living up to the hype that's surrounded him for years. Narrowly missed out on his Tour card last year in the KF Tour Playoffs, and a high finish here would go a long way to finally making the jump.
Ludvig Aberg Top 20 +400 - Amateur and PGA Tour U ranked #1 player was unphased by tough conditions at Bay Hill, finishing T-24. Weaker field just might produce a higher result this week…
That's what I got this week. Enjoy the Valspar.