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Dustin Johnson delivered another great result for favourite backers last week at the WGC Mexico Championship as he extended his lead at the summit of the world golf rankings. All in all the move to Mexico City was well received and the players undoubtedly loved the challenge of the classical Club de Golf Chapultepec setup. Talking of challenges, Dustin Johnson was put under pressure from the combined talents of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm at various points throughout the tournament, but eventually he became only the 5th player to win their first tournament as World Number 1. He looks a certainty now to be in that position when he arrives in Augusta. Talking of The Masters, it's only a month away, so this week's Valspar Championship is an important opportunity for some to sharpen their game further at the technical Copperhead course which in itself is very much a Major-style golf course.
For the 5th successive year we're running our popular Majors Competition in association with bet365 who've put a total of £250 in bonuses up for grabs to the winners. The competition is in the form of a one-and-done, so all you need to do is give us a single player for each of the 4 Majors to enter - full details are here.
The Valspar Championship is played on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort near Tampa Bay. It's a tough examination which always ranks as one of the hardest courses outside of the Major Championship venues every year. Justin Thomas, Henrik Stenson, Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson feature at a tournament which often comes down to the ability to grind and putt well on TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces.
Over on the European Tour, Paul Williams previews the Hero Indian Open - you can read his preview for that event here.
Course Guide: This tournament is played on the tough Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida. As a 7,340 yard Par 71, the course is tight off the tee but, unlike other typical Florida courses, the Larry Packard design has tree-lined fairways, plenty of elevation changes and dog-leg holes. Copperhead achieves this fairly unique layout as it is contains 4 par-5s and 5 par-3s which is unusual for a Par 71 course. The course also features 'The Snake Pit' - namely holes 16 to 18 - which adds real bite to the closing stretch, especially on Sunday. The course received a $4.5 million restoration (not renovation) after Jordan Spieth's win here in 2015, but still very much plays to the same technical characteristics.
Copperhead Course, Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor, Florida: Designer: Larry Packard, 1971; Course Type: Florida, Technical; Par: 71; Length: 7,340 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 5; Fairways: Celebration Bermuda; Rough: Celebration Bermuda 3"; Greens: 5,800 sq.ft average TifEagle Bermudagrass with Poa Trivialis overseed; Tournament Stimp: 11.5 -12ft; Course Scoring Average 2012: 70.73 (-0.27), Difficulty Rank 30 of 49 courses. 2013: 72.22 (+1.22), Rank 7 of 43 courses. 2014: 72.43 (+1.43), Rank 6 of 48 courses. 2015: 71.86 (+0.86), Rank 10 of 52 courses. 2016: 72.62 (+1.62), Rank 6 of 50 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook and how they compare to recent courses on the PGA Tour:
Course Overview: The 2016 Valspar Championship was the first renewal played on the Copperhead Course following its facelift. Comments were positive enough, but the new green surfaces - which feature TifEagle Bermudagrass overseeded with Poa Trivialis - were noticeably much slower. Indeed Jordan Spieth commented that they were some of the slowest he'd encountered on the PGA Tour. 12 months on we can expect them to be far faster, especially as the Palm Harbor area has been very dry in the build-up to the tournament. 20 mph winds across all 4 days of play last year saw Charl Schwartzel capture his first PGA Tour title for 5 years with a -8/276 winning total, so for our punting purposes, Copperhead - which features the round-closing Snake Pit - still has plenty of bite when it comes to defending itself.
In essence the changes have enhanced rather than materially changed the Copperhead test. Positioned only a stone's throw away from the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast of Florida close to Tampa, the course is not your typical Florida golf course. Instead many observers suggest it's far more typical of a Carolina set-up with changes of elevation, tree-lined fairways and selected usage of water hazards making it a real gem and a true test of golf. The course features extremely tight fairways in combination with the majority of holes being on the long side. That's a recipe for a tough golf course and sure enough last year's tournament featured the following statistics: Greens in Regulation: 3rd toughest on the 2015/16 PGA Tour; Going for the Green: 6th toughest; Birdie Average: 2nd toughest; Par 3 Scoring Average: 2nd toughest; Par 4 Scoring Average 6th toughest; Par 5 Scoring Average: 5th toughest; Putting Average: 7th toughest. These figures describe the Copperhead test perfectly - a fast, tight and long course, where attack is limited. Copperhead is definitely a technical test where a mature, all-round game is required. The past 4 renewals have seen it rank as the 7th, 6th, 10th and 6th hardest course on the PGA Tour, due largely to firm conditions and significant wind at some point.
Winners: 2016: Charl Schwartzel (-8); 2015: Jordan Spieth (-10); 2014: John Senden (-7); 2013: Kevin Streelman (-10); 2012: Luke Donald (-13); 2011: Gary Woodland (-15); 2010: Jim Furyk (-13).
Tournament Stats: We've published some key player statistics for this week's event that are well worth a look. Naturally they'll help to shape a view on players who could go well this week: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader | Top 20 Finishes.
Published Predictor Model: Our published Valspar Championship predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 5 of the predictor are Justin Thomas (No.1), Henrik Stenson, Martin Laird, Luke Donald and Charles Howell III.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Hong Kong Open and includes PGA Tour and European Tour events. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 main Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2016: Schwartzel 33/1; 2015: Spieth 16/1; 2014: Senden 125/1; 2013: Streelman 200/1; 2012: Donald 11/1; 2011: Woodland 100/1; 2010: Furyk 30/1; Average: 74/1.
Weather Forecast: The latest PGA Tour weather forecast for Palm Harbor, Florida is here. The build up to the tournament has been particularly dry, so expect firm and fast conditions at Copperhead this week. The weather forecast is particularly calm across tournament week with only a threat of rain on Sunday in tandem with extremely tranquil conditions again up until Sunday. Scoring will be lower than the levels we saw 12 months ago.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 7 winners of this event since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this technical test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
Let's take a view from players as to how the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Jordan Spieth: "This course, it's a very difficult golf course, it's definitely tougher than average. If you see guys that come out and play well here, they're likely to play well on the harder courses and the bigger tournaments just because that kind of course suits their game more, I guess. You have to work the ball both ways here. It requires all sorts of shots, punch shots, launching it in the air and obviously some discipline on the greens.
The greens aren't very severe here. They're grainy and certainly they can be very quick in certain places where they can put pins but they're not going to be greens where you really, really worry too much about your speed control. You can be aggressive putting out here which is nice. But it's tough. I mean the wind - in the past couple years the wind has picked up. Looks like we may get really lucky this week, these next four days and not have much wind and scores could be lower, especially with the softer conditions than previous years. Yeah, it's still tough to hit the fairway and the greens, the rough is really sticky and if you're a foot off the green and it just off the fringe, it's about as tough as it gets because the rough is not quite high and thick enough to where you just play like a bunker shot and it's not thin enough to where you can hit a normal chip. You got to almost feel like your way through and try and judge it perfectly."
John Senden: "I think you need to play pretty solid golf to do well around here because it's narrow in spots, the greens are smaller. You know, it's a very strategic golf course. I think you see players that say the veteran players that play win around here because it's not totally a bomber's golf course. Doral probably is. This place is not. It's narrow. It's different. It's got sort of shorter golf holes than, say, Doral. If you're smart around here you can actually do really well. If you try to sort of tear it apart by bombing it, it's much more narrow than probably Doral. Doral visually looks - all you see is the bunkers. Here you see more tree line. Even if you do lay it back a little bit here you can still score well."
Jim Furyk: "I'd say the one thing here, you do get a lot of greens that have quite a bit of pitch and slope to them, especially back to front, and so you have to hit some putts here that feed to the hole. You get a lot of six footers here that are more than a cup of break and you don't see a lot of that in Florida as well. You get a lot of right edge and left edge, ball out, inside right. Here you have to fit a lot of putts that really feed into the hole and that helps a little bit for getting ready for Augusta."
Kevin Streelman: "Got to put it in the right spots. As we know on this golf course, you'll make some bogies pretty quickly. It's clear this is, a lot of players would say, their favourite course in Florida that we play. They love it because of shot playability. You hit everything from 4-iron to driver off the tees, shape them both directions. You have par-5s you can go for and some you lay back. You've got par-3s. You have to be so exact where you leave it. There's no let up out there but it's very fair at the same time. People say last week maybe pushed the envelope a little bit. This week there's no pushing the envelope. You got to step up and hit a golf shot. You got to step up on 16 and hit a great drive. There's little room to bail. You got to man up and hit golf shots out there."
Path to Victory: Below are the end of round positions for the last 7 winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their group and winning score since 2010. Full First Round Leader stats are here.
For the record, here's the breakdown of Bermudagrass green PGA Tour victors in the field since 2008:
My view on the Valspar Championship is that with Augusta less than a month away, some of the elite players use Copperhead as a game-sharpening exercise so the key this week is (as always) to select those who are both playing well enough and who will be determined to challenge. It's also worth remembering that Copperhead follows on from a punishing 2 week stretch that has included the incredibly tough Honda Classic and a World Golf Championship.
In the past 6 years elite players Jim Furyk (2010), Luke Donald (2012) and Charl Schwartzel (2016) have all won here at Copperhead at relatively short odds. Furyk had won the Chevron Challenge at Sherwood CC in the preceding December and was absolutely focussed on winning his first PGA Tour title since 2007. Luke Donald, on the other hand, fresh from winning the 2011 Race to Dubai and PGA Tour Money List, was in a battle with Rory McIlroy over the World Number 1 spot. Copperhead was the perfect course at the perfect time. Charl Schwartzel arrived in Tampa after winning in his home country only 4 weeks prior. Always one to follow when in good form, the World Number 32 (at the time) took the opportunity to win his first tournament in the United States since the 2011 Masters.
The Valspar Championship, like plenty of 'grinds', is also synonymous with tight leaderboards which undoubtedly effect each-way returns. Since 2011, 10, 8, 6, 6 and 6 players have finished in the top-5 spots. So looking for additional each-way places is not a bad play. One thing though is for certain this week - a hotter than usual putter and razor sharp short-game will be required to win the $1,098,000 on offer for the winner.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below. New customers can also get a free £10 no deposit required bet with Sky Bet - perfect for covering off one of the favourites this week:
My selections are as follows:
The hottest player in the field by a mile, I'm happy to support Justin Thomas on a set-up which is sure to suit the World Number 7. A 3-time winner already this season, 2 of those victories have been on Bermudagrass greens, with his Kapalua win featuring TifEagle Bermudagrass. Thomas finished an eventual 5th last week in Mexico after holding the 54 hole lead. Playing in the final group with Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy in a head-to-head battle for the World Number 1 spot eventually proved to be a little too much for the 23 year-old who now heads the FedEx Cup rankings. But the Valspar Championship is a couple of levels down from the WGC Mexico Championship and one fact to have in mind with Justin is that he's always one to follow after a near miss. Indeed his Tour wins to date have come after 3rd, 8th, 4th and 1st place finishes in his previous outing. With his last win at Waialae coming at a general 14/1 and with the current glut of short-priced winners, I think following Thomas this week on a course he knows intimately is a decent enough ploy.
10th here in 2015 as a Tour rookie when conditions were similarly firm and fast, Thomas backed that up with 18th here last term - plus he has plenty of additional experience of Copperhead from his AJGA Junior Championship playing days where he finished 10th (2008) and 8th (2009). 20th in Bogey Avoidance, 3rd in Scoring Average and 59th in Scrambling from the Rough skill categories this season allied to exceptional putting performances across Kapalua, Waialae and Club de Golf Chapultepec make him a must back for me this week. This will also be his final strokeplay event pre-Augusta.
There was a little 33/1 about Ryan Moore early doors but that was soon snapped up. Still I'm more than happy to jump on this week at 28/1, as Moore is the perfect course horse for this week. 8th here in 2007, 19th in 2009, 5th in 2015 and 3rd here in 2016, it looks like Moore is on a natural progression to the title here. As we know since his 3rd here 12 months ago, Moore went on a tare which has taken him into the OWGR top 50 and saw him make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. 3rd on his last appearance on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens at Kapalua in January, Moore is a short game specialist who ranked 3rd in Putting Average last week in Mexico and his current rank of 19th in par-5 Birdie or Better should prove very useful across the 16 looks at the par-5s this week. Wins across Sedgefield (2009), Kuala Lumpur GC (2013/14) and Deere Run (2016) correlate perfectly for this week and the Scottsdale, Arizona resident has also played well at Florida tests such as Doral (9th 2015) and Bay Hill (4th 2012).
Gary Woodland won this tournament in his breakthrough year in 2011 (he's only won once since by the way) so course knowledge isn't everything here. Fast-forward to 2017 and the performances of Wesley Bryan remind me a little of Woodland who'd finished 2nd, 5th and 6th prior to landing his maiden victory here at Innisbrook. Bryan of course has finished 4th at both Riviera and PGA National on his last 2 outings - tournaments where he's also been in the heat of the battle. As we know from his web.com Tour season last year, Bryan is a real talent. After going through web.com Q-School (top 10 finish) on the TifEagle Bermudagrass greens of PGA National in 2015, the South Carolinian hit the ground running in 2016 finishing 7th in Panama, before winning (in March) the Louisiana Open on Bermudagrass greens, then adding 6th in Columbia and landing another win at the Mexico Championship. This set of results was across 5 tournament appearances and all before the close of April! So we can safely say that Wesley is one to follow when he's playing well and I also liked this quote from him 2 weeks ago after shooting an opening round -6/64 to lead the Honda Classic, "Just kind of picking up where I left off. I was able to get the ball in the fairway with some of the tougher driving holes out there, and set up a couple good birdie opportunities. It was really nice getting back on the East Coast on some Bermuda greens that I grew up on as a kid."
Riviera and PGA National are technical tests in themselves and I think Bryan can also go well at Copperhead where his recent mix of strong Bogey Avoidance and par-5 Scoring, married to top-notch scrambling and putting, is the perfect mix of criteria for success.
Jason Dufner is one to look closely at right now as he sits inside the top 5 of my rolling 10-week Putting Average tracker and comfortably inside the top 10 of this week's Valspar Predictor model. Clearly with a warmer putter than we've seen for a while - he also ranks 71st in Strokes Gained Putting - Dufner becomes a factor especially as he sits inside the top 25 for my 10 week rolling Greens in Regulation tracker, 37th in Bogey Avoidance, 14th for Sand Saves and 30th for Scrambling. His current form reads 23(Mexico)-14(PGA National)-25(PGA West)-MC(Waialae)-21(Kapalua) and that understated consistency is appealing when looking at previous recent winners of this tournament. He flirted with contention both at Kapalua and PGA National and his 2017 schedule indicates he's comfortable on Bermudagrass greens - his maiden PGA Tour victory was at TPC Louisiana in 2012 and he backed that up with another victory last year at PGA West on similar Bermudagrass/Poa Trivialis putting surfaces. The 4-time PGA Tour winner has a CV which contains plenty of correlating course form across some of the toughest courses on Tour including Doral, TPC Sawgrass, TPC Four Seasons, Firestone, Cog Hill and a treble of strong U.S. Open finishes at Olympic Club (4th 2012), Merion (4th 2013) and Oakmont (2016). Dufner has played the Valspar 9 times finishing 10th in 2012 with a further 4 top-25 finishes and his average score at the course of 70.47 ranks him 9th in the field.
It's not very often that you get a player in the top 3 of my published predictor model who you can back at 80/1, but that's the case for Scot Martin Laird who's playing some very nice golf this season. 8th at Silverado, 13th at El Camaleon, 9th at PGA West, 7th at TPC Scottsdale and 8th at Riviera highlights a player who's both versatile and also very strong on the West Coast Swing. However the upwardly mobile 34 year-old - he's up to 108th in the OWGR - appeals to me this week as his 2016/17 play reminds me of his career-best period which stretched through the autumn of 2010 across the spring of 2011 where the Scottsdale resident churned out contending performance after contending performance before finishing 10th at Doral, 5th here at Copperhead before eventually winning at Bay Hill. Some Florida Swing! Laird has always been the sort who needs to build confidence before triumphing and that same pattern is happening right now. 16th in Bogey Avoidance, 17th in Scoring Average, 18th in Scrambling from the Rough, 20th in Strokes Gained Putting and 15th in All-Round Ranking are statistics I cannot ignore this week especially as we can cover the Scotsman each-way top 7 with Paddy Power at a market-leading price of 80/1.
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