With the Cheltenham Festival now in full swing, the Tampa Bay Championship (Transitions Championship as was) unsurprisingly takes a little bit of a back seat this week in the sports betting world. Now we don't purport to be National Hunt experts by any stretch, however Paul and myself always like to partake in the Festival and, to be helpful, we've pulled together a Cheltenham Festival Bookmaker Offers page for your perusal.
Back to the golf and the third leg of the PGA Tour's Florida Swing takes us to the Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor, for the Tampa Bay Championship presented by Everbank. With Augusta now less than 4 weeks away, many use the technical Copperhead course as a 'Major' style warm-up for the big event. So a field that contains Donald (defending champion), Scott, Garcia, Simpson, Watney, Oosthuizen, Kuchar, Dufner, Day, Zach Johnson and Furyk can't be sniffed at this week. To whet your appetite, from here we travel to Bay Hill, Redstone and finally TPC San Antonio prior to Augusta which tees off on the 11th April.
Now I always categorise Copperhead as a technical golf course and with 20+ mph winds forecast for Thursday I won't be changing my view this week. For those interested you can read my notes on PGA Tour Course categorisation here. Since 2007 when the then PODS Championship moved to a March slot on the schedule, course conditions have changed slightly. Winning scores of -10 (Calcavecchia), -4 (O'Hair) and -8 (Goosen) featured a course that was one of the hardest non-Major tracks. However since Jim Furyk won in 2010 with a winning total of -13/271, Copperhead has become slightly more compliant. Gary Woodland won on course debut here with -15/269 and Luke's triumph in tranquil conditions 12 months ago was achieved with -13/271.
So what can we expect this week? Well the Larry Packard design is a 7,340 yard Par 71 which, unlike other Florida course designs, features plenty of elevation changes, dog-legs and tree-lined fairways. Copperhead achieves this fairly unique layout as it contains 4 Par 5s and 5 Par 3s - quite unusual for a Par 71 course. The course also features 'The Snake Pit', namely holes 16 to 18, which - as the name suggests - adds real bite to the closing stretch, especially on Sunday. The real challenge of the course is tee-to-green so those who are in good form with the driver and irons will get plenty of opportunities on the large Bermuda/Poa Trivialis greens which, by PGA Tour standards, are pretty flat. It's worth noting that Copperhead can suit either a technical Par 70-type specialist or a bomber who can hit plenty of greens. Ultimately though a strong putting performance will win the day and with rain landing on the Innisbrook property on 8 of the 12 days of the month so far, I'm expecting slightly softer greens than the standard 11 stimp conditions we've seen recently here. That could take scoring towards -15/269 or -16/268 levels.
Despite this slight softening of the course, Copperhead cannot be taken lightly. So I'm looking for a rare breed this week, i.e. players who can handle windy conditions so that they stay in contention across Thursday; however we then need a player who can make birdies on a stretching technical track and who can break into fairly deep double digit red numbers come Sunday. Decent greens hit and strong putting performances season-to-date are key for me, as is recent contention at the top of leaderboards since late January.
For me the in-form Sergio Garcia is a must-back this week in a state where he's had success previously when winning at TPC Sawgrass in 2008. Florida is where Sergio has his US base and I truly like "El Nino" because he has the rare ability to play well in technical conditions and be able to score well when he needs to. Interestingly 5 of Garcia's 8 PGA Tour victories have come in the eastern US and the most recent of them on the freshly laid Champion Bermuda greens at Sedgefield last August came with a winning score of -18/262. It's a total misnomer that Sergio can only win in a grind-fest as winning totals of -27 (Club de Campo del Meditererraneo-2011); -14 (Sheshan -2008); -20 (Club de Campo del Meditererraneo-2008); -14 (Westchester-2008); -18 (Kapalua - 2002) and -16 -(Westchester-2001) totally dispel. 3rd last week in Doral saw Sergio sit 2nd in Greens in Regulation and 28th in Putting average categories and the Spaniard has always putted better on Bermuda greens. He's motivated right now and has finished in the Top 20 in every appearance he's made since East Lake last September, including 13th at Riviera, 2nd at Doha GC (Bermuda), 1st at Johor (Bermuda) and 9th at Earth Course (Bermuda). 4 appearances here at Copperhead have yielded 4 pay cheques and a pair of Top 20s in 2011 and 2012 as the course condition have eased ever so slightly.
With Paul Tesori finally back carrying the bag this week, US Open Champion Webb Simpson could again challenge on a track that is well known for being very "Carolina" in its nature. Webb has been busy this season and the 3-time PGA Tour winner has a game that looks sharper by the tournament. His Olympic Club victory last June almost inevitably saw a downturn in form, with his putting taking the brunt of the spiral. But a new conservative style that has seen the Carolinian take distance away from his tee-box driving in a bid to hit far more greens is now reaping rewards. A decent performance on debut at the Ryder Cup kick-started his strokeplay performances and since Medinah 5th at East Lake, 7th at Sherwood, 11th at Kapalua, 6th at Riviera (career best), a QF appearance at Dove Mountain and 20th at Doral (career best) is signalling to me that a visit to a track that suits will see him knocking on the door. His 2013 vs 2012 key category numbers are also looking positive: 14th (up 20 spots) in Greens in Regulation; 40th (up 16 spots) in Strokes Gained Putting; 24th (down 3 spots) in Scoring Average; 6th (up 44 spots) in Scrambling. He also sits in the Top 35 across Par 3, Par 4 and Par 5 performance indices showing the level of consistency he's at which isn't a bad trait to have at Copperhead. Simpson's CV is littered with linkable performances at Waialae, PGA West, Hilton Head, TPC Louisiana, Old White TPC, Sedgefield, Cog Hill, East Lake and Disney.
You get the feeling that Scott genuinely feels that he belongs at golf's 'top table' and his level of current consistency simply can't be ignored. Once categorised as a desert resort specialist who crumbled under pressure, the Nevada man is still upwardly mobile in the World Rankings powered by top finishes in the most competitive tournaments. 25th on debut at Doral, backed up a visit to the 3rd Round at Dove Mountain on yet another WGC tournament debut. Prior to that, and back on home desert turf, Scott finished 3rd behind Lefty at TPC Scottsdale where he fired -23/263. 13th at Kapalua and 15th at Waialae opened his 2013 campaign and simply highlights the consistency that's now being produced. So why Scott this week in Florida? Well 5th here 12 months can't be sneezed at nor can linkable form at Waialae, PGA National, TPC Louisiana, Old White TPC, Shaughnessy, Hamilton GC, Sedgefield and East Lake. However you just get the feeling that if heavier levels of scoring will be required to win this week, Piercy and his streaky scoring ability could seriously come to the fore. Don't be fooled into thinking that he can only compete on resort formats - after all his best Florida performances have come here and at PGA National rather than Disney.
I will finish this week with the scoring power of Scott Stallings who is starting to mature into a fine performer across varying course formats and green types - the mark of a Top 100 Official Golf World Ranking player, which I'm sure the 3rd year PGA Tour pro who lives in Tennessee will be very soon. 29th last time out at PGA National says little, but for me that signified the return to form after the disappointment of losing a 6-stroke lead at PGA West back in January where he ultimately finished 4th. Dig deeper into PGA National and you'll find the core competencies that is marking out Stallings to be one to watch around Copperhead as he finished well up both the Greens in Regulation (in windy conditions) and Putting Average (on Bermuda greens) categories. Scott is maturing nicely by taking a little off his driving; he's now hitting more fairways and far more greens in regulation where he sits 32nd (up 48 spots) in 2013 performance. You think that's good? Well Scott has also jumped up from 165th to 38th in Strokes Gained Putting and over 40 spots in Scrambling, plus interestingly sits 3rd in the Par 5 Birdie or Better category. That's vital on a course where that past 3 champions have shot a combined total of -23 on the Par 5s. Growing maturity in tough conditions, married to better consistency and sheer scoring ability, marks Stallings to be awesome three-digit value this week at a course where, in his rookie season, he finished 3rd in 2011. A 3rd PGA Tour win this week would also get him into the Augusta field where he notably finished 27th on debut last April.
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