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What an exceptional tournament the WGC-Mexico Championship was last week, with an exciting finish and a much deserved first win since the 2013 Open Championship for Phil Mickelson. It was clearly an emotional win for Phil who claimed his 3rd World Golf Championship title and his 43rd PGA Tour title, 4 years and 9 months after his last victory. Some hiatus that! Mickelson is now a 20/1 chance for The Masters, with Tiger Woods at 22/1. Justin Thomas shooting -16/126 across the weekend also highlighted the prodigious talent we are dealing with. He moves up to OWGR Number 2 now with a realistic chance of deposing Dustin Johnson in the near future.
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. Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Tiger Woods feature at a tournament which often comes down to the ability to grind and putt well on TifEagle Bermudagrass putting surfaces.
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 contains 4 par-5s and 5 par-3s which is highly 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 with Wadsworth renovation 2015. Course Type: Florida, Technical; Par: 71; Length: 7,340 yards; Holes with Water Hazards: 5; Fairways: Celebration Bermuda; Rough: Celebration Bermuda 3″; Greens: 6,100 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. 2017: 71.51 (+0.51), Rank 17 of 50 courses.
Fairway Widths (yards): Below are the fairway widths for the Copperhead Course and how they compare to recent courses on Tour:
Course Overview: The Copperhead course restoration in 2016 has not changed the characteristics of the challenge that players face. New green complexes, which still feature TifEagle Bermudagrass overseeded with Poa Trivialis, are slightly larger than original at 6,100 sq.ft average. But if turf conditions are firm and wind is a factor, a single-digit score under par is always likely to be a target for victory. 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 that is exactly what the field this week will get.
The 2017 renewal featured the following statistics: Greens in Regulation: 8th toughest on the 2016/17 PGA Tour; Going for the Green: 4th toughest; Birdie Average: 6th toughest; Par 3 Scoring Average: 11th toughest; Par 4 Scoring Average 13th toughest; Par 5 Scoring Average: 10th toughest; Putting Average: 23rd toughest. Now these figures relate to a year when the course played relatively easily due to tranquil conditions – it was the 17th easiest course on Tour last season. 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.
Winners: 2017: Adam Hadwin (-14); 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).
Published Predictor Model: Our published predictor is available here. You can build your own model using the variables listed on the left hand side. Top 10 of my published predictor are Jordan Spieth, Webb Simpson, Cameron Smith, Zach Johnson, Brian Gay, Chesson Hadley, Kevin Na, Brandt Snedeker, Chez Reavie and Kevin Streelman.
Recent Player Skill Rankings: These rankings are based on a 10-tournament window that stretches back to the Hero World Challenge / Australian PGA Championship / Mauritius Open and includes PGA Tour and European Tour events, plus the Hero World Challenge. Players must have played in a minimum of 2 Tour events to be included and rankings are based on performance relative to the rest of the field:
Winners & Prices: 2017: Hadwin 125/1; 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: 80/1. Past 4 Renewals Average: 87/1.
2017: Thursday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 75. Wind WNW 8-12 mph. Friday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 76. Wind WNW 10-15 mph. Saturday: Sunny, with a high of 80. Wind NNE 8-15 mph. Sunday: Mostly cloudy, with a high of 75. Wind WNW 5-10 mph.
2016: Thursday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 84 degrees. Wind SE 10-20 mph. Friday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 82 degrees. Wind SE 10-20 mph. Saturday: Mostly sunny, with a high of 83 degrees. Wind S-SE 10-20 mph. Sunday: Cloudy, with a high of 78 degrees. Wind SW 10-20 mph
2015: Thursday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 85. SW wind at 10-15 mph. Friday: Partly cloudy with a high of 86. Wind SW at 10-15 mph. Saturday: Partly cloudy, with the temperature reaching 83. Wind SSW at 10-15 mph, with gusts to 25 mph. Sunday: Partly cloudy, with a high of 85. WNW wind at 10 mph.
Weather Forecast: The latest weather forecast for Palm Harbor, Florida, is here. This part of north-west Florida hasn’t seen significant rainfall since the 4th February, but that’s likely to change Tuesday evening when thunderstorms are forecast. How soft that makes the course we can only guess, but the players will have plenty to tend with wind-wise. 16-22 mph north-westerly winds on Thursday will make Copperhead a proper test. Conditions calm slightly for Friday. I don’t see any particular advantage, but AM/PM may have the best of it. Saturday sees perfect conditions and temperatures warming to 22 degrees Celsius – it will certainly be moving day. Sunday though looks tough. Increasing wind gusting up to 40 mph will likely be in-play, but with afternoon thunderstorms mixed in, we could see a Monday finish. There does look like a weather window in the morning though. If Monday is required, winds at 8am are forecast to be 18-24 mph and they will only increase.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors: Analysing the final stats of the 8 winners of the Valspar Championship since 2010 gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Tournament Skill Averages:
• Driving Distance: 38th, Driving Accuracy: 35th, Greens in Regulation: 18th, Proximity to Hole: 28th, Scrambling: 20th, Putting Average 5th.
Let’s take a view from players as to how the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort sets up and what skill sets the course favours:
Adam Hadwin: “Yeah, it was a great day, I played really solid, a lot of fairways, a lot of greens again. Made a couple bombs that probably shouldn’t have gone in, but good speed and was able to pick the right line and just real solid golf tee-to-green. Every time I got off-line, I got myself back in position and when I was able to be aggressive, I was aggressive and hit good shots. Just striking it real solid right now, which is what you need it do around this Copperhead golf course. you get going sideways on this golf course, it’s tough enough that it will punish you and you can run up a tally pretty quickly. But the other side of things is that guys are going to have to shot a good score to catch you.“
Charl Schwartzel: “Well, the first time I played, I didn’t play very well. But you know, the more I played it, I felt like it’s a golf course where you need sort of experience to play. You need to learn how to play this golf course. It looks like an easy course, because it’s not very long on distance, but man, the way you’ve got to shape the shots, the way you’ve got to think, the variety of clubs you use, it’s just a really good golf course. You’ve got to really think your way around it, and you very seldom get the guy that plays badly otherwise. You’ve got to bring a good game here to compete.
Well, the Snake Pit is really only 16, if you’re asking me. 16 is a dangerous hole. Whatever makes you feel comfortable off the tee, whether it’s an iron just short in the fairway and a 3-wood, that’s fine. It’s avoiding the water and the trees on the left, really. You can’t bail. You hit left, you make bogey, anyways. You hit it in the water, you’re going to make probably double. So it’s getting it off the tee just in play and if you’re going to play that hole, 2-over for the week, you’re going to be in contention in this tournament. 17 and 18 is not really that difficult of holes. I mean, hitting 6-iron, 7-iron into 17, and 18 is your choice, what you want to do. If you drive it, you’ve got to wedge it. If you hit 2-iron off the tee, you’ve got 8-iron in. To me, those holes are not that dangerous. But 16, be careful. Just get the ball in play.“
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 8 Valspar Championship winners:
Incoming form of winners since 2010:
First Round Leader Analysis: First round leader(s), their wave and winning score since 2010.
For the record, here’s the breakdown of Bermudagrass 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 8 years elite players Jim Furyk (2010), Luke Donald (2012), Jordan Spieth (2015) and Charl Schwartzel (2016) have all won here at Copperhead at relatively short odds. Furyk (30/1) had won the Chevron Challenge at Sherwood CC in the preceding December and was absolutely focused on winning his first PGA Tour title since 2007. Luke Donald (11/1), 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. Jordan Spieth (16/1) in 2015 had unbelievably gone 17 months since his only PGA Tour victory at the 2013 John Deere Classic. He was in decent form and had won the 2014 World Challenge played in Florida the previous November. Charl Schwartzel (30/1) 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.
However in Gary Woodland (2011), Kevin Streelman (2012), John Senden (2014) and Adam Hadwin (defending champion) we have 4 Valspar champions who had between the four of them only 1 PGA Tour victory previously. That was the 2006 John Deere Classic won by Australian Senden, 8 years prior to winning here. His price was 125/1. Naturally the other 3 winners were all PGA Tour maidens, winners at 100/1 (Woodland), 200/1 (Streelman) and 125/1 (Hadwin). It’s undoubtedly a broad spectrum of winners.
Copperhead, as ever, is likely to offer a very stern test for a stronger than usual field in Tampa this week. So I’m looking for players who are in-form with the putter, who are comfortable wind players and who have shown the ability this season to manage their games and scramble well.
My selections are as follows:
Ryan Moore 1.5pt EW 40/1 with Coral
At the top of the market I think there are question marks against the top 2 this week. Jordan Spieth’s record here undoubtedly highlights that his game is perfect for Copperhead, but I’m still very much in the camp that his new putting routine is far from ingrained. I was as shocked as you may well be reading this to find him at 163rd in this season’s Strokes Gained Putting category and although it might click at anytime, I’m certainly not convinced at a single-digit price. Rory McIlroy has never played this tournament – the very fact that he is actually playing probably tells the story just as well as I can as to where his game is right now. Sergio and Justin will have their supporters this week, but at a course where the average Putts per GIR position of the last 8 champions has been 5th (even John Senden was 12th for Putts per GIR in 2014) – you cannot afford to have a weakness with the putter, especially from the key 5 to 10 feet range. So I’m dipping a little deeper in the betting market this week.
Ryan Moore ticks plenty of boxes this week at a course where he tends to play well. At a test where scoring is likely to be difficult, an experienced level-head is no bad thing. 8th (2007), 19th (2009), 5th (2015), 3rd (2016) and 18th (2017) highlight a player comfortable on the Copperhead course. The 54 hole leader in 2015, Moore was asked about what is required to win here, “This course always plays tough. It’s not one where somebody runs away and shoots 18 or 20-under on this golf course or to my knowledge. But, yeah, I mean it’s just a course, you know, shooting 2, 3-under on it is a really good golf score every single day and I was surprised, I don’t know if I’m tied for the lead or leading it, I don’t know, but I’m 9-under which is 3-under a day. Control my ball really nicely. I did give myself enough birdie chances throughout the day. You know, got to keep doing exactly what I’m doing. Just playing good, solid golf. Kind of believe that’s what wins around this golf course.“
5 PGA Tour victories for Moore shows that he can get the job done on his given day and undoubtedly Ryan will be motivated to keep the recent momentum going as at 71st in the OWGR he needs a strong performance to get a spot in the Dell World Match Play. Moore topped Greens in Regulation at a windswept PGA National 2 weeks ago and was 4th for Strokes Gained Putting at Riviera the week before that where he finished 8th. Ryan shot -3/68 across Thursday/Friday to be 3rd at 36 holes, so he’s clearly playing some nice stuff as 14th for Scoring Average, 35th for Bogey Avoidance, 9th for Scrambling from the Rough and 33rd for Strokes Gained Putting highlight more than adequately. I love Ryan’s correlating course form, much of which mirrors Spieth-positive tracks such as Kapalua, TPC River Highlands, Deere Run, Sedgefield and East Lake. RESULT: MC
Webb Simpson 1.25pt EW 50/1 with Betfair
Webb Simpson could certainly be put in the hungry elite player bracket. Ensconced in the OWGR top-50 since the Wyndham Championship last August, the 2012 U.S Open champion has been playing some great stuff. 3rd that week in Sedgefield, he also finished 6th at Glen Oaks, 9th at Conway Farms and 13th at East Lake. Big tournaments on old-style golf courses. 2018 has started well enough for Simpson who is caddied by the experienced Paul Tesori. 4th at Waialae and 5th a fortnight ago at PGA National highlight a player in cracking nick on Bermudagrass greens. The metamorphosis of Simpson as a player is also a key to his selection this week, as Webb has seriously turned his putting into a huge plus point these days. 6th for Strokes Gained Putting, 25th for Putting Average, 23rd for Putting from 5-10 feet and 4th in my 10-week Putts per GIR tracker highlight a player who’s putting with confidence. Asked about his new putting strokes at the recent Honda Classic after a 3rd Round -4/66 in the wind saw him enter Sunday in 2nd place, Simpson said, “Yeah, I am proud. I started this method about nine months ago and I feel really comfortable. It’s always nice to see the ball go in the hole, so hopefully they will keep falling tomorrow.“
He now arrives at a course where he’s had success in the past. 13th (2010), 2nd (2011), 10th (2012) and 17th (2013) tells you how compatible Simpson is with the Copperhead layout. Asked in 2011 about his views on the test here, Simpson replied, “Yeah, I won a junior tournament here when I was 15, so I’ve always felt good on the golf course. But it’s like a longer, harder Hilton Head and I love that golf course; tree-lined fairways. I feel great out here.” Simpson for me is due a win soon and will clearly be motivated to add a 5th PGA Tour victory to his CV almost 4 and a half years after his last victory at TPC Summerlin in 2013. 5th in Bogey Avoidance and 8th in Scoring Average this season suggests it’s about selecting Webb on the right course. RESULT: T8
Cameron Smith 1.25pt EW 50/1 with Coral
One I’ve liked for this for a couple of months is Cameron Smith. A top-notch putter and short game star, Cameron must be hungry this week to play well at a course that will undoubtedly suit him. 2016 saw him start well here before falling away, but one thing we know about the 24 year-old is that he’s a quick learner. I like Smith for a number of reasons this week. He’s hitting enough greens to be a factor and his short-game is mighty impressive, something which seems a must for Copperhead. He’s also having a great season: 5th at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, 3rd at the windy CJ Cup in South Korea, 4th at the Australian Open at the Australian Club and a win at Royal Pines at the Australian PGA Championship on the European Tour was a fantastic autumn of golf.
2018 has continued to produce: 17th at Kapalua, 18th at Waialae, 20th at Torrey Pines and last time out a 6th at Riviera where he went 41 holes without a bogey on one of the fastest and toughest courses on Tour. That encapsulates Smith’s chances in an instant – he can grind with the best of them as 4th at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay highlights. He’s also very comfortable on Bermudagrass greens. A first PGA Tour win courtesy of his victory when partnering Jonas Blixt at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans last year was on Bermudagrass Poa Trivialis greens and his maiden main Tour solo victory in December came on TifEagle Bermudagrass greens. His liking makes sense as he grew up in Brisbane and lives in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m also a believer that he must be driven to generate a first solo victory in the United States as quickly as possible and at 52nd in the OWGR he’s still to earn a Masters invite. 5th in Bogey Avoidance, 16th in Scoring Average, 39th in par-5 Birdie or Better and 4th in Scrambling, he was also 14th in Strokes Gained on Approach and 3rd in Proximity to Hole at Riviera. RESULT: T46
Chez Reavie 1pt EW 66/1 with Coral
Chez Reavie is another who I’m going to follow this week at a course where he’s had some success in the past. As many have said in the past, playing well tends to take care of what opportunities are forthcoming in professional golf and Reavie is enjoying some of those delights at the moment. Within the top 10 of the FedEx Cup, Chez enjoyed a rare WGC outing in Mexico last week and at 48th in the OWGR – I must admit I was shocked too – Reavie will play in his first WGC Dell Matchplay in a few weeks time. However it’s Chez’s profile that I really like this week for a couple of reasons. Firstly he needs to stay in the OWGR top 50 to earn his 4th outing at The Masters and secondly he could be one of those rare winners who strikes it lucky at Innisbrook, similar to John Senden in 2014. Reavie won the RBC Canadian Open in 2008 and has been winless ever since, but undoubtedly he’s playing the best golf of his career. 4th at FedEx St Jude Classic, 16th at the U.S. Open, 10th at the Northern Trust and 12th at the BMW Championship last year highlighted that Reavie was starting to play well and also be able to mix it on courses where scoring is earned. February though saw Chez finish 2nd in a playoff to Gary Woodland at TPC Scottsdale and then a week later he was again runner-up at Pebble Beach. The putter is undoubtedly hot and he ranks 6th for Bogey Avoidance, 26th for Scoring Average, 17th for Greens in Regulation, 15th for Strokes Gained on Approach and 9th for Scrambling, plus Reavie was 9th for Putts per GIR here 12 months ago. Has all of the correlating course form I want to see at places like PGA West, Colonial, Deere Run and Sedgefield. RESULT: MC
Charley Hoffman 1pt EW 100/1 with Coral
Charley Hoffman could be the sort who goes very well this week at triple-digit price. A sporadic performer at selected venues on the West Coast (PGA West, Torrey Pines and Riviera since 2011), Hoffman often warms to the task as we move into the bulk of the season. Form of 35(Torrey)-26(Scottsdale)-WD(Pebble)-41(Riviera)-20(Mexico) in 2018 gets us the price we are seeing, but I like his chances at Copperhead this week. A first visit to the classical, tree-lined Chapultepec saw the Las Vegas, Nevada man spring into life with a -5/66 in Round 2 getting the World Number 25 into semi-contention. More noticeable was that Hoffman ranked 4th for Greens in Regulation in Mexico City and that’s something I really like at the Valspar as course conditions should be right up his street. With heavy rain forecast for Wednesday and after play Saturday, Copperhead is likely to play softer than organisers would like and with wind also a factor across Thursday and Sunday, Charley should like this challenge.
4th at Riviera (-11/263), 4th at Bay Hill (-10/278), 8th at the Erin Hills U.S. Open (-9/279) and 3rd at Firestone South (-10/278) in 2017 all came at sterner tests in 2017 and let’s not forget Charley’s run at Augusta where he led after 36 holes and was still in contention on Saturday evening. 54 hole positions of 8th (2007), 7th (2014) and 3rd in the windswept 2016 renewal also provides encouragement. With plenty of top-level finishes under his belt these days, you get the feeling that if Hoffman can get in a similar position this week, he’d make it stick for a decent finish. RESULT: MC
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