PGA Tour best bets: Valspar Championship

March 15, 2022 09:01 PM
USATSI_17891434

After two days of nasty weather that led to 17 hours of rain delays, The Players Championship finally concluded late Monday afternoon with Cameron Smith becoming the third two-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2022 (Hideki Matsuyama, Scottie Scheffler). Smith, at a price of 30-1, won by one stroke over 500-1 long shot Anirban Lahiri, who came into the week ranked No. 322 in the OWGR. Smith, who took home the largest payout in golf history at $3.6 million, led the field for Strokes Gained: Putting ( 11.5 strokes) and had 42 one-putts. The Australian's 4.14 strokes gained on the greens in the final round were the most by any PGA Tour winner in more than two years. He had 10 birdies in Monday’s final round and only four pars, the fewest number of pars in the final round by any PGA Tour winner in the last 40 years. Smith was also terrific with his irons, ranking fifth in the field in Strokes Gained: Approach and first in Average Approach Proximity from 50 to 125 yards. That made up for ranking 68th out of 70 for Strokes Gained: Off The Tee, the worst ranking by a PGA Tour winner in the last 15 years. 

Smith will not be a part of this week's field at the Valspar Championship near Tampa, but he looks to be a big-time contender for the Masters next month with three top-10 finishes in his last four appearances at Augusta. 

Justin Thomas (9-1), the tournament favorite at the Valspar, has played here four times with just one top 10 (2015) and settled for a 33rd-place finish last week despite having his best round in the worst of the weather conditions. Viktor Hovland (11-1) looked like he was going to be the first to post a number Monday before settling for a ninth-place finish after a runner-up at Bay Hill. Hovland finished third here last year, shooting the low round on Sunday with a 65. Dustin Johnson (14-1) has gone more than a year without a win anywhere on the planet but shot the low round at The Players with a 63 on Monday to finish ninth.

Louis Oosthuizen (20-1) was three strokes back entering the final round Monday but a 76 dropped him to 42nd. Oosthuizen, still seeking his first professional win on American soil, was the runner-up here in 2019 to Paul Casey (22-1). Casey, a back-to-back winner at the Valspar (2018, 2019), comes in off a third-place finish last week but must be wondering what might have been after a beautiful drive on the par-5 16th ended up wedged down in a ball mark. Xander Schauffele (22-1), making his first appearance at the Valspar, comes in off a missed cut largely due to being on the bad end of the weather draw.

Defending Valspar champion Sam Burns (22-1) was in the second-to-last group with Smith and Casey but shot 76 in the final round and fell to 26th.

The Event

The Valspar Championship was founded as the Tampa Bay Classic in 2000. Originally, the tournament was a fall event but moved to the spring portion of the season in 2007. Three players have won this event multiple times, including K.J. Choi (2002, 2006), Retief Goosen (2003, 2009) and Paul Casey (2018, 2019). Other winners include major champions such as Jordan Spieth, Charl Schwartzel, Gary Woodland, Jim Furyk, Mark Calcavecchia and Vijay Singh. 

The Course

The Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club is in Palm Harbor, Florida, about 22 miles north of downtown St. Petersburg and west of Tampa. 

Copperhead is a tree-lined, positional golf course that forces many layups off the tee and asks players to work the ball in both directions. It’s a shot-maker’s course with some significant elevation changes that will open the playing field to bombers and plodders.

The 1974 Larry Packard design is atypical of most Florida courses. The par-71 of 7,340 yards is tight off the tee (fifth-narrowest fairways on tour) and has more of a Carolina feel. Water is in play on six holes and the course has 74 bunkers. There are five par-3s, which is unique for a par-71 layout. 

The “Snake Pit” is the signature stretch of closing holes (Nos. 16-18). Pars are good scores all four days on the final three holes, where players make birdies at a 10% rate and bogeys 22% of the time. No Valspar winner has played the “Snake Pit” under par. 

The fairways and rough (3 inches) are Bermudagrass overseeded with some Rye. The green complexes were changed to TifEagle Bermudagrass in 2016. The 6,000 square-foot greens are Bermuda with Poa Trivialis overseed and they’re fast (12 stimpmeter). 

Six of the past eight years, the winner has finished no better than 10-under par. Over the past five events, the scoring average is 0.81-over par, ranking it as the tour’s fifth-toughest annual course in the span. Copperhead has yielded the second-fewest number of eagles and the fewest birdies.

Correlated courses include TPC Sawgrass, Harbour Town, Riviera, Colonial, TPC Southwind and TPC River Highlands. 

Recent History/Winners

— 2021: Sam Burns (-17/267); 70-1

— 2020: No Tournament (COVID-19)

— 2019: Paul Casey (-8/276); 25-1

— 2018: Paul Casey (-10/274); 25-1

— 2017: Adam Hadwin (-14/270); 125-1

— 2016: Charl Schwartzel (-8/276); 33-1*

— 2015: Jordan Spieth (-10/274); 16-1**

— 2014: John Senden (-7/277); 125-1

— 2013: Kevin Streelman (-10/274); 200-1

— 2012: Luke Donald (-13/271); 11-1***

— 2011: Gary Woodland (-15/269); 100-1

— 2010: Jim Furyk (-13/271); 30-1

Playoff win over Bill Haas*

Playoff win over Sean O'Hair and Patrick Reed**

Playoff win over SangMoon Bae, Jim Furyk and Robert Garrigus***

Statistical Analysis

Strokes Gained: Approach (Last 24 Rounds)

Four of the last five winners at the Valspar have ranked seventh or better in the field for Strokes Gained: Approach during their winning weeks. Copperhead is the eighth-most difficult annual course on the PGA Tour to gain strokes on approach. 

— 1. Viktor Hovland, 22.9

— 2. Russell Knox, 21.1

— 3. Shane Lowry, 20.3

— 4. Cameron Percy, 17.9

— 5. Justin Thomas, 17.6

— 6. Patton Kizzire, 17.6

— 7. Luke Donald, 17.5

— 8. Keegan Bradley, 17.1

— 9. Martin Kaymer, 14.8

— 10. Adam Hadwin, 14.2

— 11. Alex Noren, 13.2

— 12. Martin Laird, 12.7

GIR Gained (Last 24 Rounds)

The Copperhead course at Innisbrook is one of the hardest courses to hit greens in regulation (56.2%). The tour average for GIR over the last five years is 65.6%.

— 1. Russell Knox, 39

— 2. Adam Svensson, 25

— 3. Viktor Hovland, 23.4

— 4. Martin Laird, 22.4

— 5. Justin Thomas, 22.4

— 6. Jhonattan Vegas, 20.5

— 7. Collin Morikawa, 20.2

— 8. Aaron Wise, 19.8

— 9. Shane Lowry, 19.1

— 10. Doc Redman, 16.8

— 11. Patton Kizzire, 16.6

— 12. C.T. Pan, 16.1

Proximity Gained 175-200 Yards (Last 24 Rounds)

Due to the forced layups off the tee and players sacrificing distance for accuracy, players have approach shots between 175 and 200 yards about 54% of the time. 

— 1. Martin Kaymer, 12.8 (feet gained per shot)

— 2. Shane Lowry, 12.5

— 3. Adam Hadwin, 12.4

— 4. Viktor Hovland, 11.8

— 5. Abraham Ancer, 11.2

— 6. Vaughn Taylor, 11

— 7. Max McGreevy, 10.7

— 8. Justin Thomas, 10.6

— 9. Taylor Moore, 10.5

— 10. Mito Pereira, 9.6

— 11. Keegan Bradley, 9.2

— 12. Brooks Koepka, 9.1

Good Drives Gained (Last 24 Rounds)

With all of the doglegs and forced layups, players must be able to work the ball in both directions off the tee. 

— 1. Martin Laird, 41.1

— 2. Russell Knox, 29.7

— 3. Alex Smalley, 27.3

— 4. Brian Stuard, 25.2

— 5. Viktor Hovland, 24.5

— 6. Hayden Buckley, 23.5

— 7. Matthew NeSmith, 22.1

— 8. Joel Dahmen, 21.7

— 9. Adam Svensson, 18.8

— 10. Jim Herman, 17.8

— 11. Brian Harman, 16.6

— 12. Jason Kokrak, 16.6

Strokes Gained Par 5s (Last 24 Rounds)

The par-5s at Copperhead rank among the toughest on tour, averaging 4.77 strokes. While they offer few eagle opportunities, they are still the best option for making birdies.

— 1. Matthew Fitzpatrick, 18.2

— 2. Viktor Hovland, 15.3

— 3. Pat Perez, 13

— 4. Dustin Johnson, 10.5

— 5. Cameron Percy, 10.4

— 6. Tyrrell Hatton, 10.5

— 7. Sam Ryder, 9.9

— 8. Gary Woodland, 9.9

— 9. Sahith Theegala, 9.4

— 10. Lanto Griffin, 9.1

— 11. Sam Burns, 8.9

— 12. Martin Kaymer, 8.8

Strokes Gained Par 3s 200-225 Yards (Last 24 Rounds)

Each of the five par-3s measures more than 195 yards and the set is among the most difficult on tour with a 3.13 stroke average. Each green is small and surrounded by thick rough or water. Most of the time, players just need to survive these holes. 

— 1. Brendon Todd, 7.4

— 2. Brice Garnett, 6.8

— 3. Vaughn Taylor, 6.1

— 4. Zach Johnson, 5.7

— 5. Denny McCarthy, 5.6

— 6. Nate Lashley, 4.9

— 7. Martin Laird, 4.6

— 8. Danny Lee, 4.3

— 9. Andrew Landry, 3.9

— 10. Viktor Hovland, 3.8

— 11. Nick Taylor, 3.7

— 12. Lee Hodges, 3.5

Birdie Or Better Gained (Last 24 Rounds)

The tour average for birdie-or-better percentage over the last five years is 20.3%. That percentage drops to 16% at Copperhead. 

— 1. Viktor Hovland, 26.4

— 2. Justin Thomas, 20.4

— 3. Lanto Griffin, 17.3

— 4. Danny Lee, 16.7

— 5. Dustin Johnson, 16.6

— 6. Mackenzie Hughes, 15.8

— 7. Adam Svensson, 15.6

— 8. Collin Morikawa, 15.2

— 9. Harold Varner III, 14.9

— 10. Xander Schauffele, 13.5

— 11. Pat Perez, 13.5

— 12. Keegan Bradley, 12.7

Selections 

Dustin Johnson (16-1)

It has been more than a year since DJ has won a golf tournament. Perhaps his upcoming wedding later this year has been a distraction, but he has dropped to No. 10 in the world. However, he might have found something Monday at The Players. Johnson was on the wrong side of the weather draw but still rallied to finish ninth with a 63. In the final round, he led the field in Strokes Gained: Putting, was third for Strokes Gained: Tee To Green and fourth for Strokes Gained: Approach. He has won on three correlated courses this week (TPC River Highlands, TPC Southwind and Riviera). 

Matt Fitzpatrick (33-1)

Fitzpatrick was on the wrong side of the weather draw and missed the cut last week at The Players. However, he had great form prior to that dating to his runner-up at the DP World Tour Championship to close out 2021. He started 2022 with a sixth at Pebble Beach, 10th at Phoenix and ninth at Bay Hill. Copperhead is a more undulating version of Harbour Town, which Fitzpatrick calls his favorite course on tour. Matt will not be the only Fitzpatrick in the field as younger brother Alex, who plays at Wake Forest, received an entry as the winner of the Valspar Collegiate Invitational last year. 

Keegan Bradley (45-1)

Bradley would have been a deserved winner last week at The Players. He finished fifth while playing on the bad side of the weather draw and took an unfortunate two-stroke penalty on Friday. He was the 54-hole leader at Copperhead last year before settling for a runner-up finish. This is the type of tournament Bradley can win, where ball striking, the strength of his game, is a bigger factor than putting. That’s why Paul Casey, who has a similar game to Bradley, has won twice here.

Bubba Watson (50-1)

Watson finished 13th here last year and fourth in 2019. He has shown some signs of life with a runner-up in Saudi Arabia and a 14th in Phoenix. Six of his 12 PGA Tour victories have come at TPC River Highlands or Riviera, both correlated courses.

Gary Woodland (60-1)

Woodland missed the cut last week but had consecutive fifth-place finishes at the Honda and Bay Hill before that. He is a former champion at the Valspar (2011). 

Adam Hadwin (60-1)

Hadwin is another former champion here (2017). The Canadian finished ninth at The Players and flew up the leaderboard with a final-round 67, claiming his first top 10 of the year.

Russell Knox (70-1)

Knox finished sixth last week. He is at or near the top of most of the modeled statistics this week, including Strokes Gained: Approach, GIR Gained, Strokes Gained: Ball Striking and Good Drives Gained. 

Martin Kaymer (150-1)

Kaymer has only played in one event in 2022 due to the birth of his first child. He missed the cut at the Honda Classic but at least shook off some rust. His iron game looked good in the second round at the Honda, and he should flourish on a track which requires longish approaches from 175-200 yards.

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