Valspar Championship: Course Insight 

The PGA Tour returns to Florida this week for the 17th playing of the Valspar Championship. Six of the top-25 players in the World will tee it up on the par 71, 7,340 yard Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club including Henrik Stenson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, and defending champion Charl Schwartzel.

Welcome to the Snake Pit

In 2013, when the event was called the Tampa Bay Championship, Kevin Streelman set a Tour record for consecutive closing birdies by a winner with seven. Valspar has never crowned a back-to-back champion, and only three of the 16 defending champions have finished in the top-10 the following season. Eight of the last nine Valspar champions finished in the top-30 in the FedEx Cup the year of their victory.

Copperhead is a shot-maker’s course with plenty of risk-reward situations that demand attention on every swing. It was the third most difficult non-major course last season. Rolling terrain, Cypress lined Bermuda fairways, and a fistful of water hazards mandate players hit certain spots and landing areas to position themselves for the best angles on approach.

Double-doglegs, startling elevation changes, and quick, undulating greens will identify the best ball-strikers and expose the weakest. You’ll see a lot of 4, 5, and 6 irons into the greens this week. Greens-In-Regulation will be an important statistic. Distance off the tee will only be an advantage on a few select holes, so don’t expect anyone to overpower the course. The 607 yard, par-5, 5th is almost impossible to reach in two, and didn’t surrender a single eagle last year.

No. 16 at Copperhead, one of the toughest on tour

Historically, the toughest hole on the course has been the par-4, 475 yard 16th. The easiest hole has been the par-5, 560 yard 1st. Last season the most difficult hole was the par-3, 200 yard 13th, surrendering only 25 birdies while dishing out 135 bogeys or worse. The easiest hole remained No.1, allowing 180 birdies but serving up only 34 bogeys or worse.

The treacherous stretch of closing holes on Nos. 16, 17, and 18, known as “The Snake Pit,” ranked in the top-5 most difficult finishing holes last year on Tour. Players needing to make birdies coming in will have their work cut out for them. Precision and control is required off the tee on No. 16 if players are going to avoid big numbers. The hole doglegs right with water stretching along almost the entire right side. Murky, close-set trees protect the left. This is one of the best risk-reward holes on the entire course.

Bunkers galore on No.18

Conservative players can take water out of play by using a wood off the tee and targeting the widest part of the fairway. Using driver over the water will give more aggressive players a shorter approach to the elevated green protected by two front bunkers. The landing area is narrower and the risk of running through the fairway is something that has to be considered.

The par-3, 215-yard 17th hole features a large, but very narrow green with a sharp falloff on the front. It’s the most heavily protected green on the course with bunkers guarding the left, right, and back. Shots played to the center of the green will hold, but short side misses almost guarantee a bogey.

No. 18 is a 445 yard, par 4 with a large splatter shaped bunker protecting the left side of the fairway, and four church-pew bunkers protecting the right. Approach shots into the elevated green will have to avoid massive bunkers guarding the green in front and left. The green slopes downhill from back to front, so players will want to stay below the hole for any pin placement.

Player to Watch

Justin Thomas bounced back nicely last week at the WGC-Mexico Championship but struggled finding greens all four days. So the question this week will be, “Which Thomas shows up?” The one who barely hit 50% of the greens in Mexico, or the one who’s been hitting them 72% of the time this season. Thomas has proven this year he has total control over his golf ball most of the time. Expect him to be in contention again this weekend.

Winner Prediction

Henrik Stenson is the top-ranked player in the field and finished T11 and fourth in his previous two appearances at Valspar. Stenson withdrew last week in Mexico with a stomach virus, but the big Swede is an iron-flushing machine when he’s on. Valspar will only be Stenson’s his third start this season. Still, he’s in good early form hitting greens at an impressive clip of 77.8%, and finding fairways 83.9% of the time. Stenson’s precision and control should carry him to his first victory of the year.

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