Wednesday, March 7, 2018

PGA Tour Preview: Tiger and Jordan Take on the Copperhead

By Kevin Krest

Last Week

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, entering last week's tournament, had combined for 121 career PGA Tour victories, but none since 2013. That all changed when Justin Thomas missed a par putt on the first hole of a sudden death playoff to give Mickelson the win in the WGC Mexico Championship.

At the age of 47, Mickelson is playing some of the best golf of his career, with four consecutive top-six finishes. Mickelson's victory overshadowed a record tying 16 under par weekend by Thomas, highlighted by a fourth round ending eagle from the fairway to get him into the playoff.

Despite a course that plays extremely short by PGA standards due to the 7,800 foot altitude, no one except Thomas was able to post a really low score. The winning score of 16 under could have been a lot lower, but the tight fairways and strategically placed water hazards gave the course enough teeth to keep from yielding anything lower than a Thomas' 62.

The story for the first three days was 21-year-old Shubhankar Sharma, who held the 54-hole lead, but eventually felt the final round pressure when paired with his idol Phil Mickelson. He faded to a tie for 9th after a closing 74, but the young player from India was rewarded this week with a sponsor's exemption to the Masters Tournament. Not bad.

This Week

Valspar Championship
Palm Harbor, Florida
Innisbrook Resort (Copperhead) - Par 71

History

The tournament began in 2000 as the Tampa Bay Classic and has had a myriad of title sponsors during its brief history. For the first several years, it was a fall event, many times held opposite World Golf Championships or Presidents Cups. Obviously, the scheduling had an impact on the depth of the field. Even with those challenges, the tournament has been won seven times by major champions and boasts a long list of quality winners, including Charl Schwartzel, Jordan Spieth, Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen, KJ Choi, Mark Calcavecchia, and Vijay Singh. Since 2007, the Valspar has occupied the spot on the schedule that was formerly held by The Players before it moved to its current May date. With The Players moving back to March, it will be interesting to see how the Valspar will be affected.

2018 Field

* Seventeen of the top 26 finishers from last year's tournament are in the field

* Two of the top 10, 8 of the top 20, and 28 of the top 50 in FedEx Cup points

* Two of the top 10, 7 of the top 20, and 20 of the top 50 in the World Golf ranking

* Eighteen countries represented

* Twelve colleges have 3 or more former players represented: Florida (6), Georgia Tech (6), Alabama (3), Arizona State (3), Auburn (3), Clemson (3), Georgia (3), Illinois (3), Oklahoma State (3), SMU (3), UNLV (4), Yonsei (3)

Oldest player

Davis Love III (53)

Youngest Player

Ty Strafaci (19)

Major Champions (23)

Tiger Woods (14), Rory McIlroy (4), Ernie Els (4), Jordan Spieth (3), Padraig Harrington (3), Zach Johnson (2), Retief Goosen (2), Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Chrl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia, Lucas Glover, Graeme McDowell, Jimmy Walker, Geoff Ogilvy, Jason Dufner, Henrik Stenson, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III

Total Tour Victories

438 (Tiger Woods, 79)

Total Major Victories

48 (Tiger Woods, 14)

Who's Hot

With only two of the top 10 in the FedEx points race in the tournament, there aren't a lot of hot players in the field. Tony Finau, while not necessarily red hot, has been very consistent with only one missed cut and three top-10 finishes in the 2017-2018 season. He began last Sunday in contention, but shot a final round 74 to finish in a tie for 27th. The 28-year-old has one career victory and two runner-up finishes this season, so with his length he's poised to collect another win soon.

Who's Not

Camillo Villegas is 408th in the world and 137th in the FedEx Cup points standings. His last of four PGA Tour victories came at the 2014 Wyndham Championship. With three missed cuts and only one finish better than a tie for 36th this season, he needs to find something to improve his game. Statistically, he ranks no better than 84th, and that is in sand saves. In every other category, he is around 180th or worse. It's actually impressive that he is as high as he is on the money list (124th) and FedEx Cup points standings.

What to Look For

Because of the way the schedule worked out for Tiger Woods, he almost had no choice but to play in this tournament for the first time. Since he's not eligible for the WGC events, that meant last week and the match play in two weeks are off the table. Woods never plays the week before a major, so it left the Valspar in which for him to compete along with the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which he has practically owned since coming on The Tour.

Woods wasn't alone in scheduling to play the Valspar, as 26 of the 38 players currently between 12th and 49th in the FedEx Cup are in the field, clearly the deepest at this event in recent memory. Innisbrook's Copperhead course reminds me a lot of Augusta, with pine tree-lined fairways and some changes in elevation, or at least as much as you can have on a Florida coastal golf course. It doesn't take a lot of length to win at the Copperhead, but big hitting Gary Woodland is a past champion.

Last week in Mexico, Jordan Spieth still exhibited some putting problems, but showed signs of getting back to form on the greens. He'll be teeing it up the first two days with Tiger Woods and Henrik Stenson, clearly the showcase group. The winner could come out of that trio, but I also like Tony Finau, Chez Reavie, Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, and Austin Cook as contenders.

Kevin Krest is the author of the entertaining PK Frazier series of sports suspense novels and the co-host of the weekly "The Cold Hard Truth: On Sports" broadcast. His books can be found on Amazon.com.

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