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VALSPAR CHAMPIONSHIP: The PGA Tour returns to Florida this week for the Valspar Championship, an event that has grown in prestige in its 21 years of existence and now features a first-class field that includes the top two players in the world, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas.

The precise reasons for this tournament’s surge in popularity are difficult to pin down, but I’m certain that a lot of it has to do with the venue, Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course, a demanding test that will be excellent preparation for some of the major championship courses that the players will see in the coming months. At 7,340 yards, the Copperhead Course certainly isn’t short, but this won’t be a “bombers only” week, as several holes force the players to essentially hit the ball in the same spot off the tee, and there aren’t many places where the longer guys can let loose. We’ve seen a mixture of styles prevail here over the past few years, but when you look at the last four winners– Paul Casey, Adam Hadwin, Charl Schwartzel, and Jordan Spieth– it’s clear that prodigious length off the tee is not necessary to succeed.

So… what are we looking for? Well, good iron play, a good short game, and a knack for playing hard courses well would be a good place to start. The Copperhead Course is no joke– only once in the past eight stagings of this tournament has the victor posted a score lower than 10-under, and the cutline is frequently over par. With sticky Bermuda rough lining narrow fairways, water hazards in play on several holes, and small, firm, well-bunkered greens, you’d better bring your A-game this week, so good recent form is an absolute must for me. Paul Casey triumphed in both 2018 and 2019, and with the pandemic forcing the cancellation of the tournament last year, he’s still the defending champ. They say good things come in threes, but he’s a bit short for my liking at 27.0, though that price will feel like a bargain if he gets off to a good start.

We’re fresh off a winner with Cam Smith and Marc Leishman taking home the trophy in New Orleans last week, and real money was involved (happily!), so this week has that freeroll kinda feel, and I like our chances:

WIN MARKET

Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)

Viktor Hovland (22.0)- This will be Hovland’s debut at the Valspar, which is less than ideal, obviously, but his superlative ball-striking should make him a great fit for a course like Copperhead that demands tee-to-green precision. This will be the toughest tee-to-green test the players have had since The Concession a few weeks ago, and Hovland fared extremely well there, finishing runner-up. Over his last nine starts he has a victory and three other top-5 finishes, and he bounced back from a couple of off weeks at Bay Hill and The Players with top-25s at the Masters and the Zurich, so his game is in good shape, and with so much success already this season, he’ll feel very comfortable if in contention on Sunday afternoon. Hovland is a blue-chip option this week and should be given serious consideration at better than 20/1.

Charley Hoffman (62.0)- A natural ball-striker who is at his best on difficult courses, Hoffman has enjoyed some success in this tournament, finding the top-25 three times in his last six appearances. That means he knows the best way around the Copperhead Course, so it’s only a matter of execution, and lately Hoffman’s execution has been pretty tremendous, as he’s found the top-25 in 5 of his past 7 starts and has put together some brilliant ball-striking rounds, particularly over his last three tournaments. His putting can be a little shaky at times, but he’s had some great success on Bermuda greens over the course of his career, with his last two PGA Tour victories both coming on Bermuda. There’s just a lot to like about Hoffman this week… he’s playing good golf, striking it beautifully, and he’s had success in this tournament before. He’s an excellent value at a price like 62.0.

Denny McCarthy (112.0)- Despite a well-earned reputation as a guy who makes his living on the greens, McCarthy’s ball-striking has improved tremendously over the course of this season and he’s enjoyed some good results of late, making five straight cuts and finishing 26th or better three times in that span, including a T3 at the Honda Classic. He finished 13th at the Heritage last time out, so he’s got some momentum on his side, and now he gets another week on the Bermuda, where he’s been thriving. Perhaps most importantly, he’s already shown the ability to tame the Copperhead Course, finishing T9 on debut here back in 2019. If you’re looking for a long-odds dark horse this week, you may want to check out a guy who is playing well lately, finished top-10 in this tournament last time out, and happens to be the best putter on Tour. I’m all over McCarthy at this price.