VALSPAR CHAMPIONSHIP: The PGA Tour returns to Florida this week for the Valspar Championship, a once-minor event that has steadily grown in prestige over the past few years and now boasts a first-class field that features the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, and even Tiger Woods, who will be teeing it up here for the first time in his illustrious career.

The precise reasons for the tournament’s growing profile are difficult to pin down, especially since it’s now held the week after the WGC-Mexico, making the travel a bit laborious for some of the sport’s top names. But one factor is undoubtedly the venue— Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course has been roundly praised by the players, gaining a reputation as a track that tests every facet of your game; a thinking man’s golf course that requires a sound strategy, shotmaking, and some creativity around the greens.

At a time when scaling back the distance a golf ball flies seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the Copperhead Course is proof that quality design, tight fairways, and firm greens are all that’s required to give the best players in the world fits, as last year Adam Hadwin became the first player since 2012 to post a winning score lower than 10-under. At 7,340 yards, it isn’t short, but it’s certainly not a “bombers only” type of place— indeed, the big hitters aren’t able to use their length to their advantage much at Copperhead, as several holes force you to hit it in certain spots off the tee and the driver is seldom used. Trees, sticky Bermuda rough, and water hazards await wayward tee shots, and finding the small, knobby greens requires precision iron play, so quality ball-strikers who excel on Bermuda grass should be at the top of the list this week.

Hadwin is back to defend and is priced at a generous 41.0 at BETDAQ despite the fact that he’s coming off top-10 finishes in each of his past two starts, including a T9 in Mexico last week. This can be attributed to the strength of the field– Spieth is the market leader at 9.6, and he’s followed by McIlroy (14.0), Garcia (18.5), Rose (19.5), and Henrik Stenson, who has an excellent record at this event and is lurking at 22.0. There are some interesting names a little further down the board as well, and we’ve seen three long-odds types win this tournament in the past five years– Hadwin, John Senden (2014), and Kevin Streelman (2013).

Here’s what I’m thinking this week:


Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)

Sergio Garcia (18.5)- Garcia’s 7th-place finish in Mexico last week was his best result in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event since winning the Masters last year, but he really found his game again last fall, winning the Andalucia Masters and following that up with strong performances in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Australia. He’s now found the top-25 in five of his past seven worldwide starts, and based on his performance last week I think it’s safe to say that his tee-to-green brilliance is fully intact. This will be Sergio’s debut appearance at the Valspar, but the Copperhead Course should be a great fit for an elite ball-striker like him and he should be fully focused this week because it’ll be his last start before an extended break that coincides with the impending birth of his child. Will he make enough putts to win? That is always the question with Sergio, but considering his superior ball-striking and reasonable price, I’m willing to pay to find out.

Cameron Smith (52.0)- Smith is an excellent ball-striker with soft hands, and he’s absolutely rocketed up the world rankings over the past 18 months. Since winning the Australian Open in December, the 24-year old Aussie has posted top-20 finishes in six of seven starts, including a lovely T6 at Riviera three weeks ago that featured a third-round 65. He’s taken the past couple of weeks off, so he’ll be fresh and ready, and he seems like just the type of player who should excel at the Copperhead Course. This marks the third straight year that Smith has played this event, and though he’s 2/2 on cuts made, his best finish thus far is T42. But his best PGA Tour results have come on the Bermuda-covered courses of the Southeast U.S., and the fact that he’s playing this tournament again would lead you to believe that he feels like he can succeed at Copperhead. I’ve got a sneaky feeling about Smith this week and I advise you to give him serious consideration at a price like 52.0.

John Huh (138.0)- Huh has quietly gotten off to a solid start in 2018, making the cut in each of his past five events and finishing 3rd in the CareerBuilder Challenge. Considering he had missed 8 cuts in 13 starts prior to this recent stretch, he has to feel good about the current state of his game. Now he comes to a place that has treated him very well over the past few years: Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course. Huh’s 9th-place showing here last year was his best finish in 2017 (28 starts), and it marked the third consecutive year in which he’s found the top-35 in this event, with the results improving each year: T33 in 2015, T22 in 2016, and T9 last year. But this year, unlike in the past, he comes into this week with a bit of momentum. That makes him a tasty-looking proposition at nearly 140/1.


Tiger Woods (2.1) vs. Tony Finau (1.64)

Everyone is excited to see Tiger playing regularly again, and his 12th-place finish at the Honda two weeks ago has ratcheted up the excitement, prompting the more eager observers to suggest that this time he may be “back” for real. And while you can’t dismiss a solid outing on a tough course, it’s going to take more than one week on the fringes of contention to make me start believing again, especially after the depressing two days of golf we saw him play at Riviera, where he looked nothing like the Tiger of old. Finau is simply a better player than Woods right now, but there’s no shame in that– Finau is better than most guys on Tour and he’s off to a great start this season, with five finishes of 16th or better and a runner-up at the Genesis Open. It would be a genuine upset if he were to finish behind Tiger this week. Recommendation: Finau at 1.64

Paul Casey (2.0) vs. Justin Rose (1.8)

The Copperhead Course seems like it would be a good fit for a quality ball-striker like Paul Casey, but oddly it hasn’t worked out that way, as Casey has missed the cut in each of his past two appearances at this tournament and has never finished better that 37th. Rose, meanwhile, has finished 13th or better here three times in the past decade, most recently tying for 8th in 2014. Rose wasn’t at his best in Mexico last week, finishing a mediocre 37th, but prior to that he logged a T8 at the Farmers Insurance Open, so there’s no reason to start ringing any alarm bells about the state of his game. Recommendation: Rose at 1.8