With Phil Mickelson beating our pre-tournament pick Justin Thomas in a playoff last week, it was a case of a day late, a dollar short as the Hall-of-Famer, unburdened by the weight of our wagers which had plagued him in his previous three events, finally got over the line for a WGC victory that had been five years in the making. Thomas played lights out golf over the weekend, closing in 62-64, but he couldn’t quite seal his second playoff win in as many weeks to frustrate his many backers.
After that brief Mexican move, this week sees the Tour return to the US mainland and the state of Florida for the Valspar Championship, held on the Copperhead Course of the Innisbrook Resort.
The 7340 yard, par 71 course is situated a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico and it is expected that there will be winds whipping in off the water for the majority of the week, with gusts up to 30mph forecasted in what will be a real test of players’ patience and character.
Even without the influence of inclement weather, the track has ranked amongst the Tour’s top 10 most difficult in four of the past five seasons, with last season the sole outlier as calm, soft conditions allowed players a fairer chance at the unusual five par 3, four par 5 setup.
Tight, tree-lined fairways, small green complexes and frequent changes of elevation serve to create a tough examination for players which usually results in a high-class winner, with four of the past 10 winners being major champions and another being an incumbent world number 1.
Indeed, Jordan Spieth – winner here in 2015 – alluded to the fact that the course suited those who play best on tough tracks in his victory presser, stating “If you see guys who come out here and play well, they’re likely to play well on the harder courses and the bigger tournaments just because that kind of course suits their game more”.
The greens here are a mix of TifEagle Bermudagrass, overseeded with Poa Trivialis (also found at the host courses of the CareerBuilder Challenge and the Waste Management Phoenix Open more recently), which has the effect of slowing the greens as the day goes on as the Poa grows with the exposure to sunlight. Whilst not as drastic as the Poa Annua impact, it’s still somewhat unusual by PGA standards and you’d fare well siding with players who have experienced success on these types of surfaces previously.
With the aforementioned tight fairways in play this week, you’d naturally assume that accurate drivers would fare best here but a look at the stats of the winners down the year doesn’t bear that out, with none of the past five winners ranking in the top 10 for that stat for the week and none ranking better than 20th for driving distance. Instead, the analysis shows that this is a second shot course, with 3 of the past five winners ranked in the top 10 for the week in both greens in regulation and approach shot proximity.
Given this, we’ll be giving a nod to both of these stats when looking to find our winner this week.
Allied to those stats, it is clear that a sharp short game is vital here in order to both take advantage of rare scoring opportunities but also to keep bogeys off the card.
Last year’s winner Adam Hadwin ranked 7th in Scrambling for the week and recorded just 5 bogeys all week, which allowed him some leeway when he double bogeyed the 16th hole late in his final round. As such, I’ll definitely be looking at scrambling and bogey avoidance as important stats in finding our eventual victor this week.
The field is headed by Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, and whilst they all have claims as the class acts in the event, it’s some players further down the list at most interest me from a value perspective.
The rejuvenated Webb Simpson is my top pick for this week, arriving at a course where he’s previously recorded four top 20 finishes with a runner-up finish back in 2011. The 2012 US Open winner suffered more than most when the longer putter was banned in 2014, dropping from the top 20 of the strokes gained-putting statistics all the way out of the top 150. However, he rededicated himself to his short game and recently spoke of the fact he finally feels comfortable with his new putting stroke.
This is reflected by his lofty 6th position on this seasons stroke gained putting list, a stat which is bettered by his bogey avoidance ranking (tied 5th) and his scrambling ranking (3rd).
He finished 37th in Mexico on an unsuitable track but a return to Copperhead should be more up his alley and I expect a return to the form which saw him play in the final group of the Honda Classic, where he finished 5th. At a sporting price, the world number 42 could well go very close.
I’m turning to another major winner with my next bet, South African Louis Oosthuizen. The world number 30 is well renowned for bringing his A-game when the going gets tough, as evidenced by his Open Championship win at St Andrews in 2010 and his record of being just the seventh man in history to finish runner-up in all four majors. Allied to this, he finished runner-up at last year’s Players Championship at Sawgrass, another tough Floridian track, so has recent form in the area to go along with his 7th placed finish here in 2016.
Although he faded over the weekend in Mexico, the 35-year-old opened his week with a blistering 64 to claim the first round lead, a sure-fire indicator that his game is in good order. On his day, his approach play is amongst the best in the world and yet he’s been priced alongside some of the Tours rank and filers. I expect a good showing and a good trading opportunity.
My final pick this week hits every statistical category identified and is a former winner at the course, Kevin Streelman. The 2013 champion has quietly put together a successful season, making all of his 10 cuts thus far including a 6th place finish at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am last month. Most recently he finished T41 at the Genesis Open, which might not sound much but was a career best at Riviera, and he generally appears to be trending positively as evidenced by his statistical break down this year.
He ranks 1st on Tour for greens in regulation, 1st in scrambling, 1st in bogey avoidance and 39th in approach proximity, essentially being the prototype golfer for all of my identified pre-cursors to success. Alongside this, he was very upbeat when questioned about the course in 2014, stating “it really suits my eye very well off the tee”.
With so many positive indicators, Streelman is a must bet at a tasty price.
- Webb Simpson – 1 point win @ 51.00 (lay 3 points at 8.0)
- Louis Oosthuizen – 1 point win @ 61.00 (lay 3 points @ 9.0)
- Kevin Streelman – 1 point win @ 71.00 (lay 5 points @ 10.0)