The “Florida swing” might be over for 2021, but their golf is just too good to avoid entirely. The PGA Tour will be in the Tampa area this week for the 20th edition of the Valspar Championship, held at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.
The Nos. 1 and 2 in the Official World Golf Rankings will be in attendance this week, in addition to five others ranked in the top 20. The last of those, world No. 20 Paul Casey, is firmly in the spotlight, having won the past two Valspars (2018, 2019), the most recent two victories of the Englishman’s Tour career.
We have no choice but to like Casey’s chances, given the fantastic form the 43-year-old has shown in the past year. He will have his hands full, however, and among those attempting to stop the three-peat are the following:
15. Camilo Villegas
Comeback stories have been all the rage on the Tour recently, so what about Camilo? It would be a popular win for the Tour, and would definitely not be coming completely out of nowhere. He might have just one season of more than a million in earnings in the past nine years, and even that year (2014) he had just one top 10.
A strong week for the Columbian would not be coming completely out of nowhere, as he has top 25s in three of his last four starts, including a T8 at The Honda Classic, the most recent Florida-hosted event. It seems insane that the four-time Tour winner will be 40 at this time next year.
14. Abraham Ancer
The 30-year-old from Mexico has not contended as much as we thought he would this year, and has just two top 10s in 16 starts this season, but he has been the model of consistency as of late, with ten finishes of T26 or better in his last 12 Tour starts.
Ancer has been hitting fairways and hitting greens, and it is extremely difficult to not see that eventually paying off. In his only Valspar appearance (2018), he finished T16 off the strength of a 67-69 weekend. There is a lot to like about his game.
13. Emiliano Grillo
The 28-year-old from Argentina has played this event just once, missing the cut six years ago. That seems absurd to use against him though, given his hot recent form. He has back-to-back top six finishes, including a T2 in his last start at the RBC Heritage, among four finishes of T21 or better in his last five starts.
Grillo is second on Tour in greens in regulation and gained at least three strokes on the field tee-to-green in three of four rounds at Harbour Town. He looks close to his first win since 2015, where he won his first event as a PGA Tour member.
12. Sungjae Im
Three of his last four outings have been terrible, including an 77-80 missed cut at The Masters, in addition to struggles at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and a missed cut at last week’s Zurich Classic.
It is actually very surprising to us that the 23-year-old only has three top 10s in 21 starts this season, but there is reason to be optimistic about this week, as Im played very well in the recent Florida swing (T28-T21-T17-T8), won a Florida event last year, and finished T4 here in the most recent edition in his event debut.
Im currently ranks in the top 30 on Tour in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation.
11. Tyrrell Hatton
The world No. 8 is playing in the U.S. a lot more lately, making starts in seven of the last nine Tour events. However, his finishes have not matched what would be expected of someone of his standing, with just one of those being better than a T18, and that was in last week’s Zurich Classic team event.
In making his Innisbrook debut in the last edition, Hatton opened with a 2-under 69, but then shot a birdie-free 10-over 81 to miss the cut badly, a microcosm of the up-and-down nature of his game. His high-end iron play makes him impossible to ignore though, despite his inconsistency.
10. Scottie Scheffler
That first win on the PGA Tour has to be so close he can taste it. The 24-year-old has posted four top-10s since February, with two of those coming in elite WGC events.
Scheffler is also less than a year removed from a four-week stretch where he posted top 5s in a major and two FedExCup playoff events. He has the game to contend anywhere, so it’s difficult to dismiss his chances in his Valspar debut.
Perhaps he picked up some good tips last week from his Zurich Classic teammate, 12-time Tour winner Bubba Watson.
9. Justin Rose
Make that back-to-back starts in contention for the 40-year-old world No. 39, which is encouraging after 2020 became the first year without a win at least somewhere, something that had not happened to him since 2009.
Rose looked like he was playing a different game than everyone else when he opened with a 65 at The Masters, and was just one back of the 36-hole lead while paired with a badly-struggling Henrik Stenson at last week’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans. He also had a T2 in Saudi Arabia back in early February.
Rose was second through 54-holes the last time he played Innisbrook (2018) finishing T5, and he also had top 10s here in 2011 and 2016.
Somehow, Rose only ranks 96th on Tour in scoring average, despite leading in par 3s and ranking 10th in par 5s. I know what you’re thinking, but he’s also a respectable 56th on par 4s.
8. Jason Kokrak
After a poor final round paired up with Pat Perez at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Kokrak has now chased three straight top-10s with three straight mediocre performances.
So, which version of the 35-year-old Xavier product shows up this week?
Well, he seems to be exceptionally comfortable at Innisbrook, notching a runner-up in the most recent performance, a T8 the year prior, and has two other top-14s in the past six Valspars.
We certainly do not see three double-bogeys coming his first round, which he did have in his last solo round (77 at The Masters).
7. Louis Oosthuizen
It was a shock to see the South African send his drive on the first playoff hole at last week’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans into the water, which would actually have been his first career victory on U.S. soil, and his first win in a PGA event since the 2011 Open Championship.
Oosthuizen will need a short memory as he attempts to move on in Tampa, where he finished runner-up to Paul Casey in the most recent edition. He should be liking his chances given then phenomenal season he is having on the greens, which has him fifth on Tour in strokes gained: total, just one season after finishing 116th in the same statistic.
6. Chris Kirk
Kirk’s history in this event is thoroughly unimpressive, with nothing better than a T42, but with back-to-back top 10s in stroke play events, and six starts of T16 or better in the 2021 calendar year, the 35-year-old is too hot this year to get too caught up in course history.
The four-time PGA Tour winner is well in the positive in each of the strokes gained statistics, and boasts the Tour’s 17th best scoring average. A week like he had at the last Florida event, The Honda Classic, where he had the second most pars in the field, would likely lead to a very high finish in Tampa.
5. Paul Casey
It has been ten years since Steve Stricker won three consecutive John Deere Classics, which was the last time anyone on Tour won the same event three years in a row. That could change this week as Casey took the last two editions in much different ways.
Casey seems more confident than in recent seasons, and started 2021 off red hot to get himself into the top 20 of the OWGR, but has cooled off considerably as of late, even missing the cut at the RBC Heritage two weeks ago.
The 43-year old remains one of the Tour’s best ball-strikers.
4. Corey Conners
Things seem to be lining up in a way that would suggest a great week for Conners. The under-the-radar Canadian has finished T14 or better in each of his last five stroke play events, including four top 10s.
The Kent State product was third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, which plays similarly to Innisbrook, and when he last played this event (2018), he held the 54-hole lead.
We’re willing to give Conners a pass on his final-round 77 to finish T16, given that it was his first time in contention on the PGA Tour. The 29-year old ranks in the top 10 on Tour in both driving accuracy (10th) and greens in regulation (6th), and his 11th-ranked scoring average is better than those by Daniel Berger, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, and Patrick Cantlay, among others.
3. Dustin Johnson
After a poor four-week stretch culminating with a missed cut in his championship defense at The Masters, the world No. 1 looked more like himself last Sunday at the RBC Heritage, shooting a final-round 66 to soar up the final leaderboard, into a share of 13th.
It was kind of the opposite of what happened at the last Valspar Championship, where DJ – in his event debut, was in second place going into the final round and failed to card a single Sunday birdie in a 3-over 74.
The 36-year old’s irons have been inconsistent lately, but it’s difficult to place him any lower than this.
2. Patrick Reed
The world No. 7 had three rounds of 70 or better at The Masters in his most recent start, which got him a T8 finish, his eighth finish of T22 or better in just 11 starts this season.
Reed, who currently ranks second on Tour in both birdie average and strokes gained: putting, has played exceptionally at the Valspar in the past, taking co-runner-up honors twice, including alongside Tiger Woods in the 2018 edition.
We are unsure of what to make of his puzzling 77-75 outing the last time the Tour congregated at Innisbrook, but that result looks like an exception, and he was coming off a final-round 78 at The PLAYERS.
1. Justin Thomas
The world No. 2 was in contention at Augusta three weeks ago, but as the rain caused a second-round delay that allowed Hideki Matsuyama to explode into the lead, Thomas sank back out of contention and eventually finished T21.
As many wins as he racks up, it is difficult to gauge his current state. After a seven-start stretch of top 12 finishes, he notched just one in his last seven, although that was a win at THE PLAYERS Championship.
JT has the best scoring average of anyone in this week’s field, and ranks fourth in both strokes gained: tee-to-green and strokes gained: total.
This just feels like one of his weeks.
Next Five: Charles Howell III, Max Homa, Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley, Joaquin Niemann