Golf is back to being an individual event this week, as the PGA Tour moves from its annual team-play stop in New Orleans to the 20th edition of the Valspar Championship.
Hosted by the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, the event was not held last year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but limited fans will be back to watch the world’s best in action in Florida once again.
With a busy May approaching, the Valspar field features many high-end players looking to get into, or keep, form. Here are the storylines we feel require a little extra attention this week Palm Harbor, Fla.:
1. Casey Seeks Valspar Three-peat
Only once in the past decade has a player won three-consecutive editions of a PGA Tour event, as we’re just two months away from the 10th anniversary of a then 44-year-old Steve Stricker claiming his third consecutive John Deere Classic title. He played those three in a combined 68-under-par.
This week, 43-year-old Englishman Paul Casey has a chance to be the first since Stricker to pull off a three-peat. Casey snagged his second career Tour victory when he won the 2018 edition in a comeback effort, having started the day in 11th place, five strokes off the lead. Showing that he could win an event with a lead, he repeated the following year, holding a 54-hole one-stroke advantage over Dustin Johnson, shooting a 1-over 72 to edge Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Kokrak by a stroke.
Even if Casey were not the two-time defending champion this week, he’d still be considered a top pick. The world No. 20 has been fantastic since last fall, highlighted by a runner-up finish at the PGA Championship, and in 2021, he’s won the European Tour’s elite-field Omega Dubai Desert Classic, while adding five additional top-12 finishes, worldwide.
After three consecutive top 10s – two coming in Florida events, Casey has not been quite as stellar, with finishes of T28 and T26 before a surprised missed-cut two weeks ago at the RBC Heritage. Still, in the current season he has improved tremendously on and around the greens (186th to 49th in strokes gained: around-the-green, and 165th to 76th in strokes gained: putting), And he is still one of the Tour’s purest ball-strikers.
2. The 1-2 Punch: DJ, JT Headline Valspar
This week’s field features four players in the top 10 of the OWGR, and fortunately for CBS, two of those four are world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and No. 2 Justin Thomas. Despite how fantastically they’ve had to perform to be ranked that highly, both are somewhat of a question this week.
Johnson was playing the best golf of his life late last season: from June of 2020 through February of 2021, the 36-year-old notched four victories, including a five-shot romp at The Masters in November, snagging his second career major championship.
In that span, he also captured the FedExCup and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
However, since a February T8 at The Genesis Open, DJ’s form has faded significantly. He had a three-event stretch with results of T54, T48, T28, with all being elite-field events (two WGC events and THE PLAYERS). Then, the big shock: Johnson failed to even make the weekend at The Masters, despite winning the tournament just four months earlier, which was his fifth consecutive Augusta top 10.
There may be some encouragement from his most recent start though, a T13 at the RBC Heritage where he propelled up the final leaderboard after a final round 66.
Thomas, meanwhile, has been surprisingly up-and-down lately. After a seven-event stretch of all finishes inside the top 12, he has just one top 10 in his last seven starts, granted that top 10 was the 27-year-old’s 14th career Tour victory, and it happened at THE PLAYERS Championship.
Thomas most recently played The Masters, where he contended early through 36 holes, but imploded after a 77-minute storm delay, a delay that more or less won the tournament for Hideki Matsuyama. Thomas finished T21.
DJ’s best finish at Innisbrook was a T6 in his tournament debut in 2018. Thomas has played this event three times, posting results of T10 and T18 before missing the cut in 2017. He has not played the past two editions.
3. Post-Masters Phil Looks to Deliver a Win at Copperhead
Phil Mickelson will be in attendance in Tampa this week, making his first start since a respectable T21 at The Masters. It was Mickelson’s 20th top-25 finish in 29 starts at Augusta National.
While a T21 might not seem like much when compared to some of the current elites, it was a prodigious improvement from the three-time green jacket winner. In his first eight starts of the 2021 season, Mickelson had four missed cuts and nothing better than a T44.
The 50-year old became a punchline for his horrific driving accuracy. While he still hits the ball a mile, that funk had many questioning whether his days as a Tour contender were over, and whether he would soon be making the transition to full-time Champions Tour player and/or golf commentator.
A T35 at THE PLAYERS seemed to get him going again, though, as he finished T25 the following week at The Honda Classic. He missed the cut in his next start at the Valero Texas Open, but he did great to bounce back from an opening 79 with a Friday 69.
Again, not the kind of results he was putting up at his peak, but he at least looks like he belongs on Tour again. Currently, he ranks 113th in the OWGR, and is itching to get back inside that top 100.
Mickelson never played this event in his 40s. His last time at the Copperhead Course was a missed cut in 2004, with the second round occurring on Halloween. He is hoping for a good week here to give him momentum going into the next meat of the schedule, which includes the PGA Championship next month.
4. Schwartzel’s Career Could Use a Fresh Coat of Valspar Paint
In 2011, a 26-year-old Charl Schwartzel had one of the greatest closing stretches in major championship history, carding birdies on the final four holes at The Masters to come out front in a logjam on a leaderboard that included the likes of Tiger Woods, Jason Day, Adam Scott, and Rory McIlroy, among others.
The first victory on the PGA for the South African, who had already won six times in Europe, it was expected he would win many more times. Unfortunately for Schwartzel, it has not really worked out that way. His only PGA Tour win since that incredible Sunday at The Masters did come at the Valspar Championship, however, as he defeated Bill Haas in a playoff at the 2016 edition.
Schwartzel has been kind of up and down since, but honestly, more down. His only finish of better than T25 in a major was a solo-third at the 2017 Masters, and he did not even qualify for the most recent Open Championship, or the past two U.S. Opens.
Once ranked 9th in the OWGR, he has fallen as low as 257th in February of last year. He is currently ranked 191st, and among the 14 South Africans ahead of him, includes largely anonymous players like Garrick Higgo, Daniel Van Toder, Darren Finchart, Dean Burmester, and Wilco Nienaber.
He very nearly added his third Tour win just last week. At the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a team event that does not give out world ranking points, but does give out major exemptions and FedExCup points, Schwartzel teamed up with fellow countryman Louis Oosthuizen, and held the 54-hole lead.
A clutch birdie from Schwartzel late had them back in the lead after they had given it up, but the Australian team of Marc Leishman and Cameron Smith were able to force a playoff. That playoff was basically over when Oosthuizen sliced his drive on the first playoff hole into the water. They settled for second place.
Still averaging over 300 yards a drive and ranking 10th on Tour in strokes gained: around-the-green, Schwartzel will hope that good memories of Valspars past (he was also solo sixth in 2017), plus momentum from last week, can get him back into the winner’s circle, again.
5. Corey Conners: Could Experience Help Paint a Valspar Win?
At the 2018 Valspar Championship, Canada’s Corey Conners, making his Innisbrook debut, shot three straight rounds in the 60s to hold the 54-hole lead over two guys named Rose and Tiger. Having never won a PGA tournament event, Conners was going to have to dig very deep to hold that slim lead, and it ended about as expected: he shot a 6-over 77 to drop into a share of 16th place.
That is not to say Conners should have been embarrassed, as many before and after him have seen the same fate in that situation. He learned from it, however, and got his first win a year later at the Valero Texas Open by two strokes over Charley Hoffman. While that remains his only career PGA Tour victory, the 29-year-old is currently playing the best golf of his career, and win No. 2 does not feel far away.
Since the beginning of March, Conners has played in five stroke-play events (there was also the WGC-Match Play, but he probably wants to forget about that), and tallied four top 10s, highlighted by a solo-third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. His other start was still a T14 and he was relevant at The Masters, sitting at sixth place after 54 holes before a pedestrian Sunday meant a still fantastic T8.
He currently ranks 6th on Tour in greens in regulation, 10th in driving accuracy, 9th in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and 11th in both scoring average and strokes gained: total. It would be surprising if he does not find his way into the Valspar mix again this week.