The countdown continues towards the US Masters in four weeks with the Valspar Championship for which Henrik Stenson is favourite on a course suited to his game. This week’s host venue is Innisbrook Resort in Florida which puts a premium on accuracy over distance. Gary Woodland has been knocking on the door this season and can go through it this week by beating Stenson and the rest of the field and record just his third win the PGA Tour.
Woodland is one of the longest hitters on Tour and only average for greens and fairways hit. He would not be typical of contenders on the course which clearly fits his eye. The course is average in length by modern standards but only has a par of 71 as there are five par threes and not the usual four. Precision to the greens is a key skill but Woodland can overcome those issues and win for the first time this season. Matt Kuchar and Charles Howell have games suited to the course and can contend.
The tournament was founded 17 years ago and has been played under a number of names but one regular theme has been the location in Florida. The Copperhead course at Innisbrook resort was first used in 2000 for this tournament so there is plenty of course form to assess. However, in the context of Augusta and the Masters it won’t provide too many clues to who could win the first major of the season. Augusta favours the big hitters who putt well while Copperhead is all about accuracy.
Unlike most resort courses Copperhead doesn’t set up simply as a putting contest for long hitters and provides a balanced test. Sound iron play is required as there’s a significant reward for hitting the greens in regulation and it has that extra par three. Woodland will come into his own on the long par fives. The putting surfaces are Bermuda, smaller than average and tricky to read. Swirling winds and firm fairways can bring the rough into play so scores can be high in such conditions.
In contrast Augusta has light rough and the longer hitters have a definite advantage. So form this week in Florida will not say much about players’ chances in the Masters and that has affected the quality of the field. This week only Stenson and Justin Thomas from the ten 10 in the world rankings are competing in Florida while the other elite players are honing their game for the Masters away from the competitive arena. Rory McIlroy needs to win at Augusta to complete the career Grand Slam.
Stenson finally won that elusive first major in the Open Championship at Troon last July. He is more about finding greens and fairways than hitting the ball a long way. That means conditions this week are in his favour and any player who masters links golf must be able to handle the wind. In fact Copperhead is made for Stenson but he withdrew last week so he looks too short in the betting. Woodland’s course form makes him a better bet at the relative odds. He wouldn’t fit the normal profile of past champions but he has a solid record on the course.
Matt Kuchar is a viable alternative to the selection on a course that is a good fit for his game. He is more about bogey avoidance than putting the lights out for birdies so Copperhead is right for him. He has a neat and tidy game and hits a high percentage of greens while putting and scrambling well. One negative is that the last of Kuchar’s seven wins in the States was in 2014. This season he has made four of seven cuts but the course looks right up his street and the least he can do is significantly improve on his FedEx Cup standing of 73rd.
Charles Howell makes millions of dollars every year and is no doubt a wealthy man. However, the great hope of US golf at around the turn of the century has only won twice on the PGA Tour. He seems to appear on leader boards every week but rarely closes out the deal. There is nothing to suggest anything different this week but he looks a good bet at the odds to make the payout places. Backing him with bookmakers who pay out to seventh place is worth the reduction in odds to compensate but Woodland is the bet to win the tournament.