Valspar Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
SOMETHING very strange happened at the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbour in Florida last year - Charl Schwartzel, one of the game's serial under-achievers, won the tournament after beating Bill Haas in a playoff. The former Masters champion must have reached the point where he had begun to wonder if he would ever again enter the winner's enclosure in the United States, but he finally laid that particular bogey to rest in some style.
Jim Furyk won here is 2010, Gary Woodland in 2011, Luke Donald in 2012, Kevin Streelman in 2013, John Senden in 2014 and Jordan Spieth in 2015. Senden had previously come close on a couple of other occasions while KJ Choi, another former champion, also has an extraordinary record here. It is one of the few courses on the PGA Tour that favours shotmakers over bombers and there is little reason to expect anything to change this time around.
Innisbrook should be made for Donald and there are finally some signs that the Englishman is emerging from a slump that has lasted more than two years. He was going along very nicely indeed and then, for reasons that only he will know, he decided that he needed to change a swing that had taken him to the top of the world rankings. He lost accuracy off the tee and the radar-like quality of his iron shots disappeared. Worst of all, he lost his putting touch, which had served him so well throughout his career.
Donald has gone back to the drawing board and has finally started to string some decent rounds together. This could be a big week in his career as he will arrive at Innisbrook with good memories and must feel that he has a chance of winning again.
Wesley Bryan is in the middle of a fabulous run of form. The American was in danger of becoming best known for the trick-shot routine he performs with his brother, but he realised that he has the game to make a decent living on the PGA Tour, and is now beginning to do precisely that. He is not a big hitter but he is one of those golfers who does everything solidly. What he needs is a hot week with the putter, and so much of that comes down to confidence.
Patrick Reed has had a sluggish start to the season but he is the sort of player who is capable of producing extraordinary bursts of scoring at anytime. He is a Marmite sort of individual but there is no better sight in golf than Reed in full flight. He is a magnificent ball striker who possesses huge determination and grit and desperately wants to win again, and soon. Reed has raised his sights. No longer is he simply interested in winning run-of-the-mill PGA Tour events - he knows that he has the game to win majors and will be acutely aware that The Masters is only a month away. A win this week would do him nicely.
Schwartzel is back to defend his title. There are few more natural talents in the game than the South African but he somehow fails to win the number of tournaments he should. He has a habit of switching off when things are not going his way, rather than trying to grind out the best possible score. No matter what score Spieth signs for at the end of 18 holes, you always know that he couldn't have given it anymore, that he couldn't have got anymore out of it. I wonder if Schwartzel can put his hand on his heart and say the same thing?
So who is going to win? I reckon it could come down to a duel between Henrik Stenson and Jason Dufner. All right, I know that picking Stenson is not the bravest tip of all time given that he is the Open champion and that he has continued to ride the wave since his incredible victory at Royal Troon, when he finished with a round of 63 to pip Phil Mickelson. He withdrew from the WGC-Mexico Championship with a stomach upset, but is expected to play this week.
Dufner, on the other hand, has been on the crest of a slump recently but this golf course will suit his right to left ball flight, and it calls for good wedge play - there is no better golfer with a wedge in his hands than Dufner. His putting his awful but if you keep hitting your approaches to six feet you are bound to hole a few.
And I remain more convinced than ever that Mickelson is ready to return to the winner's circle. His short game remains sublime and he is a shotmaker extraordinaire.
Henrik Stenson. Formidable competitor
Jason Dufner. Fabulous iron player
Luke Donald. Signs of recovery
Henrik Stenson. Tuning up for Augusta
Jason Dufner. Due a good tournament
Luke Donald. Looking more like his old self again
Wesley Bryan. Only a matter of time before he wins
Graham DeLaet. Back in the groove in 2017
Patrick Reed. Proven winner
Patrick Rodgers. Huge potential
Kevin Na. Mr Consistency
Charles Howell III. A top-10 machine
Matt Kuchar. Wants to get his season on track
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