(CBS Miami) — COVID forced the cancellation of the Valspar Championship in 2020, along with many other events. But this week the PGA Tour returns to the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Golf Resort, the last stop of the season in Florida. Fans will be allowed in as well, though attendance will be capped at about 20 percent of capacity.
Paul Casey will look to complete the three-peat, something that’s happened only eight times at a PGA Tour event in the last four decades. (And six of those belong to Tiger Woods.) Casey won the last two Valspars in 2018 and 2019, becoming the first player to repeat at the event. But he will have to outpace a strong field that includes three of the world’s top-10 players and seven of the top-25. Among them are top-ranked Dustin Johnson, second-ranked Justin Thomas and seventh-ranked Patrick Reed. (Tyrell Hatton, who is ranked eighth, was originally scheduled to play before testing positive for COVID.) Six winners from the last decade will also return in search of another title.
While Johnson headlines the field, his game of late hasn’t quite measured up to what’s expected from the world’s best player. His best finish of the year so far came more than two months ago at the Genesis Invitational. That was a tie for eighth and his only top-10 finish since his Masters win in November. He did, however, finish sixth at the 2019 Valspar.
According to CBS Sports golf analyst Trevor Immelman, “a lot of people when they think of Dustin Johnson, they think of distance. And that sure is something to marvel at. But really when you pay close attention to his game, he has unbelievable accuracy, particularly with his irons. And if he can get that iron game back into the groove that we generally are so used to from him, this is absolutely a course that he can do well at.”
Thomas comes in with a little more recent success, including a win last month at the Players Championship and a third-place finish at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. He missed the cut in his last appearance at Innisbrook, but snuck into the top 10 in 2015.
Patrick Reed and Corey Conners are also among the players expected to show up on the leaderboard. Reed finished in the top 10 at the Masters and has three top-10 finishes in his six Valspar appearances, two of which were second place. “He’s one of those guys that just has an amazing short game, and so can keep himself in it,” says Immelman. “The greens at the Copperhead course the last time we played here, in fact, ranked as the hardest greens to hit in regulation, right at about 54 percent. So, a lot of players missing a lot of greens. And so at that point, you say okay, who’s got the best short game to keep you in it? And Patrick Reed is one of those, so I expect him to be up there.”
Conners is another of those guys. He has four top-10 finishes in his last six events, dating back to early March. “He’s been on a great run really since about Arnold Palmer time, through the Players, through the Masters, Immelman notes. “And so he’s had tremendous consistency, which quite honestly is elusive. It’s very difficult when you don’t have teammates to rely on, and it’s all on you to keep coming with the same level of play, week after week. He’s been able to do that for the most part in 2021. And so he’s knocking on the door to get a second Tour victory.”
The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook is a track where Conners could win that second trophy. Lined with trees, the Larry-Packard-designed course is a par-71 that measures 7,340 yards, but doesn’t favor a particular kind of player. As Immelman points out, “we’ve had long hitters win here. We’ve had shorter hitters win here. We’ve had shot-makers win here. We’ve had short-game wizards win here. So it doesn’t necessarily just play to one style.”
The Copperhead Course presents a mixture of holes that bend left and bend right, which helps any player who can control his flight trajectory. Another unique aspect of the course is that there are five par-3s as opposed to the usual four. “They’re all difficult,” Immelman points out. “One has water surrounding the whole front and right side of the green. The others are quite lengthy and play at interesting angles to where, if there’s any kind of wind blowing, which generally is the case, distance control can be quite difficult. Par-3s are generally quite difficult for Tour players. They normally would play over par. So I think that’s one of the reasons why this course plays quite difficult.”
The course’s closing stretch, what’s known as the Snake Pit, might be the most challenging. It starts with the 475-yard, par-4 16th hole (The Moccasin), among the most difficult on Tour, that features a tight fairway and water all along one side. A 215-yard par-3 (The Rattler) follows, with a small green guarded by bunkers and trees on both sides. The 445-yard, par-4 18th (The Copperhead) features an elevated green that slopes toward the front.
Here are the favorites:
Justin Thomas (9-1)
Thomas returns to action after tying for 21st at the Masters. He is an excellent ball-striker who plays well near the greens. His SG: Approach-The-Green is second best on the PGA Tour. All that will help on this course, even if he only has one top-10 finish in his three events here.
Dustin Johnson (10-1)
Johnson has struggled a little of late, at least for him. Be he remains the top-ranked player in the world. Johnson was also competitive at the 2019 Valspar, where he was one stroke back after 54 holes. And he is still among the best players on Tour in SG: Tee-To-Green.
Corey Conners (20-1)
Conners’ last and only win came at the Valero Texas Open over two years. But he’s been playing some of the best golf on Tour of late. That includes top-10 finishes at the Masters, RBC Heritage and Players Championship. With his strong short game, he could be in line for that elusive second win.