10 Players to Watch: Valspar Championship


– Courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

  1. Justin Thomas, United States — Trying to become the first player to win four times in a PGA Tour season before the Masters since David Duval in 1999, Thomas took the lead into the final round of the WGC-Mexico Championship last week. However, after playing the middle rounds in 66-66, he closed with a 1-over-par 72 that included three bogeys and a double bogey on the front nine and tied for fourth, three strokes behind champion Dustin Johnson. Still, Thomas leap-frogged Hideki Matsuyama of Japan to regain the lead in the FedExCup standings and moved up one spot to No. 7 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He has finished in the top 10 five times in nine starts since the start of the 2016-17 season. Thomas is making his third start in the Valspar Championship. He tied for 18th last year, when he fell out of the top 10 with a closing 73, after he tied for 10th in 2015 by closing with a 68.
  1. Henrik Stenson, Sweden — The big Swede made it through only 11 holes in his first start on the PGA Tour in 2017 before he had to withdraw from the WGC-Mexico Championship because of a stomach bug. He birdied the first two holes but made three straight bogeys and then a double bogey on the seventh hole and was 3 over par by the time he left the course in Mexico City. Stenson had been off to a good start in 2017, tying for eighth in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Champions and tying for second in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour after he tied for second in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in his first start of the wraparound PGA Tour season in October. Stenson will be making his third start in the Valspar Championship. He finished solo fourth in 2015, when his closing 67 left him one shot out of the playoff in which Jordan Spieth beat Patrick Reed and Sean O’Hair, and he tied for 11th on the Copperhead Course last year.
  1. Gary Woodland, United States — Not only is Woodland off to a terrific start in the 2016-17 season, but he also has a history on the Copperhead Course and in what is now the Valspar Championship. He claimed his first PGA Tour victory in the tournament in 2011, when it was known as the Transitions Championship, making five birdies on the back nine Sunday before sinking a 10-foot par putt on the last hole to shoot 4-under-par 67 and beat Webb Simpson by one stroke. Woodland has made five other starts in the tournament, and he tied for eighth in 2014. His only other victory on the PGA Tour came in the 2013 Reno-Tahoe Open, but he has been close to winning again twice this season, helping him rank eighth in the FedExCup standings. Woodland took a one-stroke lead to the final round of the OHL Classic at Mayakoba but closed with a 70 to finish two shots behind winner Pat Perez in solo second, and he tied for second in the Honda Classic, four behind Rickie Fowler.
  1. Ryan Moore, United States — Coming off a tie for 28th in the WGC-Mexico Championship, where he seemed headed for a high finish before closing with a 2-over-par 73, Moore is playing in what is now the Valspar Championship for the 11th time, and he was in the chase all the way to the finish each of the past two years. He held the lead after starting with 69-68-67 two years ago but shot 1-over-par 72 in the final round to wind up in solo fifth, two strokes out of the playoff in which Jordan Spieth bested Patrick Reed and Sean O’Hair. Last year, Moore played the middle rounds in 69-69 before closing with a 71 that left him in solo third, two strokes shy of the playoff in which Charl Schwartzel of South Africa beat Bill Haas. Moore won the John Deere Classic and tied for second in the Tour Championship last year to earn a spot in the U.S. Ryder Cup team. His best result this year was a tie for third in the SBS Tournament of Champions.
  1. Graham DeLaet, Canada — Although he didn’t qualify for the WGC-Mexico Championship, DeLaet has played very well early in the 2016-17 season, tying for eighth in the Sanderson Farms Championship, tying for ninth in the Waste Management Phoenix Open and tying for 10th in the Honda Classic to start the Florida swing in his last start. He is making his fourth start in the Valspar Championship and has gotten better every time on the Copperhead Course. He missed the cut the first time he saw the place in 2012 after opening with a 77, but he came back the next year to tie for 17th, then tied for eighth in 2014. After skipping the tournament in 2015, the Canadian was in the hunt most of the way last year thanks to playing the middle rounds in 66-68 to move into second place before he struggled to a 75 in the final round to wind up in a tie for fifth.
  1. Bill Haas, United States — Finally seeming to figure out the Copperhead Course in his eighth start at Innisbrook last year, Haas shot 67-67 in the middle rounds to take a one-stroke lead into the final round of the Valspar Championship. Even though he struggled in the final round to a 1-over-par 72, he still had a two-stroke lead until making a bogey on the 16th hole, and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa made a 25-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole and forced a playoff with a 67. On the first extra hole, Haas hit his approach shot into a greenside bunker and could not get up and down for par, allowing Schwartzel to win with a two-putt par. This season, Haas’ only top-10 finish was a tie for fourth in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in October, but he also posted six results in the top 20 in his eight starts and could have had another before tying for 32nd in the WGC-Mexico Championship when he stumbled to a 75 in round three.
  1. Patrick Reed, United States — After four consecutive outstanding seasons, during which he won five times, Reed is a rising star who was a standout as the United States regained the Ryder Cup late last year, but he is off to a slow start in the 2016-17 season. He has only one top-10 finish in eight starts, a tie for sixth in the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, and he needs to regain his form with the Masters looming next month. Reed, who is ranked No. 12 in the world, is making his fourth appearance in the Valspar Championship, and after shooting 73-77–150 to miss the cut by six strokes in 2013, he has been a factor on the Copperhead Course each of the past two years. Reed closed with a 5-under-par 66 two years ago to get into a playoff with Sean O’Hair and Jordan Spieth before Spieth won with a birdie on the third extra hole. Last year, he was right there in the final round again but finished with a 73 to tie for seventh.
  1. Daniel Berger, United States — The 2015 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year is coming off a solid tie for 16th in the WGC-Mexico Championship against the strongest field of the season to date, although he was on the verge of a top-10 result until he closed with a 1-over-par 72. He is 17th in the FedExCup standings on the strength of a tie for second in the WGC-HSBC Champions in China behind Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and a tie for seventh in the Waste Management Phoenix Open in addition to two other results in the top 25. Berger, who claimed his first PGA Tour victory last year in the FedEx St. Jude Classic, will make his fourth start in the Valspar Championship, having missed the cut by one stroke in his first start two years ago by shooting 73-71–144. However, last year he started getting the hang of the challenging Copperhead Course, shooting 3-under-par 68 in the second round on his way to a tie for 11th.
  1. Matt Kuchar, United States — Kuchar normally is a top-10 machine, but surprisingly he has only one such result in seven tournaments this year, a tie for ninth in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. He leads the PGA Tour with 66 top 10s since 2010, but he has been close this season with three other top 25s in seven events, although his slow start might be attributed to taking two months off before playing for the first time in 2017 in February. Kuchar is making his 10th start in what is now the Valspar Championship, and his best result was only a tie for ninth the first time he played the event in 2002. He tied for 10th in 2012, when he closed with a 6-under-par 65. However, he has four other results in the top 20, including a tie for 11th last year despite shooting 74 in the third round.
  1. Charl Schwartzel, South Africa — The defending champion in the Valspar Championship is trying to get his game in gear ahead of the Masters following a knee injury sustained late last year. Schartzel captured the Green Jacket in 2011. He missed the cut in the Maybank Championship in Malaysia and in the Genesis Open at Riviera to start 2017 but played well for three rounds last week in the WGC-Mexico Championship before closing with a 4-over-par 75 to tie for 38th. Schwartzel, who won three times in about three months including his Valspar victory a year ago, played well late in 2016 with a tie for fourth in the BMW Championship and a tie for 10th in the Tour Championship in the FedExCup playoffs, a tie for third in the World Tour Championship-Dubai and a tie for fourth in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Last year, Schwartzel came from five shots down with a 67 in the final round of the Valspar to catch Bill Haas and beat him with a par on the first playoff hole.


Tom LaMarre

Tom LaMarre has been a sportswriter and copy editor for more than 50 years, including 15 years with the Oakland Tribune and 22 with the Los Angeles Times. He was the Tribune’s beat writer for the Oakland Raiders for seven seasons in the 1970s, highlighted by their 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and collaborated on a book, Winning Offensive Football, with quarterback Ken Stabler. He also covered the Oakland Athletics when they won three consecutive World Series during the 1970s and the Golden State Warriors when they won the NBA championship in the 1974-75 season. With the Times, he wrote columns on golf, football and skiing. These days, he is the Golf Editor for The Sports Xchange. LaMarre graduated from Skyline High in Oakland and attended the University of San Francisco.

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