Valspar Championship 2022: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis
After a long, wet, windy week of Players Championship fun, the PGA Tour caravan travels to the state’s western front for the Valspar Championship beginning Thursday on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort.
The $7.8 million purse feels like such a letdown. The Snake Pit sounds so scary.
Prolific golf course architect Larry Packard carved a difficult layout at the resort in 1971 and the challenge has attracted 15 of the top 30 players in the world this year as we start to turn our thoughts toward Augusta.
(I played the course in a national junior tournament in the 1980s on a chilly Thanksgiving weekend and by late in the second round was certain I’d never play golf again).
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There are 74 bunkers and water is in play on nine holes of a par 71, 7,340-yard design that plays longer than its yardage. Copperhead has undulating greens, many of which slope from back-to-front, requiring precise approaches, excellent lag putting and creativity.
There are sidehill, uphill and downhill stances in the fairways and odd angles off the tee. From a strategic perspective, avoiding the 3” overseeded rough and playing from the fairway is the pathway to attacking and boring golf plays well here.
Tricky, swirling winds are a staple on the hilly (for Florida) tree-lined property and put an emphasis on club selection and distance control. The pros opt for less than driver off the tee on several par 4s to keep their shots from running through the dogleg fairways and must be dialed in from 175 yards and farther on approach.
The greens are TifEagle Bermuda overseeded with poatrivialis and expected to roll around 12 on the Stimpmeter.
It’s worth noting last year’s tournament was held April 29-May 2 and played entirely on Bermuda grass. This year the fairways are overseeded with ryegrass, which combined with last week’s rainfall should make the course a touch softer.
Keeping an eye on the weather forecast is smart this time of year – as those of us who mistimed the arrival of the rain and cold front were reminded last week. The strongest wind of the week (15 mph with gusts in excess of 20 mph) is expected on Friday afternoon and Sunday afternoon and temperatures should hover between 70 and 80 degrees but pay close attention before setting your roster.
Different styles have thrived at Copperhead in the past but the best mid-to-long iron players tend to ascend the leaderboard. Hitting the greens in regulation is more difficult than the average week on Tour (60 percent compared to 65) and a strong short game is helpful. The four par 5s present excellent scoring opportunities and the competitors must capitalize to contend.
In many ways, the challenge presented at Copperhead is similar to what the players faced last week. Several high finishers from TPC Sawgrass ranked high in our model. What’s more difficult to figure is the price of their success. It was a taxing week, mentally, physically and perhaps even emotionally. The champion Cam Smith said he was most looking forward to sleeping and I’m certain many of his peers felt the same. By Sunday afternoon, we’ll understand the expense of those five grueling days.
- Hayden Buckley, Kramer Hickok, Lee Hodges, David Lipsky, Matthew NeSmith, Cameron Percy, Pat Perez, Chad Ramey, Chez Reavie, Vaughn Taylor.
As always, good luck.
Golfer power rankings
25. Alex Smalley – A solid mid-to-long iron player, he’s seventh in the field in Good Drives Gained and GIR gained over the last 50 rounds. Made five of six cuts in 2022 and gained 2.8 shots on approach in his last start at Bay Hill.
24. Keegan Bradley – Devastating and costly finish to an otherwise spectacular performance in the final two rounds at TPC Sawgrass. Always a wise selection in Florida, the Copperhead course is a good fit assuming he’s not mentally exhausted. Among the field’s best in proximity from 175 yards plus. Has three top 15s in 2022.
23. Russell Knox – After a top 10 at the Players, he’s 48th in the FedEx Cup standings. Interested in backing him when there’s a premium on ballstriking and scoring isn’t crazy low. Leads the field in Good Drives Gained over the last 50 rounds, is seventhth in SG: Approach and 24th in proximity from 175-200 yards. Has three consecutive top 25s here.
22. Adam Svensson – Feels like he’s on the cusp of a breakout performance. Outstanding iron play warrants a play here although we’ll need better par-5 performance (outside top 100 in scoring). Already has two top 10s in 2022 and has gained strokes on approach in all but one start.
21. Abraham Ancer – Bettered the field average in every significant Strokes Gained area last week and the 2.8 shots gained on approach was his best effort with the irons since October. Finished fifth here last year and T-16 in 2018.
20. Alex Noren – Finished T-26 at TPC Sawgrass despite losing 0.6 shots on the greens. Has gained 13.9 shots on approach in the last three tournaments and finished T-21 in last year’s Valspar. Top 40 in GIR Gained, Good Drives Gained and SG: Around-the-Green.
19. Xander Schauffele – Could be a forgotten man in fantasy lineups this week after a lackluster showing at TPC Sawgrass. Better to rewind and focus on the 7.6 shots he gained on approach in strong showings in Phoenix and L.A. Short game is trending upward and 13th in the field in proximity from 175-200 yards.
18. Martin Laird – Our model adores him this week. Just needs to find a competent putting stroke for a week. He’s second in the field in Good Drives Gained, sixth in GIR Gained and seventh in scoring on 550-600 yard par 5s over the last 50 rounds with excellent long range proximity numbers as well. Still, a long shot considering he last made the Valspar cut in 2015.
17. Matthias Schwab – The PGA Tour rookie finished top 10 at the Honda and Puerto Rico and has made seven consecutive cuts dating to last fall. Excellent bunker player, top 30 in par-5 scoring and GIR gained without benefit of his stats from Puerto Rico, a non-Shotlink tournament.
16. Matthew Fitzpatrick – Had high hopes for the Englishman last week but missing the Players cut may work to his advantage at Innisbrook. Needs sharper iron play (124th in proximity from 175-200 yards) but leads the field in par-5 scoring and ranks top 40 in scrambling and top 25 in Good Drives Gained and Fairways Gained.
15. Tommy Fleetwood – Gained eight shots Tee-to-Green in a top 25 at the Players, his best ballstriking effort since he nearly won the 2020 Honda Classic. The improvement in the long game paired with an elite short game should serve him well in his Valspar debut.
14. Taylor Pendrith – On a nice run in Florida with a 25th at the Honda, 42nd at Bay Hill and 13th in the Players. Gained shots on approach in two of the last three starts and should thrive on the Copperhead par 5s.
13. Dustin Johnson – Shot 63 in the final round at TPC Sawgrass, earning about $500,000 in two hours with a closing side of 29. And he’s still 142nd in the FedEx Cup standings. That’s not going to last. After struggling with his irons toward the end of last summer, gained shots on approach for the second time in three tournaments at the Players.
12. Aaron Wise – Love how his game is rounding into form. Gained 10.2 shots Tee-to-Green at Bay Hill and 5.5 on approach at the Players. Top-10 in the field in GIR gained and solid from 175-200 yards plus. Just needs a hot putting week.
11. Sam Burns – After a brief ballstriking slump produced three consecutive missed cuts on the West Coast, has inched closer to form in Florida, finishing ninth at Bay Hill and 26th at the Players. Defending champion here and comfortable on these greens.
10. Jason Kokrak – Finished eighth, second and 13th here the last three years. Top 20 in Good Drives Gained and proximity from 175-200 yards, feasts on par 5s. In a good groove with his irons and putter has been hot the last month or so. Gained at least three shots on the greens at Copperhead the last two years.
9. Mito Pereira – The only concern is his surprisingly average proficiency on par 5s but here’s an important stat this week: Pereira is fourth in the field on putts of 0-5 feet. Those putts are more difficult than usual this week and momentum preservers. Ballstriking is elite; also third in scrambling over the last 50 rounds.
8. Joaquin Niemann – Poor putting relegated Niemann to a T-22 at TPC Sawgrass but the rest of his game keeps firing. Last week he gained shots around the green for the seventh consecutive tournament. A year ago, his short game was holding him back. He’s 15th in proximity from 175-200 yards and leads the field in scoring on 550-600 yard par 5s. T-8 last year.
7. Viktor Hovland – Let us pause and observe somewhat of an anniversary. It was during this tournament last year (10 1⁄2 months ago) when I omitted our friendly Norwegian Forest Cat from the Power Rankings. And he tied for third. I vowed to never commit such an atrocity again and will not, under any circumstances. Now, please sir, spend extra time in the short game practice area this week.
6. Paul Casey – Deserves a high ranking because he’s won here twice and the course suits his strengths (10th in Good Drives Gained and first in SG: Approach over last 50 rounds). But the 44-year-old was clearly gassed Monday evening. He’s a professional in every sense, though. Have faith he’ll recharge by Thursday (and maybe the Tour will be kind and give him an afternoon tee time?).
5. Adam Hadwin – Gained at least 3.7 shots on approach for the third time in four events in a T-9 at the Players. Won here in 2017 and finished T-12 the following year but missed the cut in the last two Valspars, arriving in bad form.
4. Shane Lowry – Strong through the bag for the second consecutive start last week, gaining 3.9 shots on approach and 1.7 on the greens. Finished T-49 in his lone appearance at Valspar in 2018. Lowry is fourth in the field in SG: Approach over the last 50 rounds.
3. Louis Oosthuizen – Irons have been rusty in 2022 but he loves this place, finishing 16th or better each of the last four years with two top 10s and a runner-up in 2019. Ranks 21st in the field in Good Drives Gained, 15th in GIR gained and fifth in scrambling.
2. Collin Morikawa – Pay no attention to what happened last week. Got caught in the worst of the weather on Saturday, dunked his tee shot on 17 to start the day and never recovered. Should return to form quickly as he gears up for the Masters. Leads the field in proximity from 175-200 yards and is third in par-5 scoring.
1. Justin Thomas – I watched every shot of the bogey-free 69 he shot in the howling wind on Saturday at TPC Sawgrass. He’s close to winning again. Has a pair of top-20s at Innisbrook in three appearances since 2016. Loves to shape shots off the tee and into the greens. Both skills should be rewarded on the Copperhead course. It’s now been a year since he lifted a trophy on the PGA Tour. That’s a long drought for a 14-time winner in the prime of his career.