By TOM LaMARRE
The PGA Tour, after two exciting events to start the Florida Swing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship, heads over to the Gulf Coast this week for the 21st Valspar Championship on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Sam Burns (pictured) has been the man on the Copperhead Course the last two years, winning the Valspar by three strokes over Keegan Bradley in 2021 before beating Davis Riley with a 32-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole last year.
The 26-year-old Burns will be trying to become the first player to win the same event three straight times on the PGA Tour since Steve Stricker captured the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill., in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“I think that obviously there’s something about Tampa (Bay) and that golf course that I wish I could translate in every week, but there’s something I just love about this place and I look forward to coming back every year,” said Burns, who has won twice on the PGA Tour in each of the last two years.
“I think there are a couple of things. These are some of the best greens we’ll play all year. I love putting those greens. I think I love the golf course, too, because it’s a tricky golf course, but at the same time, it’s very rewarding for good shots.
“It’s a place where there are so many different options off tees and coming to the greens, different shots you can get. So I think I enjoy the creative side of playing the golf course. It’s a fun course to play. Very demanding.”
As if there was any question, Burns showed later last season in the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, that his playoff victory in the Valspar was no fluke when he sank a 38-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole to beat top-ranked Scottie Scheffler.
Scheffler and nine of the top players in the world won’t be at Innisbrook this week to see if Burns can make it three in a row, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him.
“For me it goes back to, you know, my experiences there from playing golf and also relationships we’ve built through that event,” said Burns, who is No. 15 in the World Golf Rankings. “I would like to believe that I’m a man of my word and to be able to come back and support an event that has given me so much in my career. Honestly, it’s the least that I can do.”
Tenth-ranked Justin Thomas, the reigning PGA champion, is the only player in the top 10 who is playing this week in a field that also includes major champions Keegan Bradley, Jordan Spieth, Matt Fitzpatrick of England, Zach Johnson, Gary Woodland, Webb Simpson, Stewart Cink, Lucas Glover and Jason Dufner.
Burns has never won a major, but if he can channel what he does at Innisbrook into his game at the Grand Slam events, there might be one—or more—in his future.
1. Justin Thomas, United States – The reigning PGA champion is the only player in the top 10 of the World Rankings in the field this week, and he is due for a bounce-back after he tied for 60th in the Players. That ended Thomas’ streak of six straight finishes in the top 25, including fourth at Phoenix and fifth in the Hero. Tied for third in Valspar last year, tied for 10th in 2015.
2. Sam Burns, United States – The two-time defending champion in the Valspar Championship, who has four PGA Tour victories, has posted nine straight rounds in the 60s on the Copperhead Course and also tied for 12th in 2018. Burns has been up-and-down this season, with his best results a tie for sixth in the WM Phoenix and a tie for seventh in the CJ Cup in South Carolina.
3. Matt Fitzpatrick, England – The reigning U.S. Open champion has yet to play back to his form this season, with a tie for fifth in Dubai on the DP World Tour and a tie for seventh in the Sentry Tournament of Champions his best among five results in the top 15. Fitzpatrick tied for fifth in his only appearances in the Valspar two years ago, posting four rounds of 68 or better.
4. Jordan Spieth, United States – Surprisingly, Spieth hasn’t played in the Valspar in five years because he claimed the second of his 13 PGA Tour victories on the Copperhead Course in 2015, winning with a birdie on the third playoff hole. He claimed that 13th victory in the 2022 RBC Heritage, and his best results this season are a tie fourth in the API and a tie for sixth in Phoenix.
5. Keegan Bradley, United States – The 2011 PGA champion has his game back on track this season, winning the Zozo in addition to finishing second in the Farmers, tying for fifth at Sanderson Farms and tying for 10th in Arnold Palmer Invitational. Bradley’s best result in the Valspar was solo second two years ago, when he led going to the final round and closed with 71.
6. Adam Hadwin, Canada – Hadwin’s 12 victories as a professional include only one on the PGA Tour and that came in the 2017 Valspar, when he beat Patrick Cantlay by one stroke. He also tied for seventh on the Copperhead Course last year and tied for 12th in 2016. He is coming off a tie for 13th in the Players and his best finish this season was a tie for seventh in Houston.
7. Tommy Fleetwood, England – Although Fleetwood has nine victories as a professional around the world, the last coming in the 2022 Nedbank Golf Challenge last November, he has yet to win on the PGA Tour. His best finish this season was a tie for fourth in the CJ Cup in South Carolina among three top-20 results. He tied for 16th in his Valspar debut last season.
8. Denny McCarthy, United States – A four-time winner in pro events, McCarthy has yet to break through on the PGA Tour and is coming off a tie for 13th in the Players Championship, after tying for fourth at Pebble Beach and tying for sixth in Bermuda this season. He tied for ninth in his first Valspar appearance in 2019, but hasn’t been in the top 25 the last two years.
9. Justin Rose, England – The 2013 U.S. Open champion claimed his 25th victory as a pro and 11th as a pro last month at Pebble Beach, tied for ninth in Houston and is coming off a tie for sixth in the Players Championship. Rose is playing in the Valspar Championship for the 12th time and his best finishes were ties for fifth in 2011 and 2018 among seven results in the top 25.
10. David Lingmerth, Sweden – A three-time winner as a pro, including the 2015 Memorial, Lingmerth is coming off a tie for sixth in the Players, where he was in the hunt most of the way by shooting 68-68 in the middle rounds before closing with 72. He also tied for eighth at Mayakoba and tied for 10th in the Honda and RSM. A tie for 27th in 2017 is his best in Valspar.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Gary Woodland, United States; Brian Harman, United States; Byeong Hun An, South Korea; Webb Simpson, United States; Nick Taylor, Canada; Jhonattan Vegas, Venezuela; Russell Knox, Scotland; Maverick McNealy, United States; Luke Donald, England; Zach Johnson, United States.
1. Justin Suh, United States – Winner of the 2022 Korn Ferry Tour Championship was T-6 in The Players last week after a T-5 in the Honda and a T-20 in the Farmers in his rookie season.
2. Victor Perez, France – Claimed his seventh professional victory in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship by closing with a 66. Perez is making his Valspar Championship debut.
3. Aaron Rai, England – The six-time winner as a pro was in the picture last week until closing with a 75 to T-19 in The Players. Also was T-7 at Houston and T-20 in the Shriners this season.
4. Taylor Moore, United States – Two-time winner on lower tours has finished T-11 in the Farmers, T-12 in the Zozo, T-14 in WM Phoenix Open and T-15 at Pebble Beach this season.
5. Brandon Wu, United States – The 2020 Korn Ferry Tour Championship winner finished in a solid T-19 in The Players after a T-2 at Pebble Beach and a T-14 at the Honda in recent weeks.
For first-round tee times, visit https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard