That the Valspar Championship exists at all is remarkable.
Now in it’s 18th year, the tournament started as The Tampa Bay Championship, a silly season event in 2000 opposite the President’s Cup. The next year it was cancelled due to 9/11 (it was scheduled to be played opposite the WGC-American Express Championship that year). The tournament returned in ’02 as the Tampa Bay Championship presented by Buick when Buick execs decided they weren’t sponsoring enough golf events. It probably didn’t hurt that the Tampa Bay area was a target-rich environment for old people with disposable income who could be coaxed into a new LaSabre.
From ’03 to ’06 the event doubled down on being a generic auto-industry event as the Chrysler Championship (amongst other Chrysler events in Greensboro, Palm Springs, and Tuscon), playing in a vacuum the week before The Tour Championship, which put it right in the middle of football season in Florida. People probably didn’t even know the event existed!
2007 ushered in a new era with a scheduling change to the middle of the Florida Swing. Kirk Triplett brought his PODS swag to town in the the form of a two-year stint as the Portable On Demand Storage Championship. ’09 brought with it the advent of the Transitions Championship, which was essentially a week long celebration of Trevor Immelman and Kenny Perry fighting the good fight against harmful blue light. Transitions (headquartered down the road on the outskirts of St. Jetersburg) lasted four years before bailing. At that point EverBank, a regional bank out of Jacksonville, magnanimously stepped in as a one-year stopgap and essentially saved the tournament. Thankfully Valspar came to the rescue in ’14 and we the fans get to learn about paint products (in a city where huffing paint is probably pretty popular) and it seems like a solid fit.
To recap, in a span of fifteen years this tournament has been in bed with Detroit, big storage, big sun protection, big finance and now big paint, and survived a massive recession and a scheduling change. With the initial four-year Valspar contract now extended through 2020, a top-notch field – including some strong European-based talent – continued improvements to the golf course, huge ticket sales and a run of exciting finishes the past few years, the tournament appears set up for success well into the future. Crazy turnaround.
None of the recent success of the tournament would’ve been possible without a solid host venue. While the merits of the Innisbrook Resort at large can certainly be debated (if you’re going to be that close to the beach I’d rather be ON the beach and it’s been a process making the necessary improvements to get the resort up to snuff), the Copperhead Course continues to make for a solid tournament venue. With elevation change and large trees lining each hole the property doesn’t feel like the rest of the Florida Swing. Guys can’t fake it around there – the layout demands accuracy off the tee, the ability to work the ball both ways and the propensity to deal with green speeds that seem to increase annually.
Much is made of the “Snake Pit” and, despite my general aversion to nicknaming stretches of holes, this is an above-average closing stretch. Additionally, the 5th (one of the toughest par 5’s on the entire tour), 6th holes (MUST be in fairway off the tee), and 14th (long double dogleg par 5) demand discipline and accuracy rather than sheer power. The tour website offered up a comprehensive gallery of the course this week.
Randy: I’ll confess to not having very lucid memories of this event. The Transitions title sponsorship was fun for a few years with the Kenny Perry led marketing campaign. Since Valspar became involved, each year I look forward to Tron successfully wrangling Curt Schilling into pithy Twitter threads involving his (allegedly) painted sock and Big Paint, in general. There’s certain stuff that will always make me laugh, and that’s damn near the top of the list. As for the actual golf, I think Spieth’s win in 2015 stands out the most due to the significance it entailed (shaking off near-miss criticism and setting the stage for Augusta). Finally, I’d like to mention the optics of the Copperhead Course always intrigue me as a television viewer. It doesn’t have the look (i.e. tons and tons of water) like other Florida stops. I find that refreshing. I swear the year John Senden won the course looked like a midwestern parkland course in Fall. That may be completely in my head, who knows.
— Tron Carter (@TronCarterNLU) March 7, 2017
Neil (via phone): Probably Lee McCoy balling out as an amateur a couple years ago. In all honesty I didn’t even know this tourney existed until we started NLU. I take that back, the Trevor Immelmann and Kenny Perry Transitions commercial where they’re barbecuing was top notch.
DJ: The Spieth/Patrick Reed duel is obviously what springs to mind for me. Maybe even more than Spieth’s win, the disgusting up and down that Reed made to stay alive in the playoff was as good as it gets – You gotta remember, this is peak Reed fever. Let’s all watch it again.
Soly: When I hear the word “Valspar” the first thing I think about is the guy that JT murdered with the driver off the deck. I think about the family that he left behind, and can’t get over the image of JT leaving a signed glove on his lifeless body, sprawled out in the rough under a tree where that man no doubt felt he was safe. The birdie he made on the hole just poured salt into the wound. The tournament should put a plaque in under that tree honoring that man, and JT should be forced to return to tournament every year to pay tribute.
Got 'em pic.twitter.com/9Uv4iPNhNw
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) March 13, 2016
Tron: I wrote about this in the preview a few years ago, but everyone remembers the significant “firsts” in life– first beer, first illicit sexual encounter in someone’s basement, first time stepping foot at Augusta National. Add first time experiencing “Spotlight Coverage” on Golf Channel. It happened in 2014 and Swantek, Immelman, Byrum, BRB, et al. bombarded my television with trackman stats, fresh camera angles, strong takes geared toward serious golf fans, and the perspective inherent when you take a diverse cross section of talent and show dozens of guys play the same few shots on the 13th hole. It was an eye-opening telecast that got me hooked, shed a light on the variety of trajectories on tour, and is something they’ve since incorporated to a degree on PGATour Live.
Odds and Ends
– In the lead-up to this year’s event I’ve heard Tracy West’s name pop up several times in interviews and conversations previewing the event. Sometimes people went out of their way to mention her. While ’15’s Spieth/Reed duel and last year’s Hadwin/Cantlay battle certainly helped attract eyeballs, West, the tournament director since ’14, had the vision and the diligence to ensure the event in a position to capitalize on those good breaks. I talked to a variety of tour officials, players and media and they were all effusive in their praise of what she’s accomplished. West consistently works her butt off, traveling to most events to create relationships with players and benchmark best practices. The consensus seems to be that Valspar and Travelers are in a league of their own with regard to doing the little things right, getting players there for the first time, and then letting the experience and venue speak for itself. Keep it up.
– Accenting a stacked field (Rose, Cat, Stenson, Spieth, Finau, Casey, Oosty, Sergio, etc.), the sponsor exemptions this week are an industry standard. Good mix of internationally relevant players, collegiate players and young pros with status who are clamoring for more starts.
Marty Dou – Web Tour graduate who did not get in on his number due to the strength of the field.
Matt Fitzpatrick – Awesome addition to the field and someone who should thrive on an accuracy-focused course.
Tom Lovelady – Another talented Web grad who didn’t get in on his number.
Dylan Meyer – The illustrious DJ DFunk, a colorful character who stayed in school after his standout collegiate campaign last year, will get his second look at a tour event (played the John Deere last year). Here’s his presser.
Jimmy Stanger – Perhaps this is a way of paying it forward – Stanger, who enjoyed a storied career at UVA, played with “La Maquina” at the Web Event in Colombia last month.
Ty Strafaci – Fort Lauderdale native/ currently a sophomore at Georgia Tech and showing nice progress on the amateur and collegiate circuits.
– A popular element of this preview in ’14 and ’15 were the sections on the infamous Tampa strip clubs scene. Let’s run that back: Much like my man Adam, if you float in certain circles you’re probably pretty familiar with the reputation of the scrip club scene in Tampa. It also featured prominently in Alan Shipnuck’s book detailing Rich Beem’s ascent to the Tour in the late nineties, as Beem’s then caddie the late Steve Duplantis was a resident of Tampa and a strip club aficionado. Those two details dovetail nicely, as the Mons Venus is the most legendary strip club in a city legendary for it’s strip clubs (just behind 1990’s Gold Club Era Atlanta). This place has quite the reputation. Also if you haven’t read Shipnuck’s Bud, Sweat, and Tees, do so ASAP. (Coincidentally it also features Westward Ho Golf Club up in the Dakota’s rather prominently, which was designed by one, Larry Packard).
– The Web Tour is in Leon, Mexico this week for the El Bosque Mexico Championship. There are a couple of interesting variables in play: the course is at altitude; also the defending champ is in the field this week – a rarity on the Web Tour – as Matt Atkins’ number did not get him into Valspar. Always interesting to see how the first-year guys on the big tour tailor their schedules this time of year. Lot of guys won’t get into Bay Hill next week too, but no concurrent Web event. Then the season gets started in earnest in Louisiana.
– NEED AN UDPATE FROM A TAMPA RESIDENT: When I was a little kid they didn’t sell gum in the Tampa Airport because the place had wall to wall carpeting, like hundreds of acres of carpet. Year after year we used to vacation outside of Tampa, on Siesta Key, and I loathed flying in and out of there, as my policy has always been vacation = gum. The policy was borderline Soviet. Hopefully since then the military junta running TPA softened its stance on gum and quit terrorizing little kids (and adults like me who still enjoy Big League Chew).
– Other random thoughts: What’s up with Patrick Reed? Have we seen the best of him or is he building toward something in the coming months? … Interesting to see Cantlay skipping this week. … Stricker in form right now (won the famed “Cologuard Classic” last week for his first Champs Tour win). Could see him making some noise this week. … Rob Bolton threw out a Cam Smith stat that impressed me this week: He’s got nine top-20’s in his last ten starts worldwide. That’s low-key thicc.
– Saving the best for last, Chris Couch is in the field this week after a six-year hiatus. If you’re out there Thursday or Friday, I’d recommend following him just to see what that looks like. He hasn’t played a Tour event since WD’ing from the 2012 Wyndham Championship!
Couch is paired with Beau Hossler and Martin Flores and goes off first on Thursday at 6:50am. Stay tuned for some potential fireworks on a course that doesn’t exactly ease you back into the flow of pro golf…