The PGA Tour returns to the Valspar Championship after the 2020 edition fell foul to the Covid-19 pandemic. Paul Casey, who is technically the defending champion, returns looking to make it three wins in a row having won this event back-to-back in 2018 and 2019. After the exciting Sunday finish that saw Aussie duo Marc Leishman and ‘mullet man’ Cameron Smith oust South African pair Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel in a playoff, in the Zurich Classic team event, it’s back to normality this week.
A strong field containing ten of the world’s top 30 will tee it up this week in Florida. Dustin Johnson headlines the event after a T-13 finish at the RBC Heritage a fortnight ago. Players Champion Justin Thomas makes his first start since the Masters. From a European Tour point of view, Rasmus Hojgaard and Sam Horsfield will tee it up courtesy of a sponsor exemption.
Paul Casey became the first player to defend his title in this event. He held off Tiger Woods in 2018 before seeing off the challenge of Jason Kokrak and Louis Oosthuizen twelve months later.
Graeme McDowell is the only Irish hopeful in the field this week, while Shane Lowry enjoys a fortnight off, Pádraig Harrington has returned home to Ireland and Seamus Power continues to recover from a positive Covid-19 test. The 2010 US Open champion had a mixed week alongside Matt Wallace at the Zurich Classic. The Portrush native achieved his maiden PGA Tour hole-in-one last week in the team event. G Mac and Wallace finished in a share of 23rd place in the fourball and foursomes format.
In truth G Mac did not have his best stuff, despite his ace on the par-3 17th in round 2. McDowell registered three birdies and two bogeys on the card across the two fourball rounds. He hasn’t kicked on since his T-4th finish at the Corales Puntacana Championship.
McDowell has made his previous three cuts at this event including a T14 finish in 2017. The Innisbrook Resort at Copperhead is a notoriously tough golf course yielding high scores. Distance off the tee is not of paramount importance, the course demands accuracy off the tee instead with its tree lined fairways and the famous ‘Snake Pit’ coming down the stretch culminating in two tough par-4s either side of the 215-yard par-3 17th.
Pádraig Harrington spoke earlier this week about the strength of the current players occupying the nine automatic qualification spots, mentioning that maybe one golfer can break into those places between now and the BMW PGA at Wentworth in September.
That won’t have come as welcome news for G Mac, who needs to start showing form ahead of the qualification points doubling on May 10th. McDowell could find himself in a group alongside Lowry and fellow Ryder Cup veterans, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter looking to catch the eye of Harrington to earn a wildcard selection to represent Europe in Wisconsin this September.
A good performance is needed. Shane Lowry has steadied his Ryder Cup bid with two top-10s at the Players Championship and the RBC Heritage. McDowell needs to find another gear to continue in the same vein.
Time is undoubtedly running out, but nobody chasing a Captain’s pick can be ruled out, we all remember Edoardo Molinari’s remarkable win at the Johnnie Walker Championship in 2010, earning him a wildcard pick on Colin Montgomeries team at Celtic Manor. All hope is not lost for McDowell travelling to Wisconsin in a playing role, if he doesn’t fill one of the three remaining vice-captain slots alongside Luke Donald and Robert Karlsson.