The Tampa Bay Championship welcomes a nice mix of prime timers, veterans and journeyman this week on the western side of Florida. The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort is a favorite among many players because it is demands and rewards excellent shot making like the great courses of the PGA Tour do.
At par 71 and 7,340 yards, the course is as long as it is challenging from tee to green. Its length is apparent in the par-5's: all three are more than 560 yards. Three of the four par-3's measure over 215 yards, so the par-4's on any given day might be the best opportunities for birdies.
Despite its length on paper, driving accuracy far outweighs the war against distance. Past champions are aware that smart decision making and efficient chipping and putting around these sloped greens can mean the difference between missing the cut and going home with the hardware. Hitting the fairways just gives you a better chance for positioning to score. Luke Donald, not a bomber by any means, defends this championship. Last year he won in a four-man playoff over Sung-Moon Bae, Jim Furyk, and Robert Garrigus.
Since 2000, the course has been lengthened but the event has continued to host rare talents and heralded major champions like Furyk (2010), Vijay Singh (2001), Mark Calcavecchia (2007) and Retief Goosen (2003 and 2009). K.J. Choi, a Players champion, has won here twice as well.
Only two players have captured their first victories on Tour at this event (despite the fact it is generally a weaker field with less star power): Sean O’Hair won by two shots in 2008 and Gary Woodland squeaked by Webb Simpson in 2011.
There are some interesting patterns in the past champions on this list: Their miss off the tee tends to be to the right and they usually finish higher at venues where scoring is higher and courses are more demanding. Ball strikers and strategists love the layout as well. In recent history, Jason Dufner (last year's 36-hole leader) and Ernie Els have put themselves in position to win here. Four of the top eight players in the world come to this event in 2013, including last year's champion Donald, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar.
Matt Kuchar - Some friends asked me why Kuchar did not contend at Doral last week. We could focus on a number of factors, like that Doral does not reward driving accuracy on the whole, a strength of Kuchar’s game. He finished just one under par. However, in six starts this year on Tour, he has not finished over par in an event and his good play tends to be on difficult to moderate tests. His worst finish was even par at the Northern Trust Open. He has one win at the WGC Match Play and two top 10's. This course suits his game and results show it: a top 10 here last year and a T12 in 2009, his last two starts here. I believe he is the man to beat because not only does he have excellent control of his long game, he is so consistent around the greens. To win a match play tournament, you have to also make plenty of birdies and hit clutch shots. This variety of good play on his resume so far in 2013 is a good sign.
Michael Thompson - Played this event for the first time last year and finished tied for 16th at -8. The young Alabama product is working on his third full season on Tour with promise after a win at the Honda Classic two weekends ago. I expect the confidence to carry over to a similar Florida event where par is a good score. He is a decent bunker player and good ball striker. His stats and resume show that his long game is good enough to contend on difficult tests. Finished T2 in the US Open at Olympic Club.
Sung Moon Bae - A couple good finishes this season suggest he has more in the bag. His best career finish was here last season as a playoff runner-up. This was also his first start here. In seven starts in 2013, his best finish is a T8 at the Northern Trust Open. Despite less than satisfactory results, he’s posted impressive bogey-free rounds recently.
Billy Horschel - Florida Gator and Jacksonville Beach resident quietly having a nice sophomore season, and look for his good ball striking to carry him here. Ranks 13th on Tour in driving accuracy and 49th in greens in regulation. Has not missed a cut this year and has been in the thick of two events, with a T10 at the Humana, T11 in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, and played with Tiger in the final two rounds at the Farmers Insurance Open before finishing in the middle of the pack. This field is a good opportunity for a young player to break out. Best finish on Tour is a 3rd in last years True South Classic, a narrow driving course.
K.J. Choi - He’s made a nice chunk of his career earnings here thanks to two wins and a runner-up. He’s been steady in 2013 as usual: a T9 in the Famers Insurance Open in January, then many middle-of-the-field finishes. He is still 54th in driving accuracy and 29th in greens in regulation. Impressively, he is also 1st on Tour in sand save percentage so far this year (24/32 up and downs).
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