The Valspar Championship: A tournament vulnerable to international raiders

In the 21st century international golfers have enjoyed playing golf in Florida, but nowhere more so than at the Innisbrook Resort.

The 1970s saw a wild explosion of air travel from Europe to the United States.

So much so, in fact, that during the following decade, it became quite common, in the UK at least, for at least one kid to stroll self-consciously across the school playground on the first day back from the summer holidays looking as if like he'd spent August on another planet.

Or somewhere in America at the very least - if his lurid nylon NFL/baseball/basketball jacket/short/cap (and the wide-eyed, slack-jawed response of everyone else) was anything to go by.

Florida was a favourite destination, but in huge contrast to the theme parks of the Sunshine State, professional golf was something of a closed shop to foreigners back then.

The European Ryder Cup teams might have had superstars playing a half-decent PGA Tour schedule, but most were more likely to get an invitation to dress up as Goofy at Disneyland than to tee it up on the Florida Swing.

Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn have an awkward encounter with Mickey Mouse.
Jim Furyk and Thomas Bjorn have an awkward encounter with Mickey Mouse.

The situation was similar for Australians and South Africans, and very definitely the case for South Americans and Asians.

By the start of the 21st century, however, those barriers had been broken down.

International golfers no longer merely hoped for a handful of starts in Florida - many of them now live there as a matter of course.

The stats highlight just how much the situation has been transformed: ahead of this year's Florida Swing it was widely noted that the previous five winners in the state had all played beneath a flag other than the Stars and Stripes.

Moreover, if you look at the courses and tournaments that host Florida events, the impact of non-American golfers is obvious.

In the 21st century the Honda Classic, most commonly played at PGA National, has seen 12 international wins in 22 tournaments (55%).

In THE PLAYERS at TPC Sawgrass that number is 11 of 21 (52%), the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill is 9 of 22 (41%), the old Cadillac Championship at Doral was 6 of 17 (35%).

To put this in context, during the 1980s, in those four events combined, Americans won 39 titles and international raiders just the one (take a bow, Sandy Lyle, 1987 PLAYERS champion).

But nowhere is the modern tilt more obvious than when the tour heads to the Innisbrook Resort, home of this week's Valspar Championship, where 12 of the 19 winners since it was created in 2000 have been internationals (63%).

Let's take a closer look at why Innisbrook might suit the passport holders, peer back at the previous winners, and also ponder who might join them on the honours board this week.

Innisbrook

On the face of it, the distinct characteristics of Florida tracks should provide no bias whatsoever towards international golfers.

We're talking resort-style golf, in blustery conditions, on Bermuda grass greens. Few Americans will be flustered by the experience so it's unlikely that these factors make any difference.

The fact so many internationals are based in Florida, and have quite possibly wintered there in the past, could have a small effect in heightening familiarity.

As for Innisbrook specifically it could be that the test is up their street because for the most part it takes one-dimensional hitting of the driver out of the equation.

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A smart and confident driver can still use that club, but any old willy nilly bashing of it will lead to trouble.

"A very positional course," said Rory McIlroy of it. "You need a conservative game plan."

Henrik Stenson agrees, saying: "A lot of strategy off the tee, then it's a second shot golf course."

It's worth repeating that plenty of Americans are fine with that type of challenge, too, but it takes at least some out of the reckoning and other nationalities are a little more used to a fiddly test.

Past international success

The first winner from overseas was Korea's KJ Choi in 2002 whose opening lap of 63 grabbed a lead he spent the week extending to a dominant five strokes.

Four years later he was at it again, this time winning by four. His career provides yet more evidence of change on the circuit because he was the first Korean to win a PGA Tour card in 1999.

He was succeeded by South Africa's Retief Goosen who also emulated Choi in winning the tournament twice, waiting six years for his repeat.

Goosen had withstood the challenge of Vijay Singh in 2003, but the Fijian was not to be denied a year later, thumping the field by five in his ninth win of the season, and before Choi claimed more success there was a win for Sweden's Carl Pettersson.

In 2012 Luke Donald claimed the first of three wins in the year at Innisbrook before John Senden triumphed in 2014 - the Aussie knew always knew how to get from tee to green, and that week his putter behaved too.

Since 2016 it has been one way traffic: South Africa's Charl Schwartzel, followed by Canada's Adam Hadwin, then back-to-back triumph for England's Paul Casey.

This week's potential trend-sustainers

An obvious starting point is Casey - the man chasing the hat-trick. For the full story of his record-seeking attempt read Dave Tindall's story.

What of Sungjae Im? Can he follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Choi?

The 23-year-old finished fourth in his only previous start at the tournament and is something of a Florida specialist with eight top 30 finishes in 10 starts including victory in the 2020 Honda Classic.

He's rated 30/1 with Bet365.

South Africa's leading hope is Louis Oosthuizen, who lost in a playoff last Sunday at the Zurich Classic, was second in this tournament in 2019 and seventh in 2016.

He's 33/1 with Unibet.

Is England's Justin Rose sneaking back into better form since his return to coach Sean Foley?

He was sixth when forced to withdraw from the Palmer Invitational, led the Masters ahead of finishing tied seventh, and played nicely last week at the Zurich Classic with partner Henrik Stenson.

Justin Rose: he's close.
Justin Rose: he's close.

He's ended the week top 30 in nine of his 10 course starts and has been within three shots of the lead with 18 holes to play in three of his last five appearances.

He's 35/1 with Bet365.

And Corey Conners will be keen to become both a second Canadian winner and also atone for his near-miss in the tournament three years ago.

He'd held the lead through 18-, 36- and 54-holes only to struggle on Sunday. His 77 left him T16th, but he's a much stronger golfer now and has finished in the top eight in four of his last six starts.

He's 20/1 with Bet365.

READ MORE: The leading seven contenders at the Valspar Championship

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