Picks and tips: Back ball-strikers in Tampa

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Will Gray
·6 min read
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After a more than two years, it's time for the Valspar Championship.

Like many PGA Tour events, the Tampa stop was nixed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the wait at Innisbrook has been a little longer since the tournament moved from its previous mid-March spot in the midst of the Florida Swing to the final week of April. Course conditions could be a little bit firmer than usual around the Copperhead Course, an undulating layout where ball-strikers tend to thrive.

Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas headline the field, while Paul Casey looks to win this event for the third straight time. But I'm looking elsewhere for some value this week, including a Canadian looking to translate some torrid recent form into another win:

To Win (odds via PointsBet Sportsbook)

Corey Conners (+2000): The best current ball-striker in the field isn't Johnson, Thomas or Casey. Instead it's Casey, who leads the field in SG: Ball Striking over the last 24, 36 and 50 rounds played. The Canadian has been a leaderboard fixture ever since he burst into contention at nearby Bay Hill, nearly winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational before finishing third. Since then he has finished T-14 or better in four of five starts, including a T-4 showing two weeks ago at Harbour Town.

Conners has always been a strong ball-striker, but he's taken things to another level in recent weeks. He's ninth on Tour in SG: Total and Off-the-Tee this season and has a strong history at Innisbrook. He finished T-16 in his 2018 debut, but that result is a little misleading: he actually held the 54-hole lead before ballooning to a final-round 77 alongside Justin Rose. He returns having won already on Tour at the 2019 Valero and with a ton of confidence based on his recent play. A second victory isn't far away.

Jason Kokrak (+4000): Guess who was the only player to crack the top 10 in each of the first three Tour stops in Florida this year? That would be Kokrak, who finished T-9 at both The Concession and TPC Sawgrass sandwiched around a T-8 showing at Bay Hill. The veteran clearly has a sense of comfort in the Sunshine State, one that extends back to his T-2 finish at this event two years ago.

Kokrak's affinity with the Copperhead actually includes four top-15 finishes in his last six starts, as the tree-lined track clearly suits his game. The driver has been an asset for him for much of his career, but in recent months he has undergone quite an overhaul on the greens: after ranking 103rd on Tour in SG: Putting during the 2018-19 season, he's now 21st in the category this season. It's a big reason why Kokrak has become a regular fixture on weekend leaderboards, including his maiden win at the CJ Cup earlier this season.

Justin Rose (+5000): This still feels like an opportunity to buy low on a proven winner who appears to be turning a corner. Rose was a huge question mark heading into the Masters, but he burst out of the gates with an opening 65 and went on to finish seventh. He followed last week with a solid showing at Zurich, finishing T-11 alongside friend and longtime Ryder Cup partner Henrik Stenson.

Quite simply, this course has all the attributes of one that should suit Rose's game. The Englishman's record reflects it, too: in 10 prior trips to Innisbrook he has finished T-30 or better in all but one, highlighted by a T-5 finish in his most recent appearance in 2018 when he played in the final group Sunday. Rose is far from the most consistent option on the board, but the back injury that plagued him in March appears to have dissipated and at age 40 I don't think he's done winning Tour events.

Top Finishes (odds via PointsBet)

Louis Oosthuizen (+320 top-10 finish): What might have been. Oosthuizen bore the brunt of the team playoff loss in New Orleans, rinsing his tee shot in overtime before missing a 12-foot putt that could have put the pressure on the Aussies. But don't be surprised if he bounces back in a big way at Innisbrook, where he has finished T-16 or better in each of his last three appearances. Oosthuizen was a runner-up the last time this event was played, going 66-69 over the weekend, and he has made every cut in seven starts this year highlighted by a T-6 showing just down the road at The Concession. His irons were on point at TPC Louisiana, and a similar performance could put him into contention again.

Henrik Stenson (+500 top-20 finish): The scores he was shooting in the mid-80s as recently as last month seem like a distant memory. Stenson snapped out of his considerable slide with a made cut at the Masters, then followed with a solid performance last week at the Zurich alongside Justin Rose. Now he heads to a course that should, on paper, fit him like a glove. The Swede has four top-25 finishes in five prior trips to Innisbrook, with three of them going for T-11 or better. The comeback trail is still a lengthy one for the former Open champ, but this is another spot on the schedule where his well-worn long irons should get plenty of use.

Peter Uihlein (+200 top-40 finish): Uihlein has been mixing it up between the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour this year, but he's been on something of a cross-circuit heater in recent weeks. A runner-up in Louisiana last month, he broke through for a Korn Ferry win in Las Vegas two weeks ago and chased it with a third-place showing at Zurich alongside Richy Werenski that got him a spot in this week's field. In fact, going back to the Puerto Rico Open he has three top-25s and four top-40s in five starts. He'll be eager to make the most of another "bonus" start on Tour, and the recent momentum is strong enough for me to bypass his Innisbrook record which includes a pair of made cuts but no top-50 finishes in four prior trips.

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