Valspar Championship: Knox Known to Start Fast

Patrick McDonald
·7 min read

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The Valspar Championship is set to tee off later this week. One of the more difficult venues on the PGA Tour, it’ll be interesting to see how the Copperhead Course plays in late April as opposed to the tournament’s typical spot on the calendar in mid-March. We have a general idea, but it’ll be a bit of an unknown going into Round 1. Lucky for us, we are playing with house money on our end, so we can go into the first-round with some sense of security.

The Zurich Classic was more than kind to us in the first-round leader department. Viktor Hovland and Kris Ventura were able to grab a share of the Round 1 lead allowing us to cash in on our +4000 selection. But if you live in the past, you die in the past, and we must move on to the Valspar.

Our strategy had to change for the Zurich Classic due to the unorthodox playing format and limited number of possible outcomes. Instead of looking at the mid-range, we’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming of selecting some longshots for the Valspar.

I’ll be targeting those players that tend to get out of the gate fast and statistically set up well for the Copperhead Course. The ideal players are able to position themselves off the tee, strong with their long-irons, and have the ability to catch lightning in a bottle with their putter. With only one good round of golf needed, a streaky putter is typically the difference maker in Round 1.

The oddsmakers at PointsBet Sportsbook have priced the Round 1 Leader market with the tournament-favorite, Justin Thomas leading the way at +2200. Other noteworthy players include world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at +2800 and two-time defending champion Paul Casey at +4000. We’ll happily forgo the favorites and instead go searching for some value further down the board.

Odds to Lead After the First Round (via PointsBet):

+2200: Justin Thomas

+2800: Dustin Johnson, Corey Conners, Patrick Reed

+3300: Russell Henley, Viktor Hovland

+4000: Paul Casey, Scottie Scheffler, Abraham Ancer, Jason Kokrak, Joaquin Niemann, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen, Sungjae Im, Tyrrell Hatton

+5000: Emiliano Grillo, Ryan Palmer

+6000: Cameron Tringale, Chris Kirk, Bubba Watson, Charley Hoffman, Kevin Na, Kevin Streelman, Max Homa

To Lead After the First Round (Odds via PointsBet):

Jason Kokrak (+4000):

I’ve been keeping my eye on Kokrak for quite some time and I believe it is finally the week that we pounce on the 2020 CJ Cup champion. This is one of those rare times when three pieces of the first-round leader equation seemingly come together.

First, Kokrak’s form, specifically in the state of Florida, has been excellent. In three starts, he has three top-10 finishes thanks to a combination of his tee-to-green prowess and a resurgence with the putter. In those same starts, Kokrak was able to muster up 3.8 Strokes Gained: Putting in the first-round alone.

Second, Kokrak is coming to a course where he has experienced ample success. Not only does he have four top-15 finishes in six appearances, but he’s coming off a runner-up performance in 2019 where he opened the tournament with a 2-under 69, three-strokes back of eventual first-round leaders Joel Dahmen and Sepp Straka.

Lastly, Round 1 has been kind to Kokrak in 2021. Kokrak is averaging 69.00 in the first-round, good for 7th on the PGA Tour. When diving deeper into his Florida numbers specifically, you find that he has gained 10.7 strokes on the field in the first round of those three tournaments. It appears the stars have aligned for Kokrak to get off to a hot start at the Valspar, let’s just hope it’s hot enough.

Keegan Bradley (+8000):

I wrote up Bradley and Brendan Steele in last week’s Zurich Classic article and they didn’t disappoint. They finished one-stroke behind the first-round leaders, and I’m betting that Bradley will be able to carry that momentum from New Orleans over to Tampa.

Ranking 15th in Round 1 scoring average, Bradley has the numbers to back up the reputation of starting fast. I have discussed in the past how Bradley’s putter has an uncanny ability to cooperate on Thursdays. That appears to be especially true in the state of Florida, having gained 4.5 strokes on the greens in his three Thursday rounds in the Sunshine State this season.

Bradley is no stranger to the first-round leader sweat at the Valspar. In 2016, he co-led after Round 1 alongside Charles Howell III and Ken Duke thanks to a tidy 5-under 66. Then in 2018, he fired a 3-under 68 to finish two-strokes back of Conners. He’ll most likely need a repeat of his first-round in 2016 to be in the mix, but it’s reassuring to know that he’s done it before at Copperhead.

Denny McCarthy (+8000):

Truthfully, I wish we got a longer number on McCarthy, but we’ll still go to the well with the putting maestro. The reason for optimism for McCarthy’s first-round chances are two-fold. The first being how he finished in Hilton Head a couple of weeks ago.

After a first round 2-over par 73, McCarthy carded three consecutive rounds of 67 to end his RBC Heritage. But I’m turning my attention specifically to his final round performance where his irons came alive, boasting 3.1 Strokes Gained: Approach. Now, if he is able to strike the ball like that on Thursday, we may be cooking with gas.

The second being McCarthy’s game should fit the Copperhead Course seamlessly. This will be McCarthy’s second appearance at the Valspar, where he nabbed a top-10 finish in 2019. He opened that tournament with a 3-under 68 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him post something similar this time around Copperhead.

Russell Knox (+12500):

If there is one player in the field who deserves an unwarranted first-round wager at the Valspar, it is Knox. The Scotsman is T-18 in Round 1 scoring with an average of 69.47. And when looking at the past two Valspar Championships, Knox has had a nice Thursday in both occurrences.

In 2019, Knox posted a round of 4-under 67 to finish one-stroke back of Dahmen and Straka. The year before, Knox fired a 2-under 69 to finish two-strokes behind Conners. If this trend continues, Knox should at least tie for the first-round lead this year.

But in all seriousness, the Scotsman has been striking his irons beautifully and will just need a solid performance on the greens to post a good score on Thursday.

Roger Sloan (+15000):

For the final selection, we’ll be going deep down the odds board, to the abyss that few dare to explore. Sloan has quietly put together a strong stretch of golf over the past month. Before a missed cut at the Valero Texas Open, the Canadian had strung together three consecutive top-25 finishes.

In those starts, Sloan displayed the ability to perform well with his irons, particularly in Round 1. At the Honda Classic, Sloan gained 2.5 strokes on approach en route to a first-round 71. That was below average for Sloan as he currently ranks 33rd on the PGA Tour in Round 1 scoring with an average of 69.73.

At +15000, we’re hoping Sloan can marry the irons with the putter. He has proven capable of doing so this year as he hasn’t lost total strokes in Round 1 since the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He carded a 1-under 70 here in 2019, which was only four worse than the eventual first-round leaders. With the current heater he is on with his irons, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he improves on that number.

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