Thanks to being sidelined with a fractured kneecap and embedded on the recliner, I watched a ton of the Valspar Championship last weekend. It turned out to be one of most entertaining and riveting tournaments of the year.
On Thursday, Michigan native Ryan Brehm shared the lead with a five-under par 66, highlighted by an ace at the par-three 17th hole at Innisbrook. It was especially gratifying for Brehm inasmuch as this season has been a rough one for the 36-year-old Michigan State grad.
Valspar was only Brehm’s fourth cut made of 18 tournaments this season. So there was a compelling local angle to the competition.
Then there was the play of fan favorite Jordan Spieth who was playing in the event for the first time in five years. He finished, as they say on TV, with a “clean card,” no bogeys or higher, and a four-under par 67.
At times, he was vintage Jordan, holing putts of 60 and 30 feet. It’s easy to pull for Spieth: he’s animated and vocal with Michael Geller, his caddie, and their interaction adds to the viewing pleasure. Plus, Spieth’s scrambling and short game skills are mindful of Seve Ballesteros in his prime.
Beyond a good field with the likes of Spieth, Justin Thomas, Matt Fitzpatrick, back-to-back defending champion Sam Burns, and Tommy Fleetwood, there’s the attraction of the Innisbrook’s Copperhead course. It’s a stern test cemented by some of the toughest finishing holes on Tour—The Snake Pit—at 16, 17 and 18. And down the stretch on Sunday, they proved pivotal.
Adding to the drama was the fine play of relative unknowns like Adam Schenk (yes, pronounced as “shank”) and Taylor Moore. Schenk was a good story, winless in 165 PGA Tour starts while competing in his 10th straight start due to pending demands of parenthood awaiting him and his pregnant wife. To the delight of NBC Golf announcers, Mrs. Schenk flew down from Indiana to Florida for the final round and followed him every hole. (As one wag cracked, luckily her water ‘er “penalty area” didn’t break.)
Naturally, I loved seeing Moore near the top of the leaderboard. Several friends texted me about “T Moore” listed on the screen. (Golf mavens recall another T Moore on the Tour scoreboards: Tommy Moore, the late former Tour player out of Oklahoma State.) Moore, in his first year on the PGA Tour, had made 10 of 14 cuts before Valspar.
I’ll spare you the tedium of me retelling the drama of the final round, particularly how Schenk and Spieth battled back and forth.
The Snake Pit was worthy of its reputation and decided the championship. Although Spieth’s errant drive found the water on 16, he made, in the words of on-course commentator John Wood, “the most incredible bogey I’ve ever seen!” I agree.
By the way, I like what Wood—a former caddie for Matt Kutcher—brings to the telecast. He’s insightful and speaks well. But he does need someone to remind him not to rely so much on one of his stock, go-to phrases—“No question about it.”
Other highlights were Schenk’s monumental 70-foot putt for birdie on the 12th hole and gutsy par saves on 16 and 17. And after a hooked drive finding a tree, he successfully executed a left handed, upside down wedge shot on 18 for a clear third shot to the green.
When Spieth didn’t make birdie on 18 (after missing a short birdie putt on 17) and Schenk failed to make par, the title went to Taylor Moore. It was an unlikely turn of events because most of the attention was centered on Schenk, Spieth and Tommy Fleetwood.
But Moore finished in solid fashion, making birdies at 12, 15 and 16 and then finishing with a 70-foot two-putt just off the green to make par for the winning 10-under par total. Tellingly, he credited his “team” afterwards for helping to make his first Tour victory possible.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of T. Moore.
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NBC is settling in as my favorite golf network with dependable voices like Dan Hicks, Paul Azinger and newcomer Brad Faxon. Azinger and Faxon offer keen insights and observations in good old American vernacular, a refreshing change from some of networks who seem to think foreign accents by its announcers make them more appealing.
After such a hot start, it was sad to see Ryan Brehm again falter on the weekend when it really counts on Tour. He fell all the way down to a T-65 spot. He’s such a good guy it’s been tough to see how he has struggled. After that opening 66, he shot 75, 76, and 74.
I haven’t spoken or interviewed Brehm since he won last year in Puerto Rico. But if I did, I’d like to ask him how “his team” sizes up his course and scoring statistics and what he’s working on. I just hope he has a team to help him get back in contention on Sunday.
Images courtesy of the PGA Tour and PING.