The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida, has delivered a history of close calls since it transitioned into a March date for the FedExCup era, so it is of no surprise that the 2023 edition of the Valspar Championship still was in doubt as the last pairing putted on the 72nd hole.
When Taylor Moore posted 10-under 274 out of the antepenultimate pairing on Sunday, it had a feel that he’d check up one stroke too high to force the fourth playoff at Copperhead since 2015, but that quickly transitioned into the a virtual lock for a playoff when Adam Schenk all but stymied the right-hander’s approach into the green at par-4 18th where he opted to escape left-handed. Ultimately, when his long-range putt for par didn’t drop, Moore was the outright champion by one stroke. Schenk was snake bit in The Snake Pit to lose by one.
Moore is the fourth first-time champion of the 2022-23 PGA TOUR season and the third in the last three weeks. Although he was a non-winner and without a top 10 in seven months, the second-year member was a respectful +5000 to win at BetMGM on the eve of the tournament.
Schenk was one of my Sleepers, albeit without a specific bet attached, but he was available at +12500 also to break through for his maiden title on TOUR. Another Sleeper, Wyndham Clark (+140 for a Top 20), finished fifth.
Jordan Spieth played alongside Schenk on Sunday but, unlike so many previous performances, he failed to pull the proverbial rabbit out of his hat and closed with two bogeys on The Snake Pit before finishing two strokes off Moore’s pace. Spieth was second-shortest to win at +1200.
Tommy Fleetwood (+2500) matched Spieth’s 8-under 276 for the T3. It’s his first podium finish on the PGA TOUR since a solo third at The Honda Classic in 2020.
Two-time defending champion Sam Burns (+1600) finished alone in sixth. Tournament favorite Justin Thomas (+1000) landed in a six-way tie for 10th place.
The ability of Woods’ body to endure 72 holes of competition was again in question after Friday’s 74, which included bogeys on three of his final four holes. He barely squeaked into the weekend, making the cut on the number, but rebounded Saturday with three birdies and an eagle. His 67 on Saturday was the third-lowest score of the day. While the violence of a full swing would seem to be more traumatic for his surgically-repaired body, it is the gentle motion of the putting stroke that has caused him the most trouble this week.
“I felt like I made some nice adjustments with my putting and that was the thing that held make back yesterday,” Woods said. “Just wish I could have putted a little bit better yesterday. I made a few adjustments today and some of the putts went in.”
Woods gained more than a stroke on the greens Saturday after losing nearly two a day earlier. He has missed seven putts inside 10 feet this week, with five of those misses coming Friday.
“I've always been a person who likes to hook my putts,” Woods said, “so I just tried to feel like I went back to releasing the putter blade more, more right hand, more release. I just hate that blocky feeling which I had yesterday, which I can't stand. So I go back to hooking my putts and it felt like my normal stroke, which was good.”
Last year, Woods didn’t appear to have the energy to compete past the opening two rounds of a tournament. He posted a pair of 78s on the weekend of last year’s Masters after shooting 71-74 in the first two rounds to sit just two shots outside the top 10. After a second-round 69 to make the cut at the PGA Championship, Woods withdrew following a 79 on Saturday at Southern Hills. He didn’t have a chance to play the weekend at The Open Championship after rounds of 78 and 75. Walking is still difficult for Woods, especially after his bout of plantar fasciitis, so it would make sense that Woods’ scores increased as his step count went up. He has countered that trend this week, though being on his feet for more than four hours and walking four miles remains a challenge.
“It's just a matter of whether I can get from point A to point B,” Woods said Saturday. “That's been the struggle part of it. I can hit shots, I can hit balls on the range, I can chip, I can putt. It's just getting from point A to point B has been the biggest challenge.”
The Open was his last official competition before this week. He will always limp between shots and occasionally use a club as a cane, but he said increased abdominal strength has allowed him to generate clubhead speed now that he no longer can use his legs. He is averaging more than 300 yards off the tee while relying on a low cut shot with his driver. The iron play that has always been a hallmark of his game is still a strength.
“His game was really solid. I was quite impressed,” said playing partner Matthias Schwab. “He didn't really hit any bad shots except for maybe on 6, the par 3.”
On the West Coast, players are grouped in threesomes even after the cut and tee off on both 1 and 10. Woods began Saturday’s round with Schwab and Christiaan Bezuidenhout on the 10th tee at 10:12 a.m., just a half-hour before the leaders teed off on No. 1. Because Riviera, which was built at the bottom of a canyon, is one of the tightest pieces of property on TOUR, Woods’ location was easy to discern at all times. Max Homa, who started the day with a one-shot lead, was standing over a birdie putt on the third hole when a loud roar went up about 150 yards away. Woods had made a 25-footer for birdie on the 14th hole. Homa responded by making his own 20-footer.
“It's cool, it's awesome seeing him out here,” said Max Homa, who is in second place after starting the day with a one-shot lead. “I can't believe how well he's playing and how hard he's hitting it. Tiger's Tiger, man. It's just one of those -- he's just a living legend and it's amazing. It's cool to see all the type. He had way more people than we did for a while today, which is pretty awesome.”
Woods began his round by making a 16-footer for birdie on the 10th hole and made the turn in 2 under after that birdie at 14. After climbing the steep hill behind the 18th green, Woods’ round resumed on Riviera’s elevated first tee, which sits 75 feet above the fairway. He hit a 316-yard tee shot into the right rough, then hit his 190-yard approach shot to 3 feet to set up an eagle. It was his first eagle on TOUR since the final round of this event three years ago. He reached 5 under par for the round after holing a 12-foot birdie putt but finished his round with three pars and a bogey at the seventh.
Woods was visibly limping after his post-round interviews. How his body will hold up for another round remains to be seen. But there have been enough promising signs for him to not rule out another start before Augusta National. Woods described himself as “on the sore side” and wanted to see how long it took him to recover from this week before making any decisions.
“We'll go ahead and reassess everything and see where we are, see how I recover from a full tournament,” he said. “I haven't done this in a while. The last time I did it was at The Open Championship, so it's been a while. Hopefully the body will still feel good sometime later next week. As of right now, recovery time will be fun.”