PALM HARBOR — When the Transitions Championship gets into full swing this morning, everyone in the 144-player field has a chance of hoisting the trophy Sunday afternoon. But if history is any indication, the player who is able to best tame Innisbrook's Copperhead Course will likely be somebody who has been there, done that.
Since the tournament became a full-field PGA Tour event in 2000, the winner has been in his 20s only twice (Carl Pettersson in 2005 and Sean O'Hair in 2008). This tournament tends to favor the grizzled veteran.
Retief Goosen was 34 and an established player in Europe and on the tour when he won in 2003. He repeated as champion last year, overcoming 49-year-old Tom Lehman on Sunday. Mark Calcavecchia was 46 when he won in 2007. Vijay Singh was 41 when he won in 2004, his ninth victory during an amazing season.
"I think the golf course separates experience from a lack of experience,'' tour veteran Stewart Cink said. "If you ran a hundred tournaments with this exact field, the experienced players would finish higher more often. That's just because it's a long, narrow, difficult course. It requires a lot of patience, and patience isn't really a quality of some of the younger players.''
Coincidentally, Cink was involved when O'Hair bucked the trend by winning in 2008 at 25. Cink was in the lead in the final round but shot 74 under windy conditions. O'Hair shot a steady 69 for his second tour win. O'Hair, who was in his fourth tour season, is the youngest winner in tournament history.
Dunedin's John Huston was 39 when he won what was then called the Tampa Bay Classic in 2000. He grew up playing at Innisbrook and knows exactly what it takes to score well.
"It doesn't take a real low score out here to win,'' Huston said. "You don't have to be a bomber here to post a low score. If the wind is right, even the bomber guys can't reach the par 5s in two. You have to think your way around.''
It usually takes a relatively high score to win on the Copperhead Course. O'Hair's winning score was 4-under 280. Goosen won last year at 8 under.
But low scores have been posted. Singh won with 18 under, and K.J. Choi won in 2002 with 17 under. Choi also won in 2006 (13 under).
Trying to post a low score in all four rounds is not realistic. Instead, winning takes strategy and experience, Goosen said.
"You need to know the greens pretty well and what kinds of shots you need to hit around this golf course,'' Goosen said. "I do like the way this course sets up and the way I can see the shot I need to hit.''
That's not to say a handful of first-time players don't have a chance.
Rickie Fowler has been steady during his rookie season. Fowler has finished second at the Phoenix Open and fifth at the Farmer's Insurance Open. Fellow rookie Alex Prugh has made six of seven cuts and has three top-10 finishes. And rookie Derek Lamely won the rain-delayed Puerto Rico Open on Monday, becoming the first rookie to win since 2008.
Englishman Ian Poulter, who has won once this year, at the WGC-Match Play Championship, is making his first start at Innisbrook. Though he played only one practice round, Poulter isn't worried about the tournament's tendency to favor experienced players.
"I'm here to try and win this golf tournament,'' Poulter, 34, said.