Top-10 players Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson hope for best as Valspar Championship tees off

Rahm will play the tournament for the first time. Johnson has not been here since 2010.
Jon Rahm hits his tee shot on the fourth hole during the final round of The Players Championship golf tournament Sunday in Ponte Vedra Beach. [AP Photo/Lynne Sladky]
Jon Rahm hits his tee shot on the fourth hole during the final round of The Players Championship golf tournament Sunday in Ponte Vedra Beach. [AP Photo/Lynne Sladky]
Published March 20

PALM HARBOR — Jon Rahm, the No. 10 golfer in the world, decided to play the Valspar Championship for the first time because he heard good things about Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course from fellow players.

Dustin Johnson, the top-ranked golfer in the world, decided to play this week mainly because he had to.

Johnson won the WGC-Mexico Championship in late February, his 20th career PGA Tour victory. That’s enough career wins to qualify for permanent status on tour.

Another requirement, however, is 15 active seasons on the tour. At 34, Johnson has only 12 active seasons. It’s because of that rule that he is at the Valspar.

Had Johnson qualified for permanent status, he could play in any tournament he wanted, whenever he wanted. But as it stands, he must comply with the PGA Tour’s strength-of-field rule. If a player didn’t play at least 25 events the previous season, then they must add a tournament to their schedule that they haven’t played in the past four seasons.

Johnson hadn’t played at Innisbrook since 2010. So last week he decided to make

“The only thing I wasn’t too fond of was that I had to add another tournament to my schedule,” Johnson said. “Luckily enough, it’s Valspar.”

Since turning pro in 2008, Johnson has only played the Copperhead Course twice. In his rookie year he shot a pair of 75s and missed the cut. In 2010 he also missed the cut, but that was before he turned into one of the game’s top players.

He said he arrived at Innisbrook on Tuesday and was only able to play nine holes in Wednesday’s pro-am. He’ll have to play the course mostly on memory, and he doesn’t have many memories of Copperhead.

“I have a hard time remembering last week, much less nine years ago,” Johnson said. “But I do remember the golf course. I’ve played here a couple of times and it’s a really good track. You’ve got to golf your ball around here if you want to shoot a good score. It’s a golf course where I feel it fits my game a little bit better now than it did back then.”

Johnson arrives in good shape. He has finished in the top 10 in four of six tournaments, including last week’s Players Championship. He was tied for fifth at the Players and in contention in the final round.

“The game’s in really good form,” Johnson said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in it.”

Rahm is also in good form. The 24-year-old Spaniard has only been on the PGA Tour full time since 2017. Innisbrook has not fit into his schedule until this season.

Rahm has won twice in his short career. Like Johnson, he was in contention at the Players Championship before shooting 76 Sunday to slip to a tie for 12th.

“That was bittersweet,” he said.

Rahm played nine holes Tuesday with amateur Akshay Bhatia. He got in another nine holes Wednesday. That’s the extent of play at Innisbrook prior to the first round, but his expectations are high.

“I compete to win,” Rahm said. “I tee it up every week I play to win the golf tournament, whether I’ve played it before or not.”

That competitiveness is easy to see. Unlike Johnson, who is mostly even keel on the course, Rahm is a bit more emotional. On the 11th hole in the final round last week, Rahm was in the fairway bunker.

He chose to ignore his caddie’s advice to layup and instead went for the green. His ball landed in the water, which prompted a few choice words. He bogied the hole and was never in contention after.

Showing emotion is not seen as a good trait in golf, but Rahm says he is better than he used to be.

“I’m still going to show emotion because I can’t be a robot,” Rahm said. “You’re going to be able to look at my face and tell if I’m happy or not. I don’t want to lose that because that’s just the way I am.”

Valspar Championship

When/where: Thursday-Sunday, Innisbrook Golf Resort, Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor

Tickets: Thursday, Friday, Sunday ($39), Saturday ($49). Go to Valsparchampionship.com

Defending champion: Paul Casey

Purse: $6.7 million ($1,170,00 to winner)

TV: Thursday-Friday 2-6 p.m. on Golf Channel; Saturday-Sunday 3-6 on NBC

Social media: @ValsparChamp

Contact Rodney Page at [email protected]. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.

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