Valspar Championship rises to new challenges in the golf world

With the PGA Tour making moves to counter LIV Golf, the annual Tampa Bay event still pulls together a competitive field.
Sam Burns, who is looking for a Valspar three-peat, poses with the tournament trophy following his win in a playoff last March.
Sam Burns, who is looking for a Valspar three-peat, poses with the tournament trophy following his win in a playoff last March. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published March 14|Updated March 14

PALM HARBOR — Friday night, once the 5 o’clock deadline had passed, Tracy West could finally take a deep breath and relax.

This year’s Valspar Championship field was finalized and despite all the changes to the golf world in the past few years, the PGA Tour event will have four top-20 players in this week’s field, which includes three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, defending U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, two-time PGA Championship winner Justin Thomas and two-time defending Valspar champion Sam Burns.

That was not a given a few months ago as West, the tournament director, tried to secure commitments for the annual event, which starts Thursday on the Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort.

With the emergence of LIV Golf, which took popular players out of the PGA Tour mix by offering huge financial incentives, and the way the PGA abruptly changed the 2023 schedule to fight back, West and the Valspar were reeling a bit.

“Anytime there’s change, especially in the first year or something, you just don’t know how everything will shake out,” West said. “You don’t know what will impact the players’ decisions to play and not play.

“To have the support of of Jordan (Spieth) and Justin Rose and Fitzpatrick and Justin Thomas and those guys, they don’t have to play here. This wasn’t one of the required ‘elevated events,’ they they made the decision and chose to play here. That speaks to the strength of the Copperhead Course and the Tampa Bay community.”

For this season, the PGA Tour has 17 designated events with an average purse of $20 million. Valspar did not get that elevation, and found itself stuck on the schedule as the lone smaller event with three designated tournaments in four weeks. Logistically, this could be a weekend players are resting after playing the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill followed by The Players Championship last week, and before next week’s World Golf Championships Match Play in Texas.

“I think it’s a tough decision for guys, with the kind of changing schedules this year,” Burns said. “For me, it’s really important for not only myself but for (my wife) Caroline who also enjoys Tampa Bay and the relationships she’s built there, to go back and see fans and the kids we’ve met the last couple of years out there. I just I believe that it’s a great event. It’s just so much for the community. The fans love it.

“And so, honestly, it’s the least I can do to come back and play.”

The names in field are not the only measure of a tournament’s success, golf broadcaster Gary Koch pointed out.

“To me, I’ve always thought that’s probably a little bit of a fallacy, because just because those players are in the field doesn’t mean they’re going to make the cut and be around on the weekend,” said Koch, who grew up in Temple Terrace and is a former King High standout and Florida Gator All-American.

Instead, Koch said it’s the week-long event that matters. That kicked off Monday with the pro-celebrity-am and continues with events like the celebration of tournament chair Ronde Barber on Thursday (the former Buc recently was elected to the the Pro Football Hall of Fame) and Saturday night’s concert with Darius Rucker on what was the course’s driving range.

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“I would say it’s very important that the event be a success. You’ve got a good commitment and sponsor in Valspar,” said Koch, adding that the company’s sponsorship runs through 2025. “So obviously, their support has helped everybody be able to elevate the event to where it is, so they have to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.”

The PGA Tour has announced it 2024 schedule and plans to reduce the number of designated events, which will have smaller fields. Most importantly, Valspar will not be on an island between such tournaments.

“It may differ in any given year who’s here, but people know that there’s going to be unbelievable professional PGA Tour players here,” West said. “This event is a happening as a community happening, it’s a place to be. So, no matter if our field, and that, changes each year, I think this community will continue to come out and be supportive.

“So, we’re excited about this year and I’m very, very bullish for 2024.”

Valspar Championship

Thursday-Sunday, Innisbrook Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor

Gates open, 7 a.m.

TV: 2-6 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 1-3 p.m. Satuday and 1-2 p.m. Sunday, Golf Channel; 3-6 p.m. Saturday and 2-6 p.m. Sunday, NBC

More: Tickets and other info, visit here.