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Some new twists for PGA tourney at Innisbrook

Published Mar. 7, 2015

The PGA Tour makes its annual stop at Innisbrook's Copperhead Course in Palm Harbor this week. The Valspar Championship is the third event in the tour's four-tournament Florida swing before players set their sights on the Masters.

Though the tournament has five players in the world ranking's top 10 as of today, it once again lacks some of the biggest names in the game: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy.

That's not because tournament organizers aren't trying to get the best players. It's just the way the schedule works out.

"We care very much about getting the best field we possibly can,'' first-year tournament director Tracy West said. "We try to meet with them face-to-face and perhaps sway them to come to our event. I think it helps this year to have only one (World Golf Championships) event before ours instead of two. That gives us a chance at some of the European players.''

A few notable first-timers are in this year's tournament, which begins Thursday. There are also changes on the course for spectators.

Here is a look at what is new and things that haven't changed:

New faces

If there is one thing golfers love, it's routine. That's why it is rare to get an established veteran in the tournament field for the first time. Two well-known players make their Innisbrook debut this year: Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson.

Stenson, 38, is ranked third. He won the 2013 Tour Championship. He did not play in last week's Honda Classic and made his 2015 U.S. debut this weekend at the World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship in Doral.

Westwood, 41, broke from his normal pattern to play at Innisbrook this season. He played in the Honda Classic and is in the Cadillac Championship.

Westwood is an eight-time member of the European Ryder Cup team. For part of 2011 he was the top-ranked golfer in the world. He has been a regular on major championship leaderboards but is one of the players labeled "Best to never win a major.''

Some well-known players return to the tournament. Ian Poulter, who played in it once before — in 2010 and missed the cut — is back. Patrick Reed, Ryan Moore and Adam Scott are back after not playing last year. They did play in 2013.

Some lesser-known players playing for the first time include Francesco Molinari, Jamie Donaldson (No. 26 in the world) and Joost Luiten (No. 37).

Familiar faces

Past champions Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Kevin Streelman, Gary Woodland, Luke Donald, Carl Pettersson, K.J. Choi, Retief Goosen and 2014 winner John Senden are back.

"I really think it's become one of the premier events on tour,'' Senden said.

Justin Rose makes his ninth appearance. Jason Dufner returns for the seventh straight time. Kenny Perry, Ernie Els, and Stewart Cink are also recognizable regulars.

Padraig Harrington also returns. He was originally in the field as a sponsor's exemption, but he doesn't need that after winning the Honda Classic and earning a two-year exemption on the tour.

And there is fan favorite and part-time Clearwater resident John Daly, who once again secured a sponsor's exemption. Daly, 48, will wear flashy clothes and is capable of shooting somewhere between the high 60s and the low 90s.

Same course, new look

The course setup has not changed. It's still a difficult 7,340-yard par 71. But how spectators view the tournament is a little different.

The biggest change is at the par-3 17th hole. That used to be the place to chomp on chicken wings at the Hooters Owl's Nest, but that has moved. This year it is between the 12th green and the 13th tee. The 12th hole is a short par 4. The 13th hole is par 3. Expect the loudest noises to come from that part of the course.

The 17th will be a little more tame. That's probably just fine for players in contention on the back nine over the weekend.

"My top priority when I got here was trying to maximize the space we have,'' tournament director Tracy West said. "We were kind of crushed around the 17th hole, so by moving (the Owl's Nest), we gained space, and we can now hold about 1,500 people (behind the 12th green). We put up new public bleachers around the 17th so you don't need a ticket to get in there anymore.''

New areas include a family fun zone behind the eighth green and places to take photos by the first, eighth and 16th holes. Near the first tee, the handwritten scoreboard has been replaced by three 70-inch TVs with live feeds from Twitter and Facebook that stream people's posts about the tournament.

Concert night

The tournament will find out if country music and golf mix. The Osprey driving range near the 14th green will become a concert stage for the Band Perry on Saturday night. Admission to the concert, which starts around 7 p.m., is free for those attending Saturday's round.