Florida Swing will give the PGA Tour a refreshing change

Tournament director Tracy West is excited about the next Valspar Championshp, which tees off on the Coppehead course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, FL., on  March 21. (Joy Sarver Photos)

PALM HARBOR, FL. – The first two months of the PGA Tour season were marred by unusually bad weather in California and an overly exuberant crowd in Phoenix.  Now – as soon as the last putt drops at the Mexico Open — it’s time to welcome the Florida Swing.

The Sunshine State takes over the month of March, with only one round in the four Florida tournaments played in February.  The first one, on Feb. 29, marks the debut of the Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches at PGA National, in Palm Beach Gardens.

That tourney’s name change might be a problem.  Since 1982 the tourney was known as the Honda Classic, and it was the PGA Tour’s long-running uninterrupted title sponsorship until it ended last year.

Since 2007 the Honda was played on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champions course at PGA National.  It has a three-hole stretch of back nine holes dubbed the Bear Trap. They were tough, and still are.  The Cognizant Classic will be played on the same course but without the field problems the Honda had in recent years.

Even though nearby Jupiter is home for many PGA Tour stars, those players were reluctant to relish a rare home game after all that travel  on the West Coast. Weak fields became a problem, but this time Jupiter residents Daniel Berger and Shane Lowry were among the first entrants in the Cognizant Classic, and other early signups included 2022 U.S. Open champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson. Chris Kirk is the defending champion.

After the Cognizant Classic’s debut comes two biggies – the March 7-10 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando and the March 14-17 Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass  in Ponte Vedra.  The API is the fourth of the PGA Tour’s eight signature events of 2024 and carries a $20 million purse.  The Players, at $25 million, is even bigger.  There won’t be any problem getting strong fields at those places, and the Valspar Championship – the climax to the Florida Swing on March 21-24 – apparently won’t have a problem, either.

Taylor Moore told a Media Day gathering what it was like to win the Valspar Championship.

Valspar’s $8.4 million purse is the smallest on the Florida Swing but the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor is universally popular with the players. Valspar tournament director Tracy West included a field list at last week’s Media Day and it included Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay,  Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth and Will Zalatoris. They could hardly be considered Valspar regulars. Two-time winner Sam Burns, Tommy Fleetwood, Sepp Straka, Sahith Theegala  and Gary Woodland are also in the field.

The defending Valspar champion, Taylor Moore, was on hand for the Media Day and he wanted no part of questions about the controversial LIV Tour.  There certainly was no need for discussions on that, given how West and her staff have positioned the paint company sponsored event as “the most colorful PGA tournament in the world.’’

“There’s been a lot of noise around golf these days, but none of that matters,’’ said former football star Ronde Barber, in his third year as Valspar’s general chairman. “We’re trying to put on a great golf tournament, and we’ve got 19 out of the world’s top 50 despite all that’s been going on.’’

“A terrific year is shaping up, and we’re excited about our field, but our product is more than that,’’ said West.

In December the Valspar was named the “Fan-First PGA Tournament of the Year’’ and this year’s event is building on that with a load of special features.

A 5-kilometer run, expected to draw about 700 participants, will kick off the festivities on March 17.  In addition to the pro-ams at Copperhead a new celebrity  pro-am will be played at the Pelican course in Belleair on Tuesday and a concert by country singer Cole Swindell will follow Saturday’s round.

A double-decker skybox has been added at Copperhead’s 18th green, a new golf shop just opened and a special ticket will be offered for those wanting to visit the soon-to-be re-opened Packard’s Steakhouse following a major renovation.

And, again, the Valspar is the only tournament granted special privileges by the PGA Tour.  Players can substitute their nicknames on the caddie bibs and bring a guest of their choice inside the ropes during tournament play.

In short, the PGA Tour will have a refreshing change when it returns to Florida.

One way the Valspar shows it is the PGA’s most colorful tournament is in the decorating of the parking spots for its past champions. This one is for defending champion Taylor Moore.