PALM HARBOR, Florida – The Masters, the year’s first major golf championship, is just a month away and the Chicago’s top two PGA Tour players haven’t qualified as yet. This week’s stop — the Valspar Championship on Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course –figures to give both Luke Donald and Kevin Streelman a boost, however.
Neither are off to a notable start this season. Donald, the former Northwestern star, has made four of six cuts with $221,185 in earnings. That puts him 125th on the season money list. Streelman has made six of 10 cuts and has earned $505,886, good for 68th place.
To get into the Masters, though, they’ll likely have to either win one of the tournaments leading into it or boost their world rankings into the top 50 the week before the Masters tees off. Donald is No. 88 in the world rankings now and Streelman is down in the 134th spot. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that both have played well in Masters of the past, both are coming into Thursday’s start of the Valspar Championship well-rested and both have wins here. Those ingredients should count for something.
So could Innisbrook’s extraordinary connection to the Chicago golf scene. The resort’s owner, Sheila Johnson, is a University of Illinois graduate who grew up in Chicago, and all of the resort’s four courses were designed by the late Larry Packard, a Chicago golf architectural legend. All that should add to the comfort zone for Donald and Streelman.
In the case of both players, their victories on the well-regarded Copperhead layout had major implications career-wise. Donald’s victory came in 2011 when the tourney was called the Transitions Championship. He was involved in a head-to-head duel with Rory McIlroy for the No. 1 spot in the world rankings at the time and the win pushed Donald into the No. 1 spot, a position he held for 56 weeks.
Streelman’s win came the following year, the first in which Valspar was the tourney sponsor. It was the first of the Wheaton golfer’s two PGA Tour titles, though the second drew more attention. No. 2 came at Hartford in 2013, with Streelman making birdies on the last seven holes to claim a more spectacular victory.
Neither player qualified for last week’s lucrative World Golf Championship event in Mexico, but that may not be a bad thing. The PGA Tour substituted the Mexico event for the longstanding stop at Doral, in Miami, and it wreaked havoc with all the players’ scheduling.
Those who played in the no-cut tourney in Mexico endured some difficult travels. In the last four weeks the PGA Tour had tournaments in Los Angeles, then the Honda Classic in Florida, then Mexico and now it’s back to Florida. The dropping of Doral “destroyed’’ the traditional Florida Swing, according to no less an expert than Jack Nicklaus who said the schedule change “hurts all the Florida events.’’
The circuit goes to the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando after the Valspar. The quality of the Honda field was down slightly, and Valspar has just four players in the top 15 of the World Rankings – Henrik Stenson (6), Justin Thomas (8), Patrick Reed (12) and Bubba Watson (15).
Stenson, the reigning British Open champion, withdrew from the Mexico stop after 11 holes due to illness and admitted here that “I’m not 100 percent.’’ He was fourth at the Valspar in 2015 and tied for 11th last year when South African Charl Schwartzel won the title.
Stenson insisted the addition of the Mexico tourney didn’t affect the Florida events, but he was in the minority.
“It’s just a busy time of the year,’’ said Stenson. “It’s six, seven, eight good tournaments in a row. You’re not going to get all the guys playing the same weeks. It’s more down to scheduling and preferences, how many do you want to play in that time span. You can’t really be disappointed that certain players take certain weeks off, because that’s the way it’s always going to be.’’
HERE AND THERE: The Valspar field also includes two Illinois alums. Steve Stricker, now eligible for the Champions Tour, will compete after announcing his choices for assistant President Cup captains earlier this week here. Charlie Danielson made the field through the qualifying round on Monday.
Defending champion Schwartzl has already had a tough week. One of his playing partners hit a shot off a tree in Wednesday’s pro-am and the ball hit Schwartzel on the wrist. His hand went numb and he quit play after 10 holes. He was still hopeful of teeing off in Thursday’s first round.
Matt Kuchar, who will make his 10th appearance in the Valspar, generally likes the U.S. Golf Association’s recently proposed rule changes designed to simplify the game. “I have tons of friends that fudge here and there,’’ said Kuchar. “You want the game to be enjoyable, and simplifying the rules only helps make the game more understandable. It’s a good idea they are working on.’’