The first round of the Valspar Championship on Thursday played a bit easier than most have come to expect at the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Keegan Bradley took advantage by firing a bogey-free 64 which leads the tournament by two over five different golfers tied for second.
The three top-10 players in this field -- Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed -- all had varying degrees of success Thursday in Palm Harbor, Florida, but none are within four of Bradley's lead. Still, at a course as difficult as Innisbrook, things can change in a hurry. After an eventful first day, the next three should be terrific as an underrated field tries to win an underrated event this weekend and Bradley tries to grab his first victory in nearly three years.
Let's take a look at the leaderboard after Round 1.
1. Keegan Bradley (-7): He said after his round that he likes the Copperhead Course because it's a great spot for ball-strikers and that's what he does best. This is true, and while it's been true for his entire career, it's been especially true of late as Bradley is having the second-best season of his career in terms of ball-striking (currently gaining nearly 1.0 strokes per round on approach shots). It was also true Thursday as he gained 4 of his 7 strokes on the field with iron play. One easy way to keep a clean card like Bradley did is to hit 17 of 18 greens in regulation and 12 looks at birdie from inside 20 feet. Even a below-average putter like Bradley can manage that. The good news for him is that something around 10 under normally wins this tournament so he's put all the legwork out of the way and now just has to play steady golf for the next 54 holes, which, I realize, is much easier said than done.
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T2. Emiliano Grillo, Max Homa (-5): Grillo came in on a nice little hot streak (top 11 in three of his last five), and it continued Thursday. For him, it will come down to the putter. If he stays where he was in Round 1 -- top 30 in the field -- he'll be in the final pairing Sunday. Homa is the player in this group of five trailing by 2 strokes that might have the most win equity, though he putted it way above his normal level on Thursday, which is something to keep an eye on.
T7. Abraham Ancer (-4): Ancer was my pick this week, though I'm a bit concerned that he -- like Homa -- did most of his damage with the putter in Round 1. He's found a way to get it done (six straight top 30s despite a cold putter) of late, and if the tee-to-green game snaps back into play, I'm going to be feeling pretty good about that pick at 33-1 to start the tournament. He's about half that now to win, according to William Hill Sportsbook.
T14. Paul Casey (-3): After starting with a bogey on his opening hole, Casey, the back-to-back champion of this tournament, closed with a clean card over the next 17 and hit the ball beautifully once again. In his previous two wins at this tournament, Casey opened with 70 both times. And while the course does seem to be playing a bit easier this time around, a start of 68 means he's right on track for something that nobody has done in a decade -- win a tournament in three straight iterations of its playing.
"I just want to kind of hang around, which is kind of what I did today," Casey said. "I certainly can't win it today but I want to hang around. It's a tough thing to do a three-peat, I think only 10 guys have done it, something like that. So we'll see what happens."
T28. Justin Thomas (-2): J.T. often does this little dance where he's hitting the absolute hell out of the ball but can't find his putter before running off a 64-65 finish or a nine-hole stretch where he shoots 31. That feels in play this week after he was top five in the field from tee to green, averaged 16 feet on approach shots on the front nine and nearly finished last in putting. There's a reason he's among the top three favorites going into Round 2.
T66. Dustin Johnson (E): By D.J. standards, it was a lousy day. Every time I looked up, he was pushing a drive way out to the right and playing from terrible positions. He didn't do anything particularly well, although he's also the player I worry the least about from round to round. If he goes out and shoots three 65s to win over the next three days, I honestly would not be all that surprised.
T129. Michael Visacki (+3): The man who stole the show early in the week byfor his first-ever PGA Tour event birdied his first-ever hole in a PGA Tour tournament as well. Aside from another birdie on the par-3 13th, it was not so great after that as he went on to shoot a 3-over 74 in Round 1, but what an awesome moment to start the event Thursday morning. Though he's extremely unlikely to make the cut Friday, the 27-year-old Visacki is confident about what the future holds.
"(It's) going to teach me a lot what I need to work on and what can I do to get better and so that I'm able to come out here and compete full-time," Visacki said.