Recap of the day
Morning session: Keegan Bradley was the R1 leader at TPC Sawgrass last week and also here at Innisbrook in 2016 so those converging trends were playing out nicely as he hit 5-under after just 11 holes but two late bogeys meant a 68. Instead, the clubhouse target was set by Joel Dahmen, who nailed a 21-foot putt for birdie at 9 to complete a 5-under 66. A nice follow-up to his T12 at THE PLAYERS last week. He was joined later by Austrian Sepp Straka, the duo a shot ahead of the more familiar trio of Kevin Kisner, Russell Knox and Luke Donald. Knox produced the thunderclap moment of the day, draining his second shot at 11 for albatross-2.
Afternoon session: With the wind picking up and scoring conditions harder, no-one was able to get to the two leaders. In fact, no-one was able to penetrate the -4s either. Best of the p.m. bunch were Roberto Castro (T20 at Honda last time) and Shawn Stefani with 68s. Stefani did jump to 4-under by draining his approach at 16 for eagle but a walk-off bogey dropped him back into a five-way tie on 3-under.
Revised betting: 4/1 DJ, 10/1 Kisner, 16/1 Bradley, Knox, 22/1 Bubba, Kokrak, Furyk, Rahm, Casey.
Friday weather forecast
The sun is out early Friday and remains there all day. Temps start at around 55 degrees and peak just shy of 70 at 1pm. Wind speeds pick up slightly for the afternoon wave (around 10mph).
Leaders after 18 holes
Joel Dahmen (66) – Had a piece of the R1 lead at Pebble before slumping to T48 so he’ll hope to do a better job this time. Six birdies against a lone bogey, gaining over 3.9 strokes Tee to Green.
Sepp Straka (66) – The Austrian had a clean card today, making two of his five birdies on par 3s. Perfect scrambling stats facilitated by a hot blade - 1st for SG: Putting.
Luke Donald (67) – Playing on a medical exemption, this is just the Englishman’s second start of the year after MC at Sony in January. But he has some excellent history here having won at Innisbrook in 2012, the second leg of a 6-1-4-4 run at the course. Donald hit just 44.44% of greens in reg but got up and down nine times out of 10, ranking T3 for Putts Per GIR.
Russell Knox (67) – Had three 2s in the space of six holes, the middle one for that rarest of birds the albatross. Shot tracker: Shot 1 300 yds to right fairway, 275 yds to hole. Shot 2 in the hole. Hit 9 of 13 fairways and 12 GIR.
Kevin Kisner (67) – No deuces on Kisner’s card but he ticked three of the four par 5s and dropped just a single shot, ranking 1st in SG: Tee-To-Green.
Fate of the favorites
Dustin Johnson (69) – DJ’s first round at Innisbrook since 2010 kept threatening to take off but he twice followed birdies with bogeys after cruising to 3-under thru 8. Nothing standout in his stats apart from 3rd place in SG: Off The Tee. First time he’s beaten par in five laps of the course.
Jason Day (74) – Hard to know what’s going on with Day. Injured one week, in contention at TPC Sawgrass the next (T8). Hadn’t played here since 2013 and perhaps we know why. T20 in 2012 is his only top 40 in six starts and today’s lap had five bogeys and just two par breakers. Missed seven greens and scrambled poorly.
Sergio Garcia (71) – (See Focus on – below)
Joel Dahmen (66): “It was good. Wind was down early so I took advantage of that, I think I birdied three of my first four. Tough stretch in there, just kind of hung on, and then I hit some good iron shots on my back nine and, yeah, it was just a real solid out there today. My putting comes and goes and when my putting's on I do okay. I worked real hard on that last week, had my coach in town at THE PLAYERS and it's so far so good.”
Sepp Straka (66): “Really putted well. The putter was key. Made a lot of birdie putts and just keeping the ball under the hole is key, it's huge out here. It was pretty stress free. I've been hitting my irons really well and I know this is a course that if you're hitting your irons well you can kind of attack it, if you put the ball in play. So my driver's been a little bit streaky, when it's good, it's good and I was able to get the ball in some good spots and so I could take advantage of that with my irons.”
Kevin Kisner (67): “I played nicely, I probably didn't strike it as solidly as I have the last couple weeks but I got away with the misses. And really didn't hole that many putts, I hit it close four or five times and then birdied the par-5s. So it was a solid day overall. It was almost no wind for the first eight or nine holes and then, shoot, on 18 I just hit 5-iron in there. So it's definitely going to kick up and I hope it blows about 40 this afternoon.”
Luke Donald (67): “It's been a bit of a struggle the last year. Obviously struggling with some back stuff and working hard at it, but backs are tricky and they take a little bit of time and, yeah, it's nice to shoot a good round today. Honestly my goal this week is to play four rounds and feel pretty good at the end of four rounds and then keep going. But to play well is a nice bonus. I'm still limited reps, I'm not just going out there and beating balls for six hours a day like I used to and playing every day. So I'm having to be a little bit more efficient with my practice.”
Russell Knox (67): (On albatross) “It's a good way to go from plus 2 to minus one very quickly. Didn't even have to putt, which was great. No, I hit a beautiful drive and I knew that if I just hit a nice 3-wood down there I would be somewhere near the green and that's really all I was looking for. I smoked it right on line and it was right down the flag the whole way and it just carried the bunker and it kicked on, rolled, rolled, rolled, rolled, and in she went.”
Dustin Johnson (69): “I played a little bit better than my score. I felt like I hit the ball really well, even hit good putts, just a couple misreads, but all in all it was a good score and I felt like the conditions were, they were tricky. Wind was blowing pretty good.”
Road to victory at Innisbrook
2018 Paul Casey – R1: 8th, R2: 2nd, R3: 11th
2017 Adam Hadwin – R1: 12th, R2: 1st, R3: 1st
2016 Charl Schwartzel – R1: 25th, R2: 15th, R3: 8th
2015 Jordan Spieth – R1: 38th, R2: 2nd, R3: 2nd
2014 John Senden – R1: 45th, R2: 35th, R3: 3rd
Notes: A modest start at Innisbrook is no biggie; players can soon recover. Casey was the only winner in the last six years to be inside the top ten after 18 holes while K.J. Choi is the only champion since the course first became part of the schedule in 2000 to have the first-round lead. In total, 15 of the 18 winners have been three or more shots off the leader after day one.
Fate of the 18-hole leaders at Bay Hill – where did they finish?
Notes: Beware the curse of the R1 lead at Innisbrook. The list of first-round leaders on the PGA TOUR who have missed a 36-hole cut is a short one but there are two instances of it here. Bradley followed a 67 with a 79 to crash out at halfway in 2016 while the same fate befell Danny Lee in 2014 after he fired 68-79. Go back to 2010 and Garrett Willis didn’t make the final round after he went 65-77-74. There’s been better news for recent R1 leaders with Herman and Howell III both finishing in the top five.
Focus on – Patrick Reed
Every Masters winner this century had posted a strokeplay top ten earlier that season. Reed added to the trend by finishing runner-up here 12 months ago before adding T7 at Bay Hill which was played later in the schedule. However, Reed returns to the Valspar this year with not a single top ten to his name in the current campaign despite boasting a perfect 8-for-8 slate. In other words, he’s playing okay but not well enough to be considered for a second green jacket. Can he put that right this week? That would almost certainly be a ‘nope’ after a car crash 77 today which featured three doubles. A look at his stats this year shows that the short game is in fine shape again – 18th SG: Around-The-Green and 29th SG: Putting but his irons are letting him down. Reed ranks 147th in SG: Approach and 194th in Proximity. Today, he hit just four greens in regulation. His tournament looks set to end early although at least he has some matchplay next week to perhaps reboot the system which appears to have developed a fault.
Focus on – Sergio Garcia
So how about the 2017 Masters winner? Sergio has had four worldwide top tens this season and closed with a 67 for T22 at Sawgrass so all seems fairly well. He’s enjoyed this event previously too, the owner of a 6-for-6 record with a Sunday 65 securing his best finish of T4 last year. Today, Garcia contributed to some slightly subdued Spanish symmetry in the middle of the leaderboard as he, Jon Rahm and Rafa Cabrera Bello all had to settle for even-par 71s. Sergio’s was the least eventful, comprising just two birdies and two bogeys. In complete contrast to Reed, the Spaniard started the week ranked 1st in Strokes Gained: Approach but 158th in SG: Around-The-Green. That first stat took a hit as he registered a negative Approach figure while the lack of short-game sharpness showed up via 1-for-3 Sand Saves. Sergio also has homework to do before next month’s examination at Augusta National.
Focus on – Danny Willett
And staying on the Masters theme, Danny Willett’s participation this week means the last three green jacket winners are all honing their games here. The Englishman returned to winning ways with a superb victory at the European Tour’s season-ending DP Tour Championship in November but lost his way a little in recent weeks with MCs at Sawgrass and Bay Hill after starting with 75 and 78 respectively. T25 at Torrey Pines and T26 at the WGC-Mexico were encouraging though and he flashed more good signs (T9 GIR) today in a 2-under 69. Just two starts before his Masters win in 2016, the Englishman finished T22 at Innisbrook (his first and only Valspar appearance). Will a similar path lead to another big display at Augusta National?