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Valspar Championship contenders: Breaking down the players who can win at Innisbrook

March 19, 2022

Justin Thomas lines up a putt on the 18th green during the third round of the Valspar Championship.

Julio Aguilar

A look at the contenders heading into the final round of the Valspar Championship:

1. Davis Riley (18 under)

The buildup: After charging up the leader board with a 62 on Saturday that included just 20 putts, the 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie out of Alabama seems like another one of the young guys destined for this kind of moment. Riley, ranked 399th in the world, earned his promotion with two wins in the extended 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour season, though he’s had only one top-10 finish this season—T-7 in Bermuda—in 13 starts. Riley’s previous-best position after 54 holes was T-15.

The stakes: If Riley wins, he would be the second rookie to do so this season, joining Lucas Herbert (Bermuda Championship).

Key stat: Riley enters the final round having gone 30 straight holes without a bogey.

Quotable: “Winning twice on the Korn Ferry in 2020, yeah, it was a really good experience for me, just getting in contention. No matter the stage, it's hard to win a golf tournament. Just being in contention and having those, that blood flowing is huge. Any time you can get just a pinch of that and get that experience is huge, and just winning twice served me well.”

2. Matthew NeSmith (16 under)

The buildup: It’s tough to back up a 61, but NeSmith did his best in the third round, starting with four birdies on the front to forge a four-shot lead. He stumbled on the back, though, making four bogeys (including at 16 and 17) to shoot 69.

The stakes: At 28, NeSmith is trying to secure his first PGA Tour win in his 68th start as a pro. He had only three career top-10 finishes going into the week—the best being a T-6 at the 2020 Puerto Rico Open. NeSmith is currently ranked 279th in the world.

Key stat: NeSmith is near the top versus the field in four key categories: strokes gained/approach (first), SG/putting (fourth), SG/tee-to-green (fourth) and SG/off-the-tee (fifth).

Quotable: "It's just the golf course sets up well for me. If I drive it well, my iron play is the strength of my game, And there's a lot of times where guys have to hit it, kind of they have to lay up, and we all have to play from the same spot, so that's my game. That's what I've always been really good at.”

T-3. Justin Thomas (15 under)

The buildup: Many expected the World No. 8 to make noise in the cluster that was the Players Monday finish, only to see him fail to fire with final rounds of 72-72. Thomas is there again, on a far better roll with three impressive 66s.

The stakes: There likely isn’t a player hitting it better right now who doesn’t yet have a win in the current season. Thomas already has five top-eight finishes, and three of those have come since the calendar turned. This would be win No. 15 in seven-plus full-time seasons.

Key stat: Thomas’ putting has heated up. After losing 1.32 strokes to the field on the greens in the first round, he’s bounced back by gaining a total of 4.36 in the last two rounds. He’s No. 1 in SG/tee-to-green (9.02).

Quotable: “I haven't been great at leader board watching lately because I let it kind of affect me or change me too much. The only thing I should be looking at is what that leading score is and then just keep playing.”

T-3. Sam Burns (15 under)

Sam Burns reacts to his birdie on the 16th green during the third round of the Valspar Championship.

Douglas P. DeFelice

The buildup: Burns’ second shot of the third round was so spectacular that it gave him only four feet from the hole for eagle. It was a start that led to a 67 that has him in position to win the Valspar for the second consecutive year.

The stakes: If he pulls off the double at Innisbrook, Burns will join Paul Casey, who won the Valspar back-to-back in 2018-19. At 25, the LSU product, who is ranked 17th in the world, would already have three wins and 18 top-10 finishes in 93 starts as a pro.

Key stat: Burns in second in the field in SG/tee-to-green (8.98).

Quotable: "I've known Davis [Riley] for years. We played a bunch growing up. He's always been a really, really good player, so it's fun to see him playing well.”

5. Adam Hadwin (13 under)

The buildup: The Canadian, whose lone tour win came in the 2017 Valspar, had the worst third-round score among the contenders, shooting a 70 that ended in ho-hum fashion with seven straight pars. He opened the tournament by going 64-66.

The stakes: As noted, the 34-year-old Hadwin has the one tour win five years ago to go with three career runner-up finishes. He’s coming off one of his more impressive performances, a T-9 in the Players, achieved with a 67 in the final round.

Key stat: While Hadwin statistically gains a half-shot per round in approach (iron play), this week that number is a considerably better total (4.01).