PALM HARBOR — The Copperhead showed its true fangs.
Arguably the hardest course on the four-tournament Florida Swing of the PGA Tour proved again why it’s never easy to grab an early lead at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club’s signature course. So, the combination of cold conditions and a tough course bottlenecked a leaderboard and yielded four 3-under 68s during the first round of the Valspar Championship on Thursday.
Matt Every, Pat Perez, Greg Chalmers and Danny Lee turned in 68s after battling surprisingly crisp and windy mid-March conditions, and those scores mark the lowest first-round lead in the tournament’s 14-year history. Of the four golfers atop the leaderboard, only one has a PGA Tour win (Perez), while the other three have at least a second-place finish.
“Without the cold, it was still pretty windy, and (the course) played tough,” said Perez, a 38-year-old whose PGA Tour win came in 2009.
“You know, this course is tough anyway, and the guys that teed off at 7:40 (a.m.), they had probably the hardest of what we’re going to see this week. I’m really happy with a 3 under.”
There was just one bogey-free round — Kevin Na, who had 17 pars and a birdie for a 1 under 70 — and it was the first time since 2007 that not a single eagle was carded on Copperhead. Those with morning tee times struggled on the par-71, 7,340-yard course, as Every’s 68 was the first in the clubhouse and is stroke better than seven others at 2-under.
“It was super cold and windy this morning, which is when I made my three birdies and kind of just held on from there,” said Michael Putnam, who would bogey the 17th to drop to 2 under. “It’s 50 degrees, and it’s a tricky wind that had them move the tees up on holes that would have got ridiculous because of the wind.”
Every, a former University of Florida golfer, had birdies on holes 6 through 8 and a 36-foot putt on No. 9 that came up a foot short.
“I would have been satisfied with 2 over today, so yeah, it was a good day,” said Every, a 30-year-old former contestant on Golf Channel’s “The Big Break” who is still in search of his first Tour victory in eight professional seasons. “I’ve played enough to know the first round doesn’t matter that much.
“This place is going to be about not making double (bogeys) and taking yourself out of the tournament.”
Every, a Daytona Beach native, said he had played the Copperhead course only once before, as a junior golfer, and he doesn’t think he has an advantage on Florida courses.
“It’s entirely different than what everyone says,” Every said. “They say, ‘You’re from Florida, you can play flat courses.’ Well, not really, because you still have to know the course.”
Chalmers finished tied fourth in this tournament last year to become the fourth left-handed golfer to place in the top 10 at Innisbrook, joining the likes of 2012 Masters champ Bubba Watson (2010), Nick O’Hern (’10) and Steve Flesch (’09). Playing in the afternoon, Chalmers started off with a bogey on the 10th, but turned in a 33 on the front nine.
“(The wind) had to have come down to 10 miles an hour by the time I got on the course at lunchtime,” the 40-year-old Australian said. “You’ll take a 3 under today, because I think the guys in the morning got the worse of the deal because it really wasn’t too unpleasant in the afternoon.
“This course lends itself to one low round with solid rounds built around that.”
Lee, a 23-year-old New Zealand citizen of South Korean descent who played on the Web.com Tour last season, is on the best two-week stretch of his young career, coming off a second-place finish in last weekend’s Puerto Rico Open.
“Obviously I gained a lot of confidence last week, but my ball-striking is the best it’s ever been,” said Lee, the only golfer to get to 4 under before he bogeyed the sixth hole. “(Copperhead) is a totally different golf course.
“I never played this course before Tuesday and I think I shot a 90 in the practice round. It was so hard — I was shocked how hard it was, but like other guys in the afternoon, I took advantage of the better conditions, but it’s a tough course without the wind and cold conditions.”