Strong field set for Valspar Championship

The PGA Tour returns to Florida after a week south of the border and is back to a full field as 144 players, including defending champion Charl Schwartzel and 2016 Olympic silver medalist Henrik Stenson, compete at the Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club's Copperhead Course, in Palm Harbor, Fla.

The field also includes 19 of the top 30 players in the current FedExCup standings, including FedExCup leader Justin Thomas and No. 8 Gary Woodland, the 2011 Valspar Championship winner. Thirteen major championship winners who have combined for 19 major championship titles, including four-time major winner Ernie Els, are among the competitors here this week.

The golfers will be challenged by the Copperhead Course, which plays to a par of 71 and at 7,340 yards as they vie for a total purse of $6.3 million, of which $1.134 million goes to the winner. Its famed three-hole finish is nicknamed the "Snake Pit," for its difficulty and impact.

All three holes -- a 475-yard par-4, followed by a par-3 and finishing with another par-4 -- played at over par in last year's event and the stretch is considered one of the toughest closing groups on the PGA Tour

Schwartzel, of South Africa, won here in 2016 in just his second start at this event. He fashioned a final-round, 4-under 67 and tied 54-hole leader Bill Haas (72) to force a sudden-death playoff between the two players.

With a par at the first extra hole, No. 18, Schwartzel claimed his second career PGA Tour win in his 129th start on the circuit. Schwartzel also became the eighth player to come from behind in the final round to win the Valspar Championship.

Schwartzel's chance to repeat as champion took a hit -- literally -- during Wednesday's pro-am when he was struck on his left wrist by a golf ball that bounced off a tree.

"I've played golf for 28 years and I've never been hit by a golf ball -- until this morning," Schwartzel said, trying to laugh off the incident. "It was a fluke. I stopped playing after 10 holes -- I couldn't hold the club anymore. It's just the muscle and it's swollen, so I've started taking pain-killers. Hopefully, it's good tomorrow morning. I'll keep icing it."

He was feeling really good about things heading into the tournament, too.

Last year's playoff was just the third in Valspar Championship history, and second consecutive. The first occurred in 2012, when Luke Donald defeated Jim Furyk, Robert Garrigus and Sangmoon Bae. In 2015, Jordan Spieth defeated Sean O'Hair and Patrick Reed.

Stenson, last year's British Open champion, likes the course at Innisbrook and this tournament's spot on the golf calendar as he prepares to take a run at the Masters in April. He is the fifth-ranked player in the world and winner of the 2013 FedExCup,

The Swede will be making just his third start of the 2016-17 PGA Tour season this week. Stenson finished in a tie for second at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions and will be making his third start in the Valspar Championship. In 2015, he finished fourth here, just one shot out of the playoff. He finished tied for 11th last season.

"It's a golf course I think suits my game pretty well as the two previous visits here have shown, and I hope I can be there on Sunday afternoon with a chance to win," Stenson said. "It's a good golf course -- a second-shot golf course. A lot of times, you have to position yourself off the tee.

"It's the beginning of a good stretch of tournaments leading into Augusta, so we want to try to get to the Masters in the right direction with where the game is at and what we need to keep on working on leading into the first major of the year."

The Valspar is the 17th official event of the PGA Tour's wraparound 2016-17 season schedule, which consists of 47 tournaments, including the four FedExCup Playoff events, and culminates with the Tour Championship.

Through last week's World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship, seven of the nine winners in the 2017 calendar year have been inside the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking, including Thomas (SBS Tournament of Champions, No. 22); Thomas (Sony Open in Hawaii/ then No. 12); Hideki Matsuyama (Waste Management Phoenix Open/ No. 5); Spieth (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am/ No. 6); Dustin Johnson (Genesis Open/No. 3); Rickie Fowler (The Honda Classic/No. 14); and Johnson (WGC-Mexico Championship/No. 1).