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Florida's best events, best courses don't match up

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PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Forget strength of field, purse size, location or even a World Golf Championship pedigree. If players picked which tournaments to play based entirely on the quality of a golf course, the fields during the PGA Tour’s Florida swing would look vastly different.

It may not be “Super Tuesday,” but the results from an unscientific poll of players on Tuesday at the Valspar Championship regarding the best track on the Florida swing may prove a surprise.

Asked to rank the PGA Tour's five Florida stops based on the courses themselves, this week’s stop just outside Tampa edged TPC Sawgrass, home of The Players in May, for the top spot.

In order, based on player polling (five points given for a first-place vote, four for second, three for third, etc.), Innisbrook was No. 1, followed by TPC Sawgrass, PGA National (Honda Classic), Bay Hill (Arnold Palmer Invitational) and, finally, Doral (WGC-Cadillac Championship).

In fairness to all five Florida stops, if a player is in this week’s field at Innisbrook, he clearly has an affinity for the course. That, and Tour types tend to make decisions about where to play based on all manner of reasons, which is the definition of partisan politics.

“The list of champions [at Innisbrook] has been pretty strong,” smiled Kevin Streelman, the 2013 Valspar Championship winner, before adding, “It’s one I played every single year. I enjoy staying here, and I like coming to Tampa.”

But Innisbrook’s popularity seems to go well beyond the normal reasons on which players base their schedules.

“It would be hard to find a course that is a better design than this on the PGA Tour,” Trevor Immelman said. “Great par 3s. The only real funky hole is the sixth. To me, that’s the only funky hole out here, and all the other ones are pretty damn strong.”

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Ryan Palmer, who added this week’s stop to his schedule in an 11th-hour attempt to secure his spot in the WGC-Dell Match Play, made a more personal argument for Innisbrook’s lofty spot in the Sunshine State lineup.

“This one is an iron-play golf course and you have to drive it well. It rewards ball-striking,” said Palmer, who annually ranks among the Tour’s top ball-strikers.

His perspective is one indicator of what factors into a player’s definition of a good golf course.

Conversely, what doesn’t seem to influence players at all is the degree of difficulty.

Of the five Florida courses, PGA National ranked as the toughest last year - it was the fourth toughest overall on Tour in 2015 - and yet received a healthy share of support in player polling.

“PGA National is the hardest just because every shot is disaster waiting to happen,” Immelman said.

“There’s water on both sides and out of bounds, bunkers. A lot of times what I found playing that course was you play away from the trouble and then you’re in the [5-to-6-inch] rough and you make bogey anyway. You might as well just aim it down the water line and give it a rip. And you throw in 15-20 mph winds it gets very tricky.”

That difficulty is seen by other players as an attribute.

“PGA National is definitely the best,” Palmer said. “It’s hard and fair. There’s nothing tricky about it. It’s right in front of you. If you hit your irons well all week you’re going to play well.”

That philosophy also explains TPC Sawgrass’ status as Florida’s second-best Tour layout.

Although the Stadium Course has been something of an acquired taste for some throughout its history, there is an appreciation for the layout’s demanding nuances.

There’s also something to be said for the eclectic list of champions TPC Sawgrass has produced, a group that includes Fred Funk, Tiger Woods and Tim Clark.

“The No. 1 thing when rating golf courses is whether there have been a lot of different players winning,” Chris Stroud said. “That’s normally the best golf course. So Sawgrass is going to be up there because every type of player has won there.”

Even Streelman, who has missed the cut four times in seven starts at The Players, conceded the home of the Tour’s flagship event is among his favorite stops.

“Obviously, I love Innisbrook, but I love Sawgrass as well, so I’d give those 1-A and 1-B,” Streelman said.

As for Doral, it's slice of prime South Florida real estate does little to influence players’ view of the Blue Monster.

In fact, one player – who asked not to be identified for fear he would be fined for being critical of a Tour course – hadn’t played PGA National and declined to vote on its place in the Florida lineup, but smiled, “Doral is still fifth.”

That presents an entirely different question: If a World Golf Championship were played at Innisbrook instead of Doral, what would the field look like?

“WGC here? Best field in golf,” Stroud said.

It’s always that way in politics, you can’t have polling without a little lobbying on the side.