Last week I had a rare opportunity to play the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Golf Resort & Spa on the last day of play before the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship this week. It was especially cool to play the course in tournament condition -- fast greens, thick rough, narrow fairways ... and all the grandstands and other infrastructure in place to host the greatest players in the world for the "Most Colorful Championship in Golf" this week. As we pulled into the resort property on Friday afternoon, we passed the lot where all of the equipment companies -- Titleist, Callaway, Ping and more -- were set up in trailers to meet their playing professionals' every equipment need. We checked into a condo that sat above the 14th fairway, just across the street from production village, where TV trucks were already in position and technicians were busy running miles of cable to support the broadcast from the course. It really was something to see -- sort of the calm before the storm.
And storms were in the forecast. Across the state, in Ponte Vedra, wild storms were wreaking havoc at The Players Championship, and I watched the weather app on my phone anxiously to figure out just how morning thunderstorms might affect my planned round. I had a 7:25 tee time -- first off and playing as a single -- and I was hopeful I'd be able to get the round in.
I've wanted to play Innisbrook for years -- since the mid-90s, when I remember playing the Copperhead course in some video game with really bad graphics. For all the times I'd been to the Tampa/Clearwater/St. Petersburg area over the years, however, it had never worked out for me to get in a round. So the fact that my wife and I decided to bring our son to Florida for a long weekend at Innisbrook just before the Valspar made for an especially exciting opportunity to check this course off my list of greats.
Innisbrook is a terrific family resort. Its hundreds of rooms are spread throughout a beautiful property with multiple swimming pools and fantastic restaurants to enjoy. The property boasts a nature preserve, world-class spa and four golf courses, including the famed Copperhead. It's not cheap, that's for sure, but we certainly enjoyed our time on property. And they are proud of their relationship with the Tour and Valspar, as they should be.
The Valspar Championship trophey stands on display in the Osprey Clubhouse lobby at Innisbrook, alongside photos of the Valspar's past champions.
I woke up early Saturday morning and headed to the course. The clouds were dark and threatening, but the latest forecast suggested it might not start raining until close to 10 a.m. Teeing off at 7:25 as a single, I entertained hopes that I might actually play my round before it began to pour. Still, I ponied up $50 for a Copperhead umbrella in the pro shop, figuring that if I bought an umbrella, I was sure to avoid the rain. As I stepped out of the pro shop and looked around, it was something else to take in the sights of a Tour-ready course and speculate about what tournament conditions were likely to do to my score.
I spent some time with the starters before heading to the range. Turned out that Jerry, the back-nine starter, lived most of his life just an hour or so from me in East Liverpool, Ohio -- an area I knew well. When I realized they were snding off groups from both nines, I realized I would not be getting around the course in two-and-a-half hours. But that was OK; whatever the weather might bring, I was just happy to be there.
Designed by one-time president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects and longtime Innisbrook resident Larry Packard, the Copperhead course plays to just over 7,200 yards from the tips. I played from the green tees at 6,624 yards. All yardages mentioned from this point forward will be from the green tees.
Hole 1 -- Par 5, 528 Yards -- Innisbrook's View
Just beyond the hole signage set up for the Tour, the group scheduled to go off behind me was already waiting on the tee when I stepped up to take my turn. I guess it's only right to have some spectators on the first hole if you're going to play a Tour course in Tour conditions. The guys offered to turn their backs, with one of them telling me he hates to tee off with people watching. But I've never been bothered by an audience. Maybe that goes back to my days playing baseball as a kid; I've always enjoyed that sense of pressure to perform with people watching. Doesn't mean I'm always successful, but it's certainly not something I dread. So I told the guys they were free to watch ... that it wouldn't bother me at all. And it didn't, as I hit a nice drive down the left side of the fairway to get my round started.
Much like the snake after which the course is named, the first hole on Copperhead is serpentine-shaped, curling around fairway bunkers and a lake. The tee shot plays downhill, and with thick rough and dense trees left and right, it's important to get the first shot into the short grass.
From the fairway, the first plays uphill past the lake on the right to an elevated green. Bunkers front left and right leave little room to run a low ball into this green.
The greens on Copperhead rolled about as pure as any I've played. Blue skies would have made for a nicer day, but I knew after just the first hole that I already loved this course and was going to really enjoy this experience.
Hole 2 -- Par 4, 371 Yards -- Second Thoughts
No. 2 is a dogleg left with water right of the fairway. The smart play is a layup off the tee to the widest part of the fairway short of the water. I made the mistake of thinking I could draw a driver along the fairway, and I turned it over just a little too much.
This was the best lie I got in the rough all day, just about six feet off the fairway. The thick, deep stuff would claim three of my balls in places where I was sure I ought to have been able to find them as the day went on. I'm convinced the scores on Tour would be significantly higher if the players didn't have so many spotters and spectators to help them find their mishit balls in the rough each week.
The approach to No. 2 green calls for a lofted shot over a big, deep bunker in front to a green that is more than 100 feet deep. It's a tough green to miss with a short-iron in your hands but a tough green to putt if you aren't near the hole.
Hole 3 -- Par 4, 407 Yards -- Narrow Neck
The third hole is a 90-degree dogleg right with water right and also long of the fairway. Watching the Tour pros play it this weekend, I notice that most seem to layup off the tee to ensure they don't reach the water on the right, leaving themselves 180 yards or more to the green. With dense woods left of the hole, there is no room to bail out if you choose to take your chances hitting driver off the tee.
The second shot, across the lake to a distant, elevated green requires both length and precision as the green is well guarded by three deep bunkers.
I was surprised by the bunkers at Copperhead. They weren't full of soft, fluffy sand like I expected. The sand was dense and heavy and required real commitment to the swing to get the club through it. When I talked with the guys in the pro shop, they seemed to delight in the idea that the Tour players don't have as easy a time as usual playing out of the sand on their course.
Hole 4 -- Par 3, 163 Yards -- Bunkered
The 4th hole is a mid-length par-3 playing to a small green surrounded by deep bunkers. The green slopes from back to front and can be a difficult two-putt from the wrong level.
One of the great things about the Valspar is the degree to which the tournament honors the military community. Left of the 4th green is a special hospitality tent open to all active military and veterans during the championship. Note the huge bronze statue honoring the famed horse soldiers -- U.S. Special Forces who were among the first American soldiers to fight in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Their story was told in the Hollywood movie "12 Strong," and the statue left of the 4th green on the Copperhead course commemorates their service and their sacrifices.
Hole 5 -- Par 5, 570 Yards -- Longview
The tee shot on No. 5 is possibly the most picturesque on the Copperhead course. The long par-5 offers all kinds of trouble off the tee -- a forced carry over water and huge bunkers left and right that make the landing area seem a lot smaller than it really is.
The second shot on the 5th hole is a long, straight shot up and over the hill. Play it to the right side of the fairway, which opens up beyond the ridge to leave yourself an approach that isn't blocked out by trees on the left. With four bunkers surrounding the green, the hole is best played with a high approach that carries all the way to the green and lands soft. Be careful not to go long and left, as balls that fly the green will kick down into the trees and could make for a very difficult up and down.
Hole 6 -- Par 4, 422 Yards -- Sidewinder
The sixth hole begins with a blind shot up and over a ridge to a fairway that turns to the right and slopes away from you. Big drives need to be kept to the right in order to avoid running through the fairway into the deep rough. From the fairway, most players are likely looking at mid-iron into this elevated green. Play to the right side of the green to avoid the deep bunker to the left.
Hole 7 -- Par 4, 373 Yards -- Hidden Gem
The 7th is another blind tee shot up and over a rise.
Find the fairway, and this hole becomes a potential scoring opportunity as your drive catches the downslope, leaving little more than a short-iron or even a wedge into the green.
The green is protected by bunkers front left and right as well as another back-right, but find the green with your second shot, and there's a real chance to card a birdie on this flattish putting surface.
Hole 8 -- Par 3, 201 Yards -- Drop Off
This long par-3 requires a precise shot to the right level of this multi-tiered green. At nearly 50 yards in depth, it's easy to hit this green and still have a long way to go to sink your putt.
Hole 9 -- Par 4, 392 Yards -- Hide Away
I reached the ninth tee in just about an hour and 15 minutes -- and just as thunder began to rumble in the distance and lightning flashed somewhere off toward the horizon. There were no sirens, so I trusted it must be safe to continue play for at least the time being.
The ninth is a mid-length par-4 that plays uphill back to the clubhouse. It's one of the holes on the course where you really notice just how much elevation change there is here -- a quality that makes the course stand out in Florida.
Playing on the last day the course was open before the PGA Tour arrived, it was cart paths only, and I did my best to comply. ;)
After playing my shot up to the green from the right rough, I needed to come out into the fairway to take a picture of this sky, which grew more and more threatening as the minutes ticked by.
The approach plays uphill to a relatively small green that mostly can't be seen from the fairway below. Take a little extra club, and fly it to the hole.
When I finished the 9th and made my way back to the clubhouse, the starter told me I'd need to wait about 20 minutes to go off the back nine because they needed to find me an opening between groups that had tee times going off the back. That was fine; I figured I'd grab myself a drink in the clubhouse and just wait. I no sooner stepped into the clubhouse than the skies opened up and the rain began to pour. And I mean POUR. There was lightning and high winds. We heard something -- we never knew what -- roll across the roof. Then we saw a patio umbrella blow past the windows in the clubhouse restaurant as players began running in from the course to seek shelter. And just like that, my 20-minute wait became a two-hour rain delay ... during which a couple of guys told me there'd been a lightning strike on the 5th hole and I was informed that the course actually has no radar and weather warning system. I was surprised by that. Shocked, really. I'm not sure how the PGA Tour handles that, but if I have any complaint, it's that a course charging more than $400 per round isn't equipped with a modern system to alert players if dangerous weather is imminent.
Hole 10 -- Par 4, 410 Yards -- The Descent
I took advantage of the delicious breakfast buffet inside the clubhouse and rode out the delay without complaint. When the course reopened for play just before 11 a.m., I expected it to be wet and soft. But I can't say enough about the drainage. Apart from some puddles on the cart paths, you would not have known that it had stormed just a short time before I teed off the 10th.
No. 10 is a long par-4. It plays a little bit shorter than the yardage on the card just because it plays downhill from the tee, and I hit possibly my best drive of the day -- always a concern coming off a weather delay. I also found myself playing behind a couple of foursomes, which slowed play down on the back, and that might not have been a bad thing at all as I posted six pars in the first seven holes of the back nine.
The approach on No. 10 plays slightly uphill to an elevated green with bunkers left and right. The green is about 100-feet deep, with plenty of room to play it deep enough to avoid the bunker trouble front left and right.
Hole 11 -- Par 5, 525 Yards -- O's Alley
The 11th hole is a long par-5 that doglegs to the left. For all but the longest hitters, the tee shot has to be played out to the right in order to avoid a large fairway bunker at the bend. On both the tee shot and the second shot, players will find there is more room right than left to bail out as dense trees and out of bounds line the left side of the hole.
Big, deep bunkers fronting the green make it near impossible to run a shot into this green, making this a challenging three-shot hole. Two bunkers behind this shallow green also work to demand a high-lofted, soft-landing approach shot for anybody who wants to score well on this tough par-5.
Hole 12 -- Par 4, 357 Yards -- Bridge Hole
One of the most fun holes on the course, I think, the 12th takes driver out of the hands of most players in order to avoid driving through the fairway and into the lake beyond. From the tee, the iconic 17th tee with its "COPPERHEAD" hedge trimmings is on full display to the right, giving players a glimpse of what's to come when they make their way to the Snake Pit.
From the fairway, for most players it's going to be a shot of between 140 and 200 yards into the elevated green with water short and right. The green is guarded by three deep bunkers but may yield birdies to those who find the putting surface with their second shots as the contours are some of the mildest on the back nine.
The famed bridge on 12, from which the hole derives its name, offers a pretty view into the green. Most of the Tour players, however, will make their way across the temporary bridge that leads more directly from fairway to fairway across the small stream that feeds the lake right of the hole.
Hole 13 -- Par 3, 179 Yards -- Forced Carry
No. 13 is the first of three par-3 holes on the back nine and one of two on which water comes into play. Possibly the toughest short hole on the back, the 12th calls for a high ball that carries all the way to the green. Anything short runs the risk of rolling back off the front edge, down the bank and into the water.
Hole 14 -- Par 5, 561 Yards -- Packard's Double Dogleg
The fact that Tour players go for this green in two is a testament to just how far those guys hit the ball and just how different the game is for them versus the rest of us. At 561 yards from the green tees (and 590 from the tips), playing at sea level, this hole is definitely a three shot hole for most of us. The shape of the hole requires a drive out to the right, which puts a lot of land and water between the player and the green. This hole derailed my back-nine a bit when a bad tee shot led to a bad second shot and an even worse third shot, and I found myself scrambling just to make double. Still, it was a really fun hole.
As I made my way up the fairway on 14, my wife and son came out onto the balcony of the condo where we were staying off to the left side and cheered me on a bit. They didn't get to see the sloppiness with which I'd opened the hole, but they were watching when I hit a pretty wedge into the green to set up my double-saving one-putt.
Looking back at the 14th from the green, I could still see my son watching from the balcony of our condo (just over the white picket-fenced seating area for spectators to watch the tournament). It was fun to hear him cheering for me when I sank this putt, even though I'm not sure the group behind me in the fairway much appreciated it.
Hole 15 -- Par 3, 182 Yards -- Snake Bite
No. 15 is the last hole before entering the infamous "Snake Pit." It's a mid-lenth par-3 with water that really shouldn't come into play but for the most terribly mis-hit tee shots. The real danger on this hole is in the bunkers and high rough that surround the green. I watched two members of the foursome in front of me drop balls because they'd lost their tee shots in the really thick grass long of the putting surface here. The hole plays slightly downhill, and most players should be happy just to put their ball in the middle of the green if it means they can walk away with a par here.
Entering the Snake Pit
Between the 15th green and the 16th tee stands "Striker," the large snake statue that marks the start of the "Snake Pit," one of the toughest three-hole closing stretches on the PGA tour each year. Virtually every player who comes through stops to take a selfie with Striker ... and it occurs to me that it's good the photo-op comes before the next three holes are played because the smiles might not be so big after the finish!
Hole 16 -- Par 4, 412 Yards -- Moccasin
No. 16 is a dangerous tee shot with water down the entire right side of the hole, a very narrow fairway and trees to the left. The hole bananas around the lake, emaning the farther left you play it off the tee to avoid the water, the longer and more difficult your second shot into the green is going to be.
From left of the fairway, the second shot plays over the water and long to an elevated green guarded by two deep bunkers. The green is very shallow, which makes it especially hard to hold a low, running shot without much spin. The difference between finding the green and missing it on this hole can easily be two strokes.
Hole 17 -- Par 3, 181 Yards -- The Rattler
The 17th is a longish, uphill par-3 that looks easier than it plays. The multi-tiered green can make par a challenge even for a tee shot that finds the dance floor. And the four deep bunkers that surround the green will challenge even the best players in the world to get up and down. There are no really good options to bail out on this hole, though it is possible to play short of the green to an apron of fairway from which you may find your best opportunity to chip up for a par-save.
Hole 18 -- Par 4, 390 Yards -- The Copperhead
No. 18 may be my favorite finishing hole I've played in a long time. Playing uphill, the 390-yard par-4 plays more like 420 or so from the green tees. And it is just nasty with bunkers up the left and right sides of the fairway.
Six bunkers along the right side of the hole make this a very difficult driving hole and a near impossible green-in-regulation if you find one of them. I found myself up against the face of one of these bunkers off the tee and could just advance my ball into the rough between these four bunkers and the next two on my way to the green.
From just about any point on the hole the putting surface is hidden by the rise of the bunker face and turf that fronts the green complex. This shot was only about 100 yards, but I couldn't see anything but the very edge of the green front-right. The only safeplay was to plan to play this one a bit long and hope for the best, knowing I wouln't be able to put any spin on it out of this thick rough.
I wound up two-putting for a bogey at the end and, honestly, I felt pretty great about not only my finish but the 84 I carded for the round. When I set out for the day, I figured 90 was about my number given the Tour setup, thick rough, fast greens and general rust in my game. In the end, I felt like this was a really fair setup and a great challenge for golfers of just about every leve. Despite the rain delay, it was the most fun I'd had playing a course in a long time. And it's been especially fun this week, watching the pros make their way around a course I played just a week ago.
My wife, Erin, and our son, Clark, met me at the clubhouse after my round, and we caught a ride from one of the cart attendants down to Striker for a family photo. Clark was especially excited to see some of the course, ride in the cart and get up close to the famous snake. He's just getting excited about golf, so it was especially fun to have this moment with him. Someday, I'd love to bring him back when he's older and ready to take on a course like this.
For now, though, he's happy to just take pictures with some of the cool statues they put out to help advertise the color pallette of the paints available from Valspar ... though I've been fending off questions like, "Daddy, can we get a bearded dragon?" since he posed with this thing last week!
This was such a great experience. Our family had so much fun at Innisbrook, and I couldn't have had a much better time playing the Copperhead course. This artwork in the Osprey Clubhouse lobbey, made entirely of golf tees, caught our eye and spoke to the level of detail and care the resort takes in the presentation of the property and the course that's made it famous. After our time there, the Copperhead and the Valspar Championship will always have a special place in our hearts.