PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) – The Valspar Championship is in a tough spot in the Florida Swing. It follows the Honda Classic and a World Golf Championship at Doral, and it comes the week before the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Dell Match Play.
It's a good week to take a break, yet it still attracts a strong field because of the Copperhead course at Innisbrook. There is a premium on position off the tee and into the green, and the elevation changes are unique to Florida.
The tournament has attracted five of the top 12 in the world, along with players like Martin Kaymer and Matt Kuchar. Also in the field is a newcomer, Graeme McDowell. He put it on his schedule when he wasn't sure he would be in Doral. And even after he qualified for Doral, McDowell was so intrigued that he decided to play, anyway.
CHANGES: The course went through an extensive renovation last year while keeping the design of the late Larry Packard. The biggest upgrade was a drainage system for the fairways, though some bunkers were restored and greens enlarged to match up with the original design.
The biggest difference might be the greens, and that's not for the better, at least this year. A tough growing season in Florida has left the putting surfaces in less than ideal condition, though one aspect hasn't changed. Everyone has to play on them. Low score still wins.
WORTHY OF ATTENTION: Of the five PGA Tour events Jordan Spieth won last year, the Valspar Championship gets overlooked.
His wire-to-wire victory at the Masters was the most significant because of the 36-hole record he broke, the 72-hole record he tied (previously held by Tiger Woods) and the green jacket over his shoulders. The U.S. Open defined his season and his pursuit of the Grand Slam. The John Deere Classic was right before he headed to St. Andrews. And the Tour Championship gave him the FedExCup and the $10 million bonus.
What set the tone, however, was his playoff victory at Innisbrook. He watched highlights on Tuesday night with his caddie, Michael Greller.
"It was just pretty exciting to watch," he said. "Had a few tough up-and-downs the last few holes, made a few putts and ultimately knocked in a long one in the playoff and really got a nice start to closing out tournaments in `15. And continued throughout the year.
"Yeah, very special place."
He already is ahead of schedule when the Valspar Championship starts Thursday. Spieth won at Kapalua to start the year, and while his results have been ordinary his last three tournaments, being an Innisbrook is a reminder that the Masters is getting closer.
MEMORIES: Spieth has an early tee time Thursday at the Copperhead Course, and a strong group. He is playing with Henrik Stenson and Bill Haas, each of whom has won the FedEx Cup over the last five years.
If winning at Innisbrook brings back good memories for Spieth, perhaps his putter will warm up playing alongside Stenson.
They battled for the Tour Championship last September, tied for the lead in the final round with 11 holes to go when Spieth started making everything. Stenson was in tight for a tap-in birdie on the ninth hole when Spieth rolled in a 20-foot birdie. Two holes later, Stenson had 3 feet for birdie and watched Spieth make one from 45 feet.
The putter is what has held Spieth back since his eight-shot win at Kapalua.
"Hasn't really clicked yet. Haven't quite gone in yet," he said. "But they will."
DIALING IT BACK: Spieth said his biggest problem over the last two months was setting the bar too high. Leaving Hawaii, where he finished at 30-under par, he began to think that he would get similar results each week if he put in the time. Even good golf – a tie for fifth in Abu Dhabi, runner-up in Singapore – felt worse than it was.
He began to lower his expectations at Doral last week, a course that doesn't suit his game.
"The four tournaments that I played in between Hawaii and Doral, I certainly think the expectations that I put on myself were too high because of Hawaii and I kind of needed to dial it back a little bit," he said. "Obviously you want to set high-end, borderline unrealistic expectations for yourself because if you get anywhere close to it you're going to be there. But there's a balance that I needed to find. It's been a learning experience this year."
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