Fast turnaround from Tampa and quick study for Xander, Morikawa

PALM HARBOR, Florida. – Xander Schauffele is playing the Valspar Championship for the first time, which isn’t to say that anything Innisbrook is foreign territory for him.

“I know what the range, putting green and chipping green look like,” Schauffele said Wednesday after a nine-hole pro-am. “I just didn’t know how to get there. I didn’t know the locker room was there. I felt like a rookie again.”

He was a rookie in 2017 when he first saw Innisbrook – part of it, anyway – while spending three days as a substitute wondering if enough players would retire. He never reached the first tee of the tournament.

Five years ago, it seems a lot longer for Schauffele, now world No. 9 with an Olympic gold medal from Tokyo and a golf world championship among his four PGA Tour victories.

Not so distant was the memory of the TPC Sawgrass.

Schauffele and Collin Morikawa, who were also playing the Valspar Championship for the first time, were among those caught on the wrong end of the draw at The Players Championship. They had to come back to 40 mph of wind on Saturday morning to resume their first lap and contest all of the second lap in the same conditions.

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Both missed the cut in a tournament that didn’t end until late Monday afternoon. The upside was an early arrival across the state for the Valspar Championship, a chance to experience the Copperhead course, considered one of the best for tournament golf in Florida.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things about this golf course and I’ve heard it’s a ball-striking golf course, which is obviously fine with me,” said Morikawa, one of the top golfers with his iron game.

“You hit it all off the tee, you’ve got a lot of mid-irons in some greens and as long as we can stay in the fairway, that’s kind of sticking to my strengths,” he said.

Sam Burns is the defending champion, winning the PGA Tour for the first time last year. He was lucky enough to pick up his third win in 12 months on Monday, starting The Players final round a shot off the lead until closing with a 76.

Good memories await him in Innisbrook, once he gets rid of the speed of execution.

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“It’s a bit of a blur,” Burns said. “Playing on Thursday, then not playing for two days, playing my second round on Saturday or Sunday – wow, Sunday. Dude, I still can’t remember. I’ve been crazy for the last five or six days.

Schauffele would have preferred to play on the TPC Sawgrass, but he put in the time for the good job. It’s not unusual for Schauffele to grind on Mondays during tournament week, but not when there’s another tournament going on.

He also liked what he saw. Innisbrook has more elevation than the typical Florida course, and the water is more of an exception than the rule. It only really comes into play on seven holes. The challenge is elsewhere.

In some ways, Schauffele found it a good place to start preparing for the Masters.

“It’s tough and it’s a demanding second-stroke golf course,” he said. “The grass is different, the greens are different, the bunkers are different. From a second shot perspective, a lot of 5 and 6 irons in small areas. And with the wind, you have to shape it multiple times.

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The Valspar Championship falls in a tight part of the schedule – just after the $20 million Players Championship purse, the week before the $12 million Dell Match Play, the only World Golf Championship event remaining in the program. Still, he manages to draw a strong field.

Justin Thomas returns this year, a place he only misses when the schedule gets too busy. Also returning is Dustin Johnson, who had an excellent chance to win at Innisbrook three years ago, a behind before Sunday and failed to birdie in the final round.

Morikawa has another chance to reach world No. 1 for the first time, for sure if he wins, possibility with a second place depending on other variables. Viktor Hovland can also reach No. 1 with a win.

Morikawa had a great chance of reaching No. 1 in the Bahamas last December until he lost a five-stroke lead in the final round. He had chances in Hawaii and California and last week at Sawgrass. He is not consumed by it.

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“I guess if I win, I’ll make it,” he said. “I think the most important thing for me is just that I have to focus on the golf course. I say this every time but there were times when I was thinking about world No 1 and this and things I should be doing and I just need to get back to playing like I know I can play .

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