PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) Jordan Spieth feels his game is in about the same spot as last year going into the Valspar Championship, which turned out to be the start of big run that carried him all the way to a green jacket.
The difference is that eight-shot victory to start the year in Hawaii, and the expectations that came along with it.
Spieth knew he was going to be a target this year. He is No. 1 in the world, the Masters and U.S. Open champion who made a bold pursuit of the Grand Slam. And then he blew away the winners-only field at Kapalua in his first start of 2016, and winning felt easy.
Maybe too easy.
”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,” Spieth said Wednesday. ”But there’s a balance that I needed to find. It’s been a learning experience this year.”
A year ago, Spieth had three top 10s, a missed cut at Torrey Pines and a tie for 17th at Doral, a course that doesn’t seem to suit him or anyone else who doesn’t hammer tee shots 300 yards in the air.
Throw out the eight-shot win at Kapalua this year, and Spieth has a pair of top 10s, a missed cut and another tie for 17th at Doral.
Spieth is the defending champion at the Valspar Championship, which gets lost among the Florida Swing on the PGA Tour but still manages to attract a strong field because of the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook. Henrik Stenson, Patrick Reed, Danny Willett and Branden Grace give the tournament five of the top 12 in the world.
Spieth finished with three tough par saves last year to get into a three-man playoff, and he beat Reed and Sean O’Hair with a 30-foot birdie on the third extra hole. He followed with runner-up finishes in San Antonio and Houston, and then he went wire-to-wire at the Masters and tied Tiger Woods’ record score.
Repeating is never easy at any tournament, let alone a stretch of four of them.
”I’ve actually been off to a better start in 2016 than I was in 2015,” Spieth said. ”I feel like I’m in a better place. … Really need to get my putter going. Hasn’t really slicked yet. Feels fine. Haven’t quite gone in yet. But they will.”
Even so, it seems as though his game hasn’t been as sharp. In his last three tournaments, he finished 10 shots behind at Pebble Beach, missed the cut at Riviera after the worst opening round (79) of his young PGA Tour career, and then finished 11 shots behind at Doral.
It was last week at Doral that Spieth learned to temper his expectations, and the Blue Monster at Trump National Doral was the perfect place for that.
”That course is going to make you … it’s really bad for player-caddie relationships, as well as player-golf club relationships,” Spieth said with a laugh. ”You don’t like your caddie or your clubs after that week. But I set lower expectations given I don’t think the course is a good fit for me.”
It was the two months in between that caused so much frustration.
Spieth was 30-under par at Kapalua – the second-lowest score to par in PGA Tour history for a 72-hole tournament – and headed overseas ready to conquer the world. He tied for fifth in Abu Dhabi and was runner-up in the Singapore Open. That wasn’t bad. It just didn’t feel good enough.
”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. ”I just thought that each part of my game, and especially my putting, would be like that each time if I put in the same amount of work. But sometimes, different factors inhibit that.”
Each week is one step closer to the first major of the year, which is true for more players than just Spieth.
Stenson is in the middle of three straight weeks (he’ll skip the Dell Match Play) until going to Houston and then Augusta. Graeme McDowell is playing four straight weeks before taking a week off before Augusta.
Innisbrook is nothing like Augusta National except for the quality of shots that must be hit. For some, that’s enough.
”I’m a believer than good golf leads to more good golf,” Matt Kuchar said. ”I’m a believer in focusing on the present and trying to play your very best this week and the better your result is this week, the better that will lead to next week and the week after and down the road and to Augusta.”