PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Xander Schauffele is playing the Valspar Championship for the first time, which is not to suggest everything about Innisbrook is foreign territory for him.
“I know what the range, the putting green and the 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 over 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 an alternate wondering if enough players would withdraw. He never made it to the first tee for the tournament.
Five years ago seems much longer for Schauffele, now No. 9 in the world with an Olympic gold medal from Tokyo and a World Golf Championship among his four PGA Tour victories.
Not so distant was the memory from the TPC Sawgrass.
Schauffele and Collin Morikawa, also playing the Valspar Championship for the first time, were among those caught on the wrong side of the draw at The Players Championship. They had to return to 40 mph wind Saturday morning to resume their first round and play the entire second round in the same conditions.
Both missed the cut in a tournament that didn't end until late Monday afternoon. The upside was an early arrival across the state to the Valspar Championship, a chance to get to know the Copperhead course that as regarded as one of the best for tournament golf in Florida.
“I've heard great things about this golf course and heard it was a ball-striker's golf course, which obviously suits my eye,” said Morikawa, one of the best in golf with his iron play.
“You're hitting everything off the tee, having a lot of mid-to-long irons into 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 for the first time on the PGA Tour last year. He had a chance to pick up his third win in 12 months on Monday, starting the final round of The Players one shot out of the lead until closing with a 76.
Good memories await at Innisbrook, once he gets his head clear from the quick turnaround.
“It's kind of been a blur,” Burns said. “Playing Thursday, then not playing for two days, playing my second round on Saturday or Sunday — wow, Sunday. Man, I still can't even remember. I's been a crazy last five or six days.”
Schauffele would rather have been playing on the TPC Sawgrass, but he put the time to good work. It's not unusual for Schauffele to grind on Monday during tournament week, just not when there's another tournament going on.
He also liked what he saw. Innisbrook has more elevation than the typical Florida course, and water is more of an exception than the rule. It really comes into play only on seven holes. The challenge lies elsewhere.
In some respects, Schauffele found it a good place to start preparing for the Masters.
“It's tough, and a demanding second-shot golf course,” he said. “The grass is different, greens are different, bunkers are different. From a second-shot standpoint, a lot of 5- and 6-irons into small areas. And with wind, you have to shape it up against it a few times.”
The Valspar Championship falls in a tight part of the schedule — right after the $20 million purse of The Players Championship, the week before the $12 million Dell Match Play, the only World Golf Championships event left on the schedule. Still, it manages to attract a strong field.
Justin Thomas returns this year, a place he only misses when the schedule gets too crowded. Also back is Dustin Johnson, who had an excellent chance to win at Innisbrook three years ago, one behind going into Sunday and then failing to make birdie in the last round.
Morikawa gets another chance to reach No. 1 in the world for the first time, for certain if he wins, possibility with a runner-up finish depending on other variables. Viktor Hovland also can reach No. 1 with a victory.
Morikawa had a great chance to get to No. 1 in the Bahamas last December until he lost a five-shot lead in the final round. He had chances in Hawaii and California and last week at Sawgrass. He is not consumed by it.
“I assume if I win I'll get there,” he said. “I think the biggest thing for me is just I need to focus on the golf course. I say that every time, but there have been times where thinking about world No. 1, thinking about this and things that I should do and I just need to get back to playing the way I know I can play.”
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