PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Matthew NeSmith has been working so hard and getting so little out of his game that he tried to get out of his own way. He wound up in the record book Friday at the Valspar Championship.
No more worrying about whether his drives would find the fairway, his approach shots would land on the green instead of the bunkers, whether his putts would lip out instead of curl in.
NeSmith crafted a 10-under 61 to tie the Copperhead course record at Innisbrook set 10 years ago by three-time major champion Padraig Harrington. He missed one fairway and two greens, and there was a stretch late in his round when it seemed he couldn't miss a putt.
“It's so weird not to try and hit fairways and not try and hit the green and not try and make putts and just do the best I can. That’s a hard thing for me to do,” NeSmith said. “I'm just like everybody else. We like control and we like to be able to try and steer things in the right direction, but I’ve been holding on for too long, so I’m done with it.”
NeSmith was at 14-under 128, breaking by two shots the 36-hole record at the Valspar Championship that Sam Burns and Keegan Bradley set a year ago.
Adam Hadwin of Canada, whose lone PGA Tour victory was five years ago at Innisbrook, had a 66 and was two shots behind.
Burns remained in the hunt in the title defense of his first PGA Tour victory. He recovered from a rugged start to post a 67 and was three shots behind with Scott Stallings (66).
Justin Thomas was four behind.
Scoring has been low all week after rain softened the course and the wind has been minimal. The cut was a 3-under 139, the lowest at Innisbrook by two shots.
Even so, no one had posted better than 64 until NeSmith put together the round that was more than nine shots better than the average. He had eagle putts on three of four par 5s, making an 8-footer on the par-5 14th. He shot 30 on the front nine, and his 18-foot birdie putt on his final hole at No. 9 burned the edge of the cup.
NeSmith says he is learning to accept the outcome, good or bad.
The halfway point is too far away to contemplate a win, which would get him into the Masters, a short drive from where he lives in North Augusta, South Carolina. NeSmith's father worked part-time as a caddie at Augusta National, and he grew up attending the Masters. NeSmith played it one time with a member a few years back.
“Whether I get to drive 25 minutes and play in Augusta or whether I’m just going to be at home with my wife and my dog and hanging out with some friends, it’s going to be the same either way,” he said. “So it’s going to happen if it’s going to happen. If it’s not, I’m OK with it.”
Two days around the Copperhead course has created very little stress for Hadwin, with his game and between the ears. He has been patient about when to attack and relied on confidence in his putting stroke to pile up the birdies and one big par.
He was out of position on the seventh hole in the right bunker when he made a 15-foot putt to escape with par. On the par-3 eighth, he made a 20-foot birdie and before long was on his way.
“The par putt on 7 was a big one to get me going,” Hadwin said. “I hit some good putts previously but didn’t get any out of it. They started to find the center after that.”
Thomas was right alongside him most of the morning, running off four birdies in a five-hole stretch along the back nine. He took care of both par 5s on the front nine and was at 12 under when he attempted one shot he would like to have back.
Blocked by a tree in the rough, Thomas thought he could get enough spin on his ball to hook it toward the green with a 52-degree wedge. It just didn't work out that way. He missed well to the right by some 30 yards, put it into a bunker between him and the green and took double bogey.
He had to settle for another 66, a good effort over 36 holes, and a reminder to not take on too much, especially in the early rounds.
“I should have just tried to hit it in the front bunker and it was a pretty easy up-and-down,” Thomas said. “As soft as the greens are, I was like, ‘If I can get this thing turning and landing around there, I can actually have a putt at this.’ As good as I felt with my putter, I felt like if I got it on the green, I could make a 3. But it wasn't necessary. It just didn't really need to happen.”
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