PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Matthew NeSmith worked so hard and got so little out of his game that he tried to avoid himself. He ended up in the record book at the Valspar Championships on Friday.
Stop worrying if his drives would find the fairway, if his approach shots would land on the green instead of the bunkers, if his putts would pop instead of curl.
NeSmith built a 10-under-61 to break the Copperhead course record at Innisbrook set 10 years ago by three-time major champion Padraig Harrington. He missed a fairway and two greens, and there was a stretch late in his round when it looked like he might not miss a putt.
“It’s so weird not trying to hit fairways and not trying to hit the greens and not trying to make putts and just doing my best. It’s hard for me.” said NeSmith. “I’m like everyone else. We like control and we’d like to try and steer things in the right direction, but I’ve been holding on to it for too long so I’m done with it.”
NeSmith was 14-under 128 and by two shots broke the 36-hole Valspar Championship record set by Sam Burns and Keegan Bradley a year ago.
Adam Hadwin of Canada, whose only PGA Tour win came at Innisbrook five years ago, had a 66, two shots behind.
Burns stayed in contention for his first PGA Tour win as he defended his title. He bounced back from a difficult start with a 67 and was three shots behind with Scott Stallings (66).
Justin Thomas was four behind.
The score was low all week after rain soaked the course and wind was minimal. The cut was a 3-under 139, the lowest in Innisbrook with two shots.
Still, nobody had posted more than 64 until NeSmith put together the round, which was more than nine shots better than average.
He had eagle putts on three of four par 5s and made an 8-footer on the 14th par 5. He shot 30 on the front nine and his 18-foot birdie putt on his last hole at #9 burned the rim of the cup.
NeSmith says he’s learning to accept the outcome, good or bad.
Halftime is too far away to think of a win that would land him in the Masters, just a short drive from where he lives in North Augusta, South Carolina. NeSmith’s father was a part-time caddy at Augusta National and he grew up competing in the Masters. NeSmith played it once with a member a few years ago.
“Whether I drive 25 minutes and play in Augusta or just be home with my wife and dog and hang out with some friends, it’s going to be the same either way.” he said. “So if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. If not, I’m fine with that.”
Two days around the Copperhead course gave Hadwin very little stress with his game and between the ears. He was patient about when to attack and relied on his confidence in his putting stroke to amass birdies and a big par.
He was out of position in the right bunker on the seventh hole when he made a 15-foot putt to escape on par. On the par 3, he birdied 20 feet and was soon on his way.
“The par putt on 7 was a great shot to get me going.” Said Hadwin. “I’ve hit some good putts before but didn’t get any of them. After that they started to find the center.”
Thomas was right next to him for most of the morning, running four birdies in a five-hole course down the back nine. He attended to both par 5s in the front nine and was under at 12 when he attempted a shot he would like to have back.
Blocked by a tree in the rough, Thomas figured 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 a good right by about 30 yards, put it in a bunker between himself and the green and took a double bogey.
He had to settle for another 66, a good performance over 36 holes, and a caution not to take too much, especially in the early rounds.
“I should have just tried to hit him in the front bunker and it was a pretty easy up and down,” Thomas said. “As soft as the greens are, I thought, ‘If I can get this thing to spin around and land in there, I can actually putt here.’ As good as I felt with my putter, I felt like if I could get it on the green I could make a 3. But that wasn’t necessary. It just didn’t really have to happen.”