Spieth returns to course where his career took off

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Jordan Spieth (Donald Miralle/ Getty Images)

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Being back at Innisbrook is enough to make Jordan Spieth wonder if his entire season boiled down to three holes.

One was a two-putt par. The other was a tough flop shot from 50 feet that he knocked in for birdie on the 17th hole. The last one – perhaps the most important – was a bunker shot to 7 feet and a par putt on the final hole for a 1-under 70 to tie for seventh.

That was worth $148,893.

That was enough money to give him special temporary membership on the PGA Tour, key for earning a full tour card. Before holing out that chip, Spieth was projected to be $195 short of temporary membership, and who knows what would have happened if he didn’t nail it down that day at Innisbrook.

“The last three holes on Sunday here were three of the biggest holes I played all last year,” the 20-year-old Spieth said Wednesday. “I mean, none of the rest of it possibly would have happened if wasn’t able to hole a flop shot on 17 and got up-and-down out of the front bunker on 18.”

The “rest of it” turned out to be far more memorable than his tie for seventh in what is now called the Valspar Championship.

A playoff win at the John Deere Classic (after holing a bunker shot on the 72nd hole). A 62 in the final round at TPC Boston while playing with Phil Mickelson to secure a spot in the Tour Championship. A captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup, making him the youngest American ever in the matches. Seventh place in the FedEx Cup.

Spieth was reminded of the significance when he was flipping through channels Tuesday night and saw highlights of his finish from Innisbrook.

“I gave more fist pumps than I did at the Deere,” he said about his par putt on the 18th hole. “It was pretty cool to watch, and it was one of the biggest stretches that I’ve ever played.”

Spieth has different issues this year. He received plenty of sponsor exemptions before becoming an instant PGA Tour member with his win at the John Deere Classic in July, and he is eager to return the favor to tournaments who helped him out. That could lead to a busy year now that he’s in all four majors – he’ll make his debut in the Masters next month – and already has played three World Golf Championships this season.

He’s among those drawn to the Valspar Championship because of the quality of the Copperhead course, regarded by some as the best tournament course in Florida. It doesn’t feel like Florida with its subtle changes in elevation and tree-lined fairways.

“Very old school,” Harris English said.

The tournament has some new life to it after going without a sponsor last year. Minneapolis-based Valspar took over as the title sponsor through 2017 and is trying to inject some life into a tournament that has to work harder than other events on the Florida swing.

The Honda Classic is helped by so many top players having moved to West Palm Beach, such as Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood. Doral is now a World Golf Championship. Next week is Bay Hill, run by Arnold Palmer.

Innisbrook is missing some of the top-ranked players – Justin Rose at No. 7 is tops from the world ranking – it has plenty of quality through the ranks in English, Spieth, Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and Louis Oosthuizen.

“It’s been one of my favorite venues on tour for a while,” Rose said.

Most of the players already have one eye on the Masters, which is a month away. This is the time of the year when players start sneaking up to Augusta National to see the course, knowing it won’t play anything like it will on April 10 the first day of the tournament.

Furyk feels like Innisbrook is good preparation – not because of the conditions, but because of the thinking involved.

“Thinking your way around the golf course is still good preparation,” he said. “I’d say the one thing here, you do get a lot of greens that have quite a bit of pitch and slope to them, especially back-to-front, and so you have to hit some putts here that feed to the hole. … That helps a little bit in getting ready for Augusta.”

Spieth already has been to Augusta twice – once last fall on a trip that can best be described as the ultimate doubleheader (Pine Valley one day, Augusta National the next) and then a few weeks ago. He also recalls going to a Monday practice round at the Masters after a college event while he was at Texas.

“Definitely the only practice round tournament I’ve ever been to watch,” he said.