Going on the clock rattles Jordan Spieth, the Ironman leads, and Tommy Fleetwood remains hopeful

If this year’s Valspar Championship is a harbinger of what non-designated events will be like on the PGA Tour, we have three words: Sign. Us. Up.

With a cramped leaderboard that includes enough players with a life-changing opportunity, a course stubborn enough to make par matter (at a not-obscene 7,340 yards), and enough star power at the top to make it interesting for even casual golf fans, the Valspar is proving you don’t need a $20-million purse to be more entertaining than, well, watching paint dry.

We could focus on tour ironman Adam Schenk, who has the lead after 54 holes while playing in his 10th straight event trying to cram as many starts in before his wife delivers their child. Or Cody Gribble and Taylor Moore, both two shots back. Or even Patton Kizzire, who shot the day’s low round of 67. But we won’t. The day, instead, belonged to the amusement park ride that is Jordan Spieth, the steeliness of Tommy Fleetwood and the resurrection of Webb Simpson.

Of course, having Spieth reverting back to Spieth form always makes for an entertaining day. Jordo struggled with his putting in Round 2 (minus 1.589 strokes gained/putting) but came out rolling his ball, knocking in a seven-footer for eagle at the first and another seven-footer at the next hole to avoid giving one of those shots back. Another 10-foot par save at the third was followed by a hellacious bunker shot to salvage yet another par at No. 4.

All that made up-and-downs from the sand at the par-5 fifth and par-5 11th seem almost boring. No mind, there was more to come. After his first three-putt of the tournament led to a bogey at 13, Spieth cranked two shots on the par-5 14th to reach the green and get the shot back. Then went bogey-birdie-bogey on the next three holes to finish with a 69, one back of the lead at seven under par. Spieth his just seven fairways and 10 greens. Not overly efficient, but hardly boring.

Nor was the fact Spieth’s group was put on the clock a good portion of the round. “We got put on the clock on 10 and that set me off,” Spieth said. “I was a mess trying to rush and play the back nine. It’s just so hard anyways when the wind’s blowing out here. Then you can’t step off because you’re going to get a bad time. So that really stunk. We didn’t get off of it the whole rest of the round. So, I think I need to handle those kind of situations a bit better tomorrow. I didn’t do a very good job of that today. But was able to post two-under 69 and stay in it.”

The opposite of Spieth was Fleetwood, who after an opening birdie was positively monotonous for the next 12 holes (OK, the recovery shot on No. 9 was pretty sporty), making par after par on a day when holding serve was pretty darn handy. The streak was broken by another birdie at 14. Fleetwood finished with a 69 for the day and is tied with Spieth for second, begging the question, can Fleetwood finish it off?

While perhaps an unfair question, it’s worth asking of such a talented player who has four runner-up finishes in 118 PGA Tour starts. In recent years, Fleetwood has had his opportunities to break through. In 2019, he was one back entering the final round of the Players Championship and shot 73. Later that year, while four back of Shane Lowry at the Open Championship, he never put any pressure on the winning Irishman, firing a 74. At the 2020 Honda, Fleetwood held the 54-hole lead, but could do no better than 71 over the final 18, finishing two back of Sungjae Im. Well, you get the point.

To his credit, Fleetwood has six DP World Tour wins to his credit and also shot a final-round 63 to take runner-up at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. And after the round he did not shy away from the elephant in the room.

“I’ve had my chances before and it’s not happened for me, but I think I’ve got a lot of events left in me, and I don’t plan on winning once,” Fleetwood said. “I would like to win multiple, multiple times.”

If Fleetwood plays like he did Saturday, he has little to be concerned about, as he put up one of only three bogey-free rounds of the day. Although most of the day was relatively stress-fee, he did single out a couple of key par saves. “The par saves on 9 and 10 were very important,” he said. “I never went backward.”

Which is a good way to move forward to his first PGA Tour win.

Webb Simpson keeps the faith

It’s easy to forget that players who have enjoyed success on tour struggle at times, and since the 2021 FedEx Cup Playoffs, Webb Simpson has had a rough go of it. Not just on the course (one top-10 in his last 31 starts) but with his health as well, a bulging disc in his neck causing issues affecting his game, but not his outlook.

“Honestly I think my faith has been the number one piece,” Simpson said after a third-round 68 put him in contention at the Valspar at two off the lead. “Just trusting that God’s working. Even in the struggles, even in the hardships, there’s still a purpose in it, which helps me get out of bed in the morning. Because if I was only result-oriented and results-based, there’s a lot of evidence for me to be kind of down, sad and no hope. But the Lord’s asked me to work hard for His glory and I feel like I’ve done that. So as hard as it’s been and as frustrating and at moments wanting to snap every club in my bag, I’ve had a lot of peace through this last year and a half, which has been nice.”

Being in the hunt is also a nice change for Simpson, who opened with an eagle and finished with a birdie and was steady in between.

“Honestly, yeah. I’m just happy to have a late tee time on a Saturday,” said Simpson. “We have gotten tired of waking up at 7 a.m. on Saturdays when I made cuts. But it feels great. Certainly, a familiar position that I feel like I’ve been able to have success on in the past. The nerves are there in a good way. It’s fun to be back. But it’s been a while. More than, you know, expecting or hoping to win tomorrow I’m just glad I have a chance.”

Don’t expect Simpson to go full Scottie Scheffler, however, and go coffee-free on a tournament day. Known for bringing his own coffee setup with him on the road, Simpson admits he throttles back from the four or five cups a day he has at home, but cold turkey is out of the question.

“[Scheffler is] a whole other level of commitment,” said Simpson. “Probably why he’s No. 1 in the world. But I’m willing to trade those moments of happiness in the morning for a couple shots a year it might cost me.”

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