PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Danny Lee would not fit that adage of “horses for courses” in golf.
He had never seen the troublesome Copperhead course at Innisbrook until he arrived on Tuesday for the Valspar Championship. He played a practice round that day and jokingly said he would have shot something around 90. Or maybe he wasn’t joking.
“I was shocked how hard it was,” Lee said.
And that was in nice weather.
Throw in some unseasonably cool weather for the third leg of the Florida swing, add a strong wind with gusts topping 20 mph, and Innisbrook is even harder.
Lee quickly ran off three birdies in five holes. He was the only player Thursday to reach 4-under-par for the day until making his lone bogey, failing to get up-and-down from the bunker at No. 6, the third-hardest hole on the course.
He wound up with a 3-under 68, giving him a share of the lead with Pat Perez, Greg Chalmers and Matt Every.
Simply attribute that to a horse who finally hit his stride.
Lee, a former U.S. Amateur champion, had no plans of even being in the Valspar Championship after missing every cut this year, and six in a row dating to the OHL Classic in Mexico last November. But he changed over to a “claw” putting grip, and then a funny thing happened in the Puerto Rico Open. He shot all four rounds in the 60s and was the runner-up to Chesson Hadley. That was enough to get into the field at Innisbrook, and he took it from there.
“I gained a lot of confidence after last week playing with the finish in Puerto Rico,” Lee said. “It really helped me a lot with that confidence stuff, and I’m hitting it really well right now. My ball striking is the best it’s ever been, especially with the putting. I got the new claw grip – still working great, which is fantastic.”
Innisbrook didn’t allow much room for error in these conditions.
Only 11 players broke 70 – three of them, including Every, in the morning when it was windy and cold – and 25 players broke par. And that 68 was the highest score to lead the first round in the 14-year history of this tournament at Innisbrook.
Every was the only one among the leaders to play in the morning, when the temperatures were in the mid-50s and felt even colder because of a strong wind. He had three birdies on his last four holes, all of them about 15 feet or longer, and was five shots better than he would have hoped for when he teed off.
“I would have been satisfied with 2 over today,” Every said. “It was tough. This morning you couldn’t feel your hands. The wind was brutal.”
Matteo Manassero, who didn’t break 74 in four rounds at Doral last week, was in the large group at 69 that included Nicolas Colsaerts and Bill Haas. Russell Knox, who lost in a four-man playoff two weeks ago at the Honda Classic, was in the group at 70. John Merrick made bogey on his last two holes for a 70, while Peter Uihlein made birdie on two of his last three holes, including a 35-foot putt on his last hole, for a 70.
This is a big week for Uihlein, a European Tour member, who is No. 73 in the world. He has only two more tournaments to try to get into the top 50 in the world and become eligible for the Masters.
Justin Rose, at No. 7 the highest-ranked player in the world at Innisbrook, Luke Donald and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth were among those at 70.
More cold was expected Friday morning before the warming trend returns the rest of the week. That means Lee, Perez and the others could face wind and cold at the start of their second round.
Perez played well on the West Coast, earning nearly $1 million, and then took three weeks off. He worked a little with his coach, but felt some rust early, so he was happy to get around Innisbrook at 68. And he was lucky to be playing late.
“Definitely the guys that teed off at 7:40, 7:50, they had the hardest of what we’re going to see this week,” Perez said. “I think so far we got the good side.”