Jordan Spieth is the top golfer in the world. He won five times last season, including the Masters and the U.S. Open. He is the defending champion of the Valspar Championship and took the Tournament of Champions in January in Hawaii. By eight shots. • And yet, the odds are against Spieth winning this week at Innisbrook. Consider that no player has successfully defended his title at this tournament since it began in 2000. Only two players, K.J. Choi and Retief Goosen, have won it twice. There has been a different winner in the past six tournaments. • That's life on the PGA Tour. • A new week brings another group of contenders. In this week's field of 144 players, 20 have won at least one major championship. There are eight players currently in the top 30 of the Official World Golf Ranking. Thirteen are in the top 30 of the FedEx Cup standings. And seven in this week's tournament have already won this season.
"In my first year in '02 there were probably 30 guys out here who could win," said John Senden, the 2014 Valspar champion who has not won a tournament since. "Now there's 80 guys who can win. That's how good they are out here now. We're competitive and very good at what we do. That's why you see a lot of first-time winners now."
Over the past two weeks, Adam Scott has bucked a trend. Scott won in consecutive weeks, the first time a player won two straight on the Florida swing since Tiger Woods in 2001. Normally, it's a different player challenging every week and it comes down to one or two shots over four rounds.
In six of the past seven tournaments at Innisbrook, the champion has either needed a playoff to win or triumphed by one shot. The largest margin of victory came in 2002, when Choi won by seven shots when the tournament was played in September and during the same week as another PGA event.
Now, players must be sharp every day.
"You have to be consistent in all facets of your game," PGA Tour veteran Matt Kuchar said. "That's really a microcosm of life on the PGA Tour. It requires no weaknesses."
And for most of last season, Spieth was the player who showed no weaknesses. Aside from his two major wins, he was also in contention at the British Open and the PGA Championship. Because the expectations this season are about as high as they were for Woods in his prime, it appears as if Spieth isn't taking much momentum into this week.
He missed the cut at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles and sandwiched that tournament with a tie for 21st at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am in Los Angeles and a tie for 17th at the WGC-Cadillac Championship last week at Doral. But as he is quick to point out, 17th place is exactly where he finished last season before winning the Valspar Championship.
"I've actually been off to a better start in 2016 than I was in 2015," Spieth said. "I'm in a better place right now than I was last season. We've had a win already this year. Obviously the last few events weren't up to par. L.A. was just one bad round for me. Other than that, everything has been kind of the same as the previous year."
Players such as Spieth are why it's even harder not only to win but stay on the tour from year to year. Consider that of the top-five players in the world, Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler are all in their 20s. Bubba Watson, who is ranked fourth, is 37. Spieth is only 22 and McIlroy isn't much older at 26.
Patrick Reed (10th) and Danny Willett (11th), playing in the Valspar, are in their 20s.
"Everyone is very good now at a younger age," Senden said. "I would say 15 years ago the average guy who won was about 25-30 years old. Now it's between 20-25. Look at the top 10 now. They are almost all young guys."
Willett, who is 28 and has so far spent his career on the European Tour, welcomes the competition from his peers.
"I'd say golf's in good hands right now," he said. "There's a lot of good lads out here playing. It's great to be able to compete against the best lads out there."
With all this talent showing up just about every week on tour, winning has become a major accomplishment.
"Winning on any tour anywhere is always a confidence boost," said Henrik Stenson, ranked seventh in the world. "As golfers, we don't get to do it that often given how many participants you have and how tough the competition is."
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