PALM HARBOR — With most of this week's attention focused on the world's top-ranked player, Jordan Spieth, it was the world's 461st-ranked golfer, Will MacKenzie, and 49-year-old veteran Steve Stricker who found themselves on top of the Valspar Championship leaderboard after Friday's second round.
MacKenzie and Stricker grinded their way to 5-under 137 through 36 holes on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course. Stricker had one of the lowest rounds Friday, firing 5-under 66 to vault into contention. MacKenzie shot 4-under 67.
Hovering one shot back were former Florida State golfer Daniel Berger (68), Bill Haas (67) and Graham DeLaet, who tied Stricker for low round with 66. Six players were two shots back, including two-time Valspar champion Retief Goosen (69) and first-round co-leader Charles Howell III (72).
First-round co-leader Ken Duke (73) was among three at 2 under. The third co-leader, Keegan Bradley, shot 79 and at 4 over missed the cut by one.
Spieth, the defending champion who started the day 5 over, shot 3-under 68 and at 2 over made the cut by two shots.
Neither MacKenzie nor Stricker would have been popular picks to win before the first round. Known as "Willy Mac," Mackenzie's best finish this season is a tie for 51st at the Honda Classic two weeks ago. Dating to November, MacKenzie missed five straight cuts before making it to the weekend at the Northern Trust Open in February in Los Angeles.
"Thus far my season has been totally awful," MacKenzie, 41, said. "But I'm over it. It's in the past. I know I'm a good player. I just have to start playing better."
Part of the reason for his performance Friday was his putting. MacKenzie started his day by making birdies on the first two holes. He ended the front nine with four birdies and no bogies. His only hiccup was a bogey on the par-5 11th hole. But he made that up with a 36-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole.
"Just lucky," MacKenzie said.
Lately, MacKenzie has needed luck for putts to fall. He is ranked 205th on the PGA Tour in overall putting. This week he has used a claw grip for some of his putts, putting the right hand below the left with the fingers extended for right-handed putters.
That grip is the one he used for his only two tour wins, at the 2008 Viking Classic and the 2006 Reno-Tahoe Open.
"So why don't I keep doing it?," MacKenzie said. "Because I'm stupid, I guess.
"My friend Steve Marino told me 'Bud, try something totally different.' He's like 'You've got to do something totally different.' I was just putting scared."
Stricker, who is fully exempt on the tour, has been smart with his schedule in the past few years. Since 2013 he has played no more than 13 tournaments in a year. He played only nine times last year, due partly to a sore back and hip.
This season he said he wanted to increase his play, especially early in the season. He has played five times in 2016 and has a tie for 11th at the Northern Trust Open. He believes his game is slowly getting back into shape, as Friday proved.
Stricker made the turn at 1 under and then eagled the par-4 10th hole when he holed out from 150 yards. After that he added birdies on the 14th and 16th holes to tie MacKenzie.
"Even if I'm only going to play 12 to 14 times a year, I still want to play well,"' said Stricker, whose best finish at Innisbrook has been a tie for fourth in 2009. "I still think I can play well, but I was noticing that I wasn't game ready. I could do well on the range, but I wasn't taking it out to the golf course.
"I'm getting stronger all the time. I'm able to practice a little more without having the backaches and the pain. Things are improving every day."
With the cut at 4 over, even the golfers at 3 over were only eight shots out with 36 holes to play. Spieth was seven shots back, which he said he believed was not out of contention.
"You think somewhere around 10 or 11 under (will win)," Spieth said. "I can get there. That takes a couple of solid rounds, maybe 6 under par, so it's not going to be easy."