PALM HARBOR — Matthew NeSmith decided this week that he would not worry, under any circumstances or conditions, about where the golf ball might sail off his club face.
And what a difference the new attitude has made over the first two rounds of the Valspar Championship.
NeSmith, a 28-year-old ranked No. 279 in the world, tied the Copperhead Course record Friday with 10-under 61.
If he hadn’t missed a birdie putt on the final hole by millimeters he would have carded a 60, breaking the record set by Padraig Harrington in 2012.
Combined with an opening-round 67, NeSmith was at 14-under 128, a number that broke by two shots the 36-hole Valspar record set by Sam Burns and Keegan Bradley a year ago.
More importantly, NeSmith stood two shots ahead of Adam Hadwin, three in front of defending champion Burns and Scott Stallings, and four ahead of Justin Thomas.
For a little more perspective on NeSmith’s performance, consider that after his 61, no player in the field Friday shot lower than 65 (and only Brandon Wu, who made the cut at 5 under, did that), and no player through two rounds had a cleaner scorecard: NeSmith has made zero bogeys.
What NeSmith has made is eight birdies and an eagle Friday and four birdies Thursday. All the rest pars.
Through it all, NeSmith has had many conversations with himself in his head.
“I mean, it’s uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable to give up all that control and give up both hands on the steering wheel, so to speak. But it’s amazing what happens when you do.”
When is it uncomfortable? “The first tee, (Thursday). The fairway. The putt. I mean, all of it. … I’m just like everybody else. We like to be in control and we like to be able to kind of try and steer things in the right direction. But I’ve been holding on for too long. So I’m done with it. Done.”
In the process, NeSmith’s drives are sailing straight (20 of 26 fairways hit), his approach shots are on point (32 of 36 greens hit in regulation) and his putting, featuring a relatively new grip where his thumbs are lined up side by side, has been solid (ranking 15th in strokes gained putting).
All that said, the weekend awaits and there are plenty of strong, experienced folks ready to make a run at NeSmith, whose best finish in his six years on the PGA Tour was a tie for seventh last year at the Phoenix Open.
Two former Valspar winners are right on his heels, Hadwin (2017) and defending champ Burns — both appearing perfectly comfortable with the situation.
When Hadwin finished his round Friday afternoon, he said he might watch some NCAA basketball or hockey the rest of his day. He wasn’t going to look at any scoreboards while the second half of the 144-man field finished up.
“Obviously there’s a lot of golf to be played in the afternoon, right?” Hadwin said around 2 p.m. “I probably won’t be the leader.”
Copperhead — drier and more slick as the warm, crisp day wore on — was tougher in general on the guys with the afternoon tee times, except of course for NeSmith, who vows to stick to his new mantra through the weekend.
“The anxiety is much worse than the outcome, in my mind,” NeSmith said. “I’m just picking out shots and I’m going to be all right with wherever they go. I’m going to accept that standing over the ball, it’s going to be all right if I top it 2 feet or if I hit a 320-yard stripe down the middle of the fairway.
“It’s been working out great the last two days, but it may not work out this weekend. If it works out, awesome. But I’m going to keep going this way.”