Five things to know from Tampa Bay

March 15, 2013

We’re halfway to the finish at the Tampa Bay Championship, and it’s the rookie, Shawn Stefani, who still leads the pack.

He has some big engines close behind him, though, including Adam Scott (6-under), K.J. Choi (6-under), Jason Dufner (5-under) and Sergio Garcia (4-under).

The weather warmed up Friday and should continue to do so the next two days, making for what is expected to be a hotly contested weekend at Innisbrook Resort.

Here are 5 Things you need to know from Friday’s second round:

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1. CHOI CLIMBING: K.J. Choi has won the Tampa Bay Championship twice, in 2002 and 2006, and finished second in 2010. And after a T-46 showing last year and a missed cut in 2011, Choi has rediscovered his past success on the Copperhead course.

Choi followed an opening-round, 2-under 69 with a 4-under 67 on Friday, jumping up the leaderboard. He’s tied with Adam Scott at 6-under, one shot behind leader Shawn Stefani heading into the weekend.

“(He's in) a very good position,” Choi said. “My confidence is very well. So far, so good.”

Choi eagled the par-5 first hole to start his round and had three birdies on the back nine before playing the “Snake Pit” in 1-over. He needed just 25 putts — this is his second week using the claw grip, a switch he made because he kept missing right-to-left putts on the low side — and only missed two fairways.

“Very good fight today,” Choi said. “A couple putts missed, but so far very impressed (with his) putting.”

At 42, Choi is at the latter end of his career on the PGA Tour. The eight-time Tour winner hasn’t won since the 2011 Players Championship. He dropped from seventh in the FedEx Cup standings in 2011 to 77th last year.

But he’s showed some signs of life so far in 2013. He’s made five of six cuts and a top 10 here in Palm Harbor would be his second of the season, matching his 2012 total.

Choi is the Tampa Bay Championship’s all-time money leader, earning $2,208,575 in 11 starts at Innisbrook. And he’s looking to add a big chunk of change to that total this year.

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2. STILL ROLLING: Shawn Stefani went to sleep Thursday night as the first-round leader of a PGA Tour event for the first time.

He’ll go to bed for the first time as a second-round leader Friday night after shooting 1-under 70 to hold onto the top spot at the Tampa Bay Championship. He’ll be paired Saturday with Scott, who trails by a shot after carding a second-round 66.

Being in unfamiliar territory atop the leaderboard won’t keep Stefani up at night, though.

“I think I’m always a little bit excited about playing, and I get a little nervous, which I enjoy,” Stefani said. “I think that’s the competitor in me. (But) there wasn’t really any time today where I got really nervous or excited.”

Stefani didn’t match his bogey-free, first-round 65, as he struggled with his ball-striking. He hit seven fewer fairways and five fewer greens, but for the second straight day, he totaled 27 putts.

“When you putt good, that usually keeps rounds going, and that was pretty much what happened today.”

Stefani said he made an adjustment earlier this week, moving his hands more forward on his setup — “Just got the ball rolling and started on line better,” he said.

“I’m really not even trying to make putts right now,” Stefani said. “I’m just trying to hit good putts and so far, the last few days, they have just gone in.”

That mindset has helped take some of the pressure off Stefani, which can only help as he enters the weekend with a target on his back. Even with his putting on-target, Stefani knows it will be a difficult task, albeit one that he’s excited for.

“The lead (during the first two rounds) is one thing,” Stefani said. “But leading on the weekend is another.”

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3. HE’S HEATING UP: Jason Dufner’s start to 2013 has been somewhat of a mixed bag.

He started the year with a T-18 showing at the 30-man Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He then missed the cut at the Phoenix Open, snapping his streak of 22 consecutive cuts made, before being eliminated in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and finishing T-51 at the Honda Classic, where he shot a pair of 74s on the weekend.

But he entered the Tampa Bay Championship fresh off a T-12 finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, where he shot three rounds in the 60s. He also finished T-9 in both of his January starts on the European Tour, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and the Qatar Masters.

“I expect to be playing better than I have so far this year,” Dufner said.

Luckily for Dufner, now is the time of year where he really starts to play well.

In 2012, he finished T-10 at Innisbrook to start a stretch of nine tournaments in which he totaled two victories, two more top-5s and four other finishes of T-24 or better. The spring months (March-May) have yielded seven top 10s for Dufner since 2009.

Now in the middle of the Florida Swing, Dufner is feeling rejuvenated. He’s recovered from a couple of long trips overseas and is in his comfort zone down South in warmer weather. He shot 5-under 66 on Friday on the Copperhead course and is 5-under for the tournament, just two back of the lead.

“I feel like (playing the two events overseas) threw me behind a little bit in points and (on the) money list, and maybe even the way I was feeling,” said Dufner, who is still open to possibly trying to earn a European Tour card — just not this year. “Those were long trips to go over, but I’m starting to feel better now.”

Dufner has some ground to make up now, and in several areas. He was 10th in the Official World Golf Ranking to begin the year, but is now 18th. He finished the regular season second in the FedEx Cup standings in 2012, but is currently 74th. And he’s 73rd on the PGA Tour money list after finishing fourth in earnings last season.

He’s also fallen from 66th to 167th in driving accuracy, and is currently 115th in strokes gained-putting, although he’s never been great in that statistic.

But Dufner said his short game has been much improved as of late. He credited his solid play Friday with his ability to get up-and-down to save par on several occasions, including at No. 18.

“Haven’t been lighting it up, feeling like I’m going to shoot 5- or 6-under every day, but to clean those rounds up ... and make some saves when you really need to can really get your round together,” said Dufner, who has one more tournament left on his schedule before the Masters (Bay Hill).

Dufner isn’t a goal-setter. Instead, he just wants to make sure he’s prepared to win golf tournaments, something he did twice in his breakout 2012 campaign.

“My life’s changed a lot (since last year),” Dufner said. “(I’m) getting a lot more attention off the golf course. There’s probably more expectations about how I should be playing, but most of the time it’s the same for me: I’m out here to try and win tournaments, and play well.”

And with the weather getting warmer, Dufner is following suit.

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4. CUTS LIKE A KNIFE: Anytime you make a 10, especially on a tough course like the Copperhead, your chances of making the cut aren’t too great.

John Daly can attest. Daly made a 6-over 10 at the par-4 third hole, totaling two penalty shots and needing nine shots to reach the green. He finished with a 10-over 81 and ended the second round at 11-over.

The cut line fell at 2-over, one shot lower than the tournament record-high mark of 3-over, set in 2003 and 2008.

Also done for the tournament at 11-over is Zach Johnson, who made just one birdie in two rounds, shooting 77-76. It’s just the third missed cut in eight starts at Innisbrook for Johnson, who is 81st in the FedEx Cup standings.

Other notables missing the cut include Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, former Tampa Bay winner Retief Goosen, 2013 Honda Classic winner Michael Thompson and Patrick Cantlay, who shot 70 in the first round before a second-round 76 knocked him out of the weekend.

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5. SHORT SHOTS: Former University of Georgia teammates Harris English and Brian Harman are both 5-under heading into the weekend at Innisbrook. English shot 2-under 69 on Friday while Harman carded a 70. “He wants to win just as bad as I do,” Harman said of English. “He wishes me well just like I wish him well. Hopefully we’ll get paired together tomorrow. That will be fun.” ... Defending champion Luke Donald shot 1-over 72 to fall back to even par for the tournament. He made just two birdies on Friday en route to his highest score at this event since shooting 73 in the final round back in 2003. ... Matt Kuchar went 5-under in his final nine holes (front nine) en route to a 3-under 68 on Friday. Kuchar, who has two top 10s and two more top 20s in five starts at the Tampa Bay Championship, is 2-under for the tournament, five shots back of the lead. ... Jordan Spieth’s 3-under 68 secured him a spot in the weekend, and more importantly, a check. Spieth, who is 2-under for the tournament, needs to earn an additional $101,295 in order to obtain special temporary status on Tour, which would give him unlimited sponsor exemptions. ... Sergio Garcia is 4-under after two rounds thanks to a 4-under 67 on Friday. Garcia made six birdies in his second round, including one at No. 18. He’s played the “Snake Pit” in even par through two rounds. “Great to finish with a birdie on a very tough hole. ... It wasn’t easy out there,” Garcia said. ... Bud Cauley, who has struggled so far in his sophomore season on Tour, will not play on the weekend for the fifth time in seven Tour events this year after withdrawing before his second round due to illness.