PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Jim Furyk goes into the Tampa Bay Championship at No. 5 in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour and No. 146 in distance off the tee. That’s not unusual. He has taken the short and narrow to great lengths on tour. Only five active players — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Davis Love III and Ernie Els — have more than his 16 career titles. Furyk also has a U.S. Open, a FedEx Cup title and appearance on 15 consecutive U.S. teams for the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup.
So it was surprising to hear Furyk talk about the first time he played Innisbrook as a teenager, he was one of the big hitters.
“Most people laugh when they hear that,” Furyk said Wednesday.
He said he was among the longest hitters on his team when he first arrived at Arizona, and his tee shots were “average length at best” when he left. Some of that had to do with changes in equipment. And some of that had to do with his decision to keep the ball in play.
“I went through a learning curve in golf and life, as I think every college kid does at one time or another,” Furyk said. “I think going into my senior year, the light probably went off and I said, ‘Oh, shoot, next year I’m supposed to get a job.’ I realized I had to start playing a little better, and I started working on things I needed to improve on, and I thought driving the ball straighter was going to be one of those.”
That’s why he loves returning to the Copperhead course.
Furyk won the Tampa Bay Championship in 2010, ending a 32-month drought. A year ago, he made a late birdie to get into a four-way playoff that lasted only one hole when Luke Donald hit a 7-iron out of the rough to 6 feet for birdie.
Power never hurts at Innisbrook. Past champions include Gary Woodland and Vijay Singh. Position off the tee counts just as much, if not more.
“This doesn’t really look like your stereotypical Florida golf course,” Furyk said. “It’s not that flat. There are not houses on both sides of the fairways. ... You have to hit some shots to put the ball in the fairway. You’re just not going to tee it up and bomb it here. You have to think your way around and play to certain sports of the fairway and hit some crisp iron shots.
“If it’s a place where you can tee it up 4 inches and rear back and let it fly and go find it, hit it again, it’s probably a place where I’m going to take the week off.”
The Tampa Bay Championship gets overlooked as the third leg of the Florida Swing. So much attention is on the Honda Classic, which was boosted by its spot on the schedule between two World Golf Championships, and is helped by Woods and Rory McIlroy playing because they live in south Florida. The WGC event was last week at Doral. The Arnold Palmer Invitational is next week at Bay Hill.
Innisbrook is a gem, however, considered by many players to be the best tournament course in Florida. It features surprising changes in elevation, especially for Florida. Water only comes into play on seven holes. The fairways have subtle movement and are lined by trees, and the course typically is firm and fast.
“It’s a golf course you have to really think your way around, shape some shots off the tee,” Donald said. “It really does test all parts of your game from tee shots to really getting the iron shots in the right positions on the greens, which are some of the most sloped and fast greens we play all year. And they are very quick right now. It’s a thinking man’s course.”
Four of the top 10 players in the world — Donald, Louis Oosthuizen, Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar — are at the Tampa Bay Championship, with 21 of the top 50. The list includes Geoff Ogilvy, who at No. 49 is still searching for that one good week that will lock up a spot in the Masters.
And there are plenty of newcomers this week, with four players getting into the tournament because of finishing in the top 10 at the Puerto Rico Open last week. That includes 19-year-old Jordan Spieth and Peter Uihlein, who last played here in 2011 as the U.S. Amateur champion.
Furyk is not interested in redemption — for last year at Innisbrook, for any of the four tournaments he had a chance to win during a most frustrating season.
It was a different kind of season than in 2011, when he had only three top 10s against full fields and finished 53rd on the PGA Tour money list, his lowest position since his rookie season in 1994. He felt he played just as well as he did in 2010, when he won three times, except that he didn’t win at all.
“I was really happy with a lot of things I did well in 2012, but it was going to be a frustrating, disappointing year to look back on with the finishes, and not being able to finish things off,” he said. “In a lot of ways, it was better than 2010 in all the unimportant ways — the statistics. But all the important ways — finishing off tournaments and winning — it was a frustrating year.”
There was that snap hook with a fairway metal off the 16th tee that dropped him out of a tie for the lead at the U.S. Open, and he never caught up. He had a one-shot lead and was in the middle of the 18th fairway at Firestone when he chopped his way to a double bogey and lost by one. He had a share of the 54-hole lead at Sea Island and finished two shots behind.
And that doesn’t include the Ryder Cup, where he had a 1-up lead with two holes to play and lost to Sergio Garcia.
Furyk figured the best way to get over it was to forget about it.
“I tried to figure out where I went wrong and what I could have done better and how I could have fixed it, and then you really can’t dwell on it,” Furyk said. “At that point, you beat yourself up over and over again. I tried to blow off steam, but I really tried to get away and really get my mind fresh.”