Spieth is part of a big field at Valspar. That’s a big opportunity for players not in the Masters

Jordan Spieth blasts from the sand trap along the 11th green during the first round of The Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Jordan Spieth blasts from the sand trap along the 11th green during the first round of The Players Championship golf tournament Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Innisbrook and Bay Hill are separated by 100 miles (160 kilometers) on the road, two weeks on the PGA Tour calendar and $11.6 million in prize money. Another big difference might be the size of the field.

The Valspar Championship begins Thursday with 154 players. That's the most ever for the Copperhead course at Innisbrook, meaning there most certainly won't be enough daylight to finish weekday rounds in one day, rain or shine.

That's quite a difference from two weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a signature event with a $20 million purse that had only 69 players and made Bay Hill feel like a ghost town during early practice.

“It is incredibly less efficient practicing here than it was at Bay Hill, is probably the biggest difference I see," Jordan Spieth said Wednesday with a grin, his golf bag squeezed between two others on the range at Innisbrook.

“Part of that being that I was out of the country and then had a photo shoot the next morning,” he said. “And part of it being 155 players and a small range.”

Spieth was among the six player directors on the PGA Tour Enterprises board who met Monday in the Bahamas with Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia that pays for LIV Golf.

He called the meeting “good” without going into detail, describing it only as a “really good meet-and-greet to ask questions and get understanding and see where we go for the first step.”

It was the threat of LIV Golf, which has lured away big names like Jon Rahm, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, that led to the PGA Tour developing $20 million events that would bring together the best in the PGA Tour.

The limited fields led to other players going to tournaments in between with hopes of earning some of the 15 spots available at signature events. And while it's early in the season, that has put the squeeze on PGA Tour newcomers — mainly graduates from the Korn Ferry Tour — who are trying to get into more tournaments.

  photo  Justin Thomas watches his shot on the 13th tee during the second round of The Players Championship golf tournament Friday, March 15, 2024, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

The response was to boost the Valspar Championship field beyond its normal 144 players, raising it to make sure everyone from the Korn Ferry Tour could play. That brought the number to 155 — it went down by one when Garrick Higgo withdrew — creating another strange element to the week.

There's an alternate list, but none get in unless the field gets below 144 players. Typically, someone would have replaced Higgo. But this is all about creating spots.

“The situation isn't perfect, but people need to remember why it was done,” Spieth said.

Justin Thomas isn't sure what the solution is to create significant events for the top performers while not shutting out players lower on the priority list who aren't getting enough chances.

“It's what the answer has to be right now,” he said. “But not long term, I wouldn't think.”

The Valspar Championship has attracted a reasonably good field considering it follows the $20 million purse at Bay Hill for 69 players and the $25 million purse at The Players Championship.

Xander Schauffele and British Open champion Brian Harman, who tied for second last week at the TPC Sawgrass, are the only players from the top 10 in the world at Innisbrook. But there's also 10 more from the top 30, a list that includes Spieth and Thomas, two-time winner Sam Burns, Tony Finau and Cameron Young.

For Schauffele, it's a time to get back on the horse.

“After a close call last week, sometimes it's nice just to get back to work and kind of put your head down and try to figure out a new golf course,” he said. “So happy to be here.”

Three tournaments remain until the Masters, and 130 players at Innisbrook could get that invitation on Augusta National letterhead by winning. Opportunity abounds.

For most of them, the Copperhead course is regarded as among the best in the South, certainly on the Florida swing, with its tree-lined fairways and elevation.

Spieth said players wouldn't say it was underrated because “they'd all rate it pretty high.”

He has his own special memories from the Valspar Championship. Yes, there was the playoff victory in 2015 before he went on a tear in the majors, winning the Masters and U.S. Open. More vivid is chipping in on the 17th hole, finishing in a tie for seventh in 2013 that led to him getting a PGA Tour card at age 20.

  photo  Xander Schauffele follows the flight of his tee shot on the fourth hole during the final round of The Players Championship golf tournament Sunday, March 17, 2024, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

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