Matthew NeSmith sent his ball flying over the green Saturday on the par-3 13th at Innisbrook. On stroke two, he chipped across the green, and a few minutes later, his one-time four-shot lead at the Valspar Championship was vanished. But NeSmith kept his word.
A day earlier, NeSmith was a revelation, though not so much for his 10-under 61, which is not to say that his career-low PGA Tour round wasn’t spectacular. No, most notable was how he said he came to his breakthrough. In a way, the 61 happened in spite of him. Here is his description of it.
“Just been getting in my own way,” NeSmith explained. “I’ve done, I’ve been doing everything right. My game’s been great. I’ve really worked on the driver. I’ve really worked on putting it better. I’ve really worked on chipping it better. And I’ve gotten better in all those areas, but I haven’t played any better.
“So at some point in time, that falls on me and that falls on how I act and how I think and how I want to feel. And so I’m done getting in my own way. And if it affects the way I play in a bad way, that’s fine, but I’m done with the anxiety. I’m done with trying to, trying so hard.
“And it’s been working out great the last two days, but it may not work out this weekend. It may work out awesome. I don’t know. But I’m going to keep going that way.”
On NBC’s broadcast of Saturday’s third round, analyst David Feherty summed up NeSmith’s newfound thought well when he said: “When it matters the most, you have to be able to play as if it matters the least.” Of course, that’s easy to say when you sign for a 61 and the hole looks as big as the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Which brings us back to the beginning. What happens when, say, when you hit over the green, then hit across it and soon lose your lead?
Three times on 13 on Saturday, NeSmith laughed with his caddie, Mick Brennan.
And wouldn’t you know it, the even crazier then happened. The winless third-year pro will enter Sunday just two strokes behind leader Davis Riley, who he’ll also play with in the final pairing.
“For me, it’s all of it right now,” NeSmith said. “I’ve done some really great things on the golf course and off the golf course the last few months, and I haven’t been able to let that shine through because I’ve been in my own way.
“So to have this, I mean, nothing was going to be harder than yesterday for me. I mean, it was always going to be hard. Trying to follow up a really great round with another great one, it’s tough. So to go out there and try and just relax and play golf was all I needed to do, and the golf would come. Everything else would kind of fall into place if I would just be who I am, enjoy the walk, enjoy having Mick around, enjoy everything that comes along with being in this kind of group being in this position.”
To say this all is a surprise is not wrong. But to say NeSmith couldn’t ever tee off last on national TV, with the Justin Thomases, Sam Burnses and Xander Schauffeles of the world chasing him, isn’t accurate, either.
On the NBC broadcast, analyst Paul Azinger said Lee Trevino used to deflect pressure by “talking about the players behind him — how great they were, how great they were playing.” NeSmith just needed to discover his own method. And it looks like it will stick.
“I think I just got fed up,” he said. “I just got fed up with where I’ve been. And it’s cool to see, because I haven’t been playing some great golf this year, but I haven’t played bad. I’ve kind of done some this stuff in spite of myself, which is incredible, and it just shows you that my game’s going in the right direction and I’m excited for where that direction is, and whether it be great this week or whether it doesn’t work out this week, we don’t know if it will be this week, two years, five years. I don’t know.
“But I like how it felt today a hell of a lot more than any other day.”
A reporter then asked him what goes through his head now.
“To be honest with you, the anxiety is much worse than the outcome, in my mind,” NeSmith said. “So it’s OK. It’s fine. It’s what, I’m just, I’m getting over the shots and I’m doing exactly what I’ve always done and picking out shots and just going to be all right with where they go. I’m going to accept standing over the tee ball.
“If I top it two feet off the fairway or if I hit a 320-yard stripe down the middle of the fairway, I’m going to let both of them be what they may.”