March 08, 2017

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) Henrik Stenson is happy with his start to the year.

It just seems like a false start.

Stenson has gone just over a month since his runner-up finish to Sergio Garcia in the Dubai Desert Classic. He made it through only 11 holes last week in the Mexico Championship before he was among the first hit with a stomach virus and withdrew.

But with the Masters getting closer, it's time for the Swede to get moving.

''It's the beginning of a stretch of tournaments leading into Augusta, so we want to try to get to the Masters in the right direction with where the game is at and what we need to keep working on leading into the first major of the year,'' Stenson said. ''The game got off to a good start in the Middle East. I think the game is in decent shape. It's one of the first weeks here on a big stretch, so I hope to kind of play my way into some form.''

The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook is as good of a test as any.

Even being squeezed among so many big tournaments in the two months leading up to the Masters, the Valspar Championship has attracted an assortment of the best players over the years because of the test Innisbrook presents.

Charl Schwartzel won last year in a playoff over Bill Haas after they finished at 7-under 277. The winning score has been no better than 10 under the last four years, and six out of 10 times since it moved to March.

''It looks like an easy course because it's not very long on distance,'' Schwartzel said. ''But man, the way you've got to shape the shots, the way you've got to think, the variety of clubs you use, it's just a really good golf course. You very seldom get the guy that plays badly who wins. You've got to bring a good game here to compete.''

The tournament has been decided by one shot or a playoff the last eight years.

Among those not playing this week is Jordan Spieth, who won two years ago ahead of his Masters victory. Also missing is Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia, as players are trying to find the right amount of golf to play ahead of Augusta.

Stenson first started playing it three years ago, when he missed a three-man playoff by one shot.

''It's because of the second shots ... a lot of times it's those mid-irons, the 5-, 6-, 7-, 8-irons into the greens,'' Stenson said. ''And when I'm hitting it well, then that's the strong part of my game.''

The 40-year-old Swede was at his best last summer at Royal Troon when he won one of the great duels in major championship history to win the British Open over Phil Mickelson. Stenson joined Johnny Miller as the only players to win a major with a 63 in the final round, and his 264 set a major championship record.

Along with his victory in Germany last year, and runner-up finishes in the Olympics, a World Golf Championships event and Dubai, he has been among the top in golf who are battling for No. 1 in the world.

What sets Stenson apart is his age.

He turns 41 on April 5, the Wednesday at the Masters. Of the five players ahead of him in the world ranking, the oldest is No. 1 Dustin Johnson at 32. Stenson feels he can hold his own with anyone. The question is how much longer.

''Of course, I'm on the back nine of my career,'' Stenson said. ''I'm not going to play forever, I know that much. I haven't really set a time and a date on that. I hope to be around for the next Olympics. That will be kind of around the time where I would potentially have a look in the mirror and see if we want to keep on going or if we want to try and wind down. I don't know.

''For me, I love the game, I love to practice, I love to compete,'' he said. ''And I think I need a combination of all those things to keep going.''

It's getting tougher to win. That has been a popular refrain in golf lately, especially with so many top players in their 20s like Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Thomas.

Steve Stricker is playing his first PGA Tour event since turning 50 last month - he will venture out to the PGA Tour Champions for the first time next week in Arizona - and the PGA Tour saw fit to group him at the Valspar Championship with Thomas and Daniel Berger, both 23.

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