Refreshed Schwartzel defends Valspar title

Charl Schwartzel proved he was a winner back when he was a kid playing out of Ernie Els' junior golf program in South Africa.

Following a brilliant amateur career, he has won 15 times around the world as a pro, and when he captured the 2011 Masters for his first victory on the PGA Tour, he and everyone else figured there were more to come.

Did a bit of signing for the kids, people are very friendly in Mexico. #wgcmexicochampionship

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However, even though he continued to win, his second victory in the United States did not come until the Valspar Championship last year. Schwartzel will defend his title this week on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor, Fla.

"Winning (at Augusta National) back in 2011, the biggest tournament in our sport, you know, your expectations go up (and) I figured that I would win a few (more) times the way I played," said Schwartzel, who beat Bill Haas with a par on the first playoff hole at Innisbrook a year ago. "It just never came, and then I went through a bad thing where my swing was a bit off, and I lost a lot of confidence and, you know, you start thinking, 'Am I actually going to win out here again.' …

"I had a few wins outside of America on the European Tour, so I knew it was good enough. I feed a lot off my wins. Doesn't matter where I win in the world. I always say it takes the same amount of effort anywhere you win in the world. It always comes down to those last few holes and the special putts and special shots, and if you can deal with it, you can deal with anything. It's what you make of it."

Schwartzel's victory last March capped a run of three wins in a span of a little more than three months, as he also captured the Alfred Dunhill Championship for the third time in November 2015 and the Tshwane Open in February, both on the Sunshine Tour in South Africa.

Although he didn't win again on 2016, Schwartzel finished the season strong by tying for fourth in the BMW Championship and tying for 10th in the Tour Championship in the PGA Tour playoffs to wind up 25th in the FedExCup standings.

Then he tied for third in the World Tour Championship-Dubai to wind up 21st in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour. Schwartzel finished the year with a tie for fourth in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews in December, fading with a 74 in the final round when he had a chance to win again.

Turns out he was playing at less than 100 percent.

"I struggled with my knee a little at the end of the year, and it never really got better, so by the time it came to January for my MRI scan, it turned out I needed a longer break," said Schwartzel, who as a result hasn't played as much as he usually does early in the year.

"That has actually allowed me to be a lot fresher than I think I would have been, to sort out some of my clubs and get some practice done to get my game in shape. I think overall it's been a good thing. It was nine weeks … and it's the freshest I've ever been.

"I'd like to climb the world rankings more this year. I'm focused on majors; 2011 is a long time ago."

Schwartzel, who was No. 6 in the world in 2012 but was down to No. 27 last week, returned early in February but missed the cut in the Maybank Championship in Malaysia and in the Genesis Open at Riviera.

However, his game began to return last week when he was in contention for a top-10 finish before closing with a 75 to tie for 38th in the WGC-Mexico Championship in Mexico City, and he knows it's time to get going.

When Schwartzel won by two strokes over Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day six years ago at Augusta National, it came on the 50th anniversary of Gary Player becoming the first player from outside the United States to claim the Green Jacket.

Schwartzel doesn't need a calendar to know the Masters rolls around again next month, and he wants to be ready.