PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Adam Scott started his week by going to a familiar place with a familiar foe.
Augusta National is where Scott first seriously contended in a major. He made key putts on the back nine in the 2011 Masters and briefly shared the lead late Sunday afternoon until he ran out of holes, signed for a 67 and watched as Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four to win by two.
He took a quick trip to the home of the Masters with Ernie Els, another stark reminder of a close call in the majors. The 31-year-old Australian has done a remarkable job of putting the British Open behind him, though just about everyone else would have a hard time looking at Els and the claret jug without thinking about Scott.
Scott closed with four straight bogeys, and Els wound up with his fourth major championship.
The consolation for Scott was the gracious way he handled such a crushing loss, and how genuinely good he felt for the Big Easy. That much hasn't changed, which is why Scott thought nothing about flying up with Els to Augusta National.
"I think he's an incredible talent and he's one of the best players I've of seen on a golf course," Scott said Friday after his 5-under 66 at Innisbrook, leaving him one shot out of the lead going into the weekend. "I've played so much golf with him and seen him do such incredible things. I think he could have won 10 majors. So he paid his dues, and whether he won it or I helped him win it a little bit, it doesn't matter. He won it.
"Probably eased the pain a little bit that he was a closer friend of mind, and I could feel some happiness for him."
The timing of the trip certainly wasn't awkward, at least not for Scott. One thing his story revealed is that Els must have not been all that injured, for the South African earlier this week pulled out of the Tampa Bay Championship citing a sore hip.
Scott is gearing up toward the Masters, on a road that few others take.
He didn't start his season anywhere in the world until Riviera, and Tampa Bay will be his last official start before the Masters. With a first-round loss in the Match Play Championship, that would give him 13 rounds before Augusta — still more than Rory McIlroy, but not many competitive rounds before the first major.
"I just try and balance where my game's at, what I'm feeling and if I'm competitive," Scott said. "There's no point just going to play a tournament for the sake of playing a tournament. I'm trying to go and play well every week, and sometimes I have to go and practice at home to get better so I can come back out and be competitive."
He has found this week at Innisbrook that his game is fairly sharp.
The 36-hole leader on the Copperhead course is Shawn Stefani, the 31-year-old rookie who has won at every level, even though some of those levels were tours not many people know. He followed a bogey-free 65 with a hard-earned 70 on Friday, making the putts he felt he was supposed to make and hitting a pair of 5-iron shots into par 3s that yielded good birdies.
Stefani was at 7-under 135.
He was one shot clear of Scott, who played bogey-free, and K.J. Choi, in his second week going to the claw grip. Choi had a 67.
Twenty players were within five shots of the lead at the halfway point, a group that included everyone from Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar, to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth and Erik Compton, the two-time heart transplant recipient whose 65 was the low round of the day.
It was the highest score to lead at Innisbrook in five years.
Harris English made four birdies on the tough par 3s to atone for not making up any ground on the par 5s. That gave him a 69, leaving him two shots behind with close friend and fellow Georgia alum Brian Harman (70), and Jason Dufner (66).
Scott was right in the middle of it all, which is where he wants to be. He finished the year by winning the Australian Masters, though it was a month later when he was working on his game at home on the Gold Coast that he experienced a significant turnaround with his short game.
"Just had a really nice feeling going that day, whatever it was, and I managed to get through the whole shag bag of balls hitting every chip the same," he said. "Everything was very controlled and consistent. ... I've felt my confidence grow on the course with the pitching and chipping."
Scott said when he was hitting the ball poorly in 2009, it put extraordinary pressure on his short game because he was missing greens. In this case, he said a solid short game has relieved any tension in the long game, and it's starting to show. He closed with a 68-64 on the weekend at Doral, and carried that to a tougher Copperhead course at Innisbrook.
His hope is to keep it going through the weekend and onward to Augusta.