Laird eager to turn a corner
Defending Texas Open champion Martin Laird hopes this can be the week he halts the slide that has seen him squeezed out of the world's top 100.
The United States-based Scot experienced what he called "the best round of golf I ever played" when a closing 63 saw him pip Rory McIlroy to the title at TPC San Antonio 12 months ago.
It came rather out of the blue, after steady earlier rounds of 70, 71 and 70, and Laird is aiming to find a similar spark when he heads out alongside Phil Mickelson and 20-year-old emerging star Jordan Spieth on Thursday.
Laird and Mickelson will be able to compare notes about their struggles in 2014, with neither man yet to register a top-10 finish. Spieth has had three top-fives, so will be looking to trump his playing partners.
After slipping three places to 101st in the rankings, following a 76th-placed finish at last week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, Laird accepts his form is not what he wants it to be.
He has been as high as 21st in the world during his career, but now says his game "is a little bit of work in progress". He also says he stopped watching the rankings once he fell out of the top 50.
"I've been playing solid, just not great," Laird said. "You hear all the time people saying they're close. I feel like I am pretty close. I feel like I'm playing a little bit better than my results have been."
The return to the scene of his third PGA Tour triumph could be the spur he needs.
"I'm obviously excited to be back this week," he said. "I obviously have a lot of fond memories from last year and the way the tournament finished.
"The thing I remember most is obviously my final round - I know I'll never forget it. It was probably the best round of golf I ever played and something I'll always remember, and the fact that it was a good way to win a tournament as prestigious as the Valero Texas Open, it only made it more special."
What gives 31-year-old Laird particular hope is that he arrived at the Cibolo Canyons venue last year with his game in bits, yet turned in his breathtaking finish.
"I came in here last year probably actually playing worse than I am this year and managed to win. You never know with the golf course," Laird said.
"Obviously it's a golf course I love and feel comfortable on. Hopefully that motivates me to kind of turn it around a little bit this week."
With the Masters just two weeks away, for many players this week's tournament is a final tune-up for Augusta. Laird needs to repeat his win just to get into the field for the year's opening major.
Spieth has no such worries.
He landed his maiden tour title at last year's John Deere Classic, prevailing in a play-off with Zach Johnson and David Hearn, and is following up in highly impressive fashion, climbing to 13th in the world while looking set to challenge for the sport's biggest prizes for years to come.
"Unfortunately, he's really good," said Johnson, a two-time Texas Open champion who returns to the tournament after a three-year absence this week.
"Fortunately, he's a really good kid. So, I expect big things out of him for a number of years.
"I know Jordan real well. We played a lot over the last 10 months, duelled it out at John Deere and then obviously in the Presidents Cup team together and I got to know him pretty well.
"He's a kid that's way more mature than his age, both on and off the golf course, specifically on the golf course.
"I don't like to put unnecessary pressure, undue terms on anybody but he's borderline phenom in some regards.
"He's very consistent, too. I'm assuming Tiger (Woods) was a lot like that, probably Phil (Mickelson) at that age, maybe Justin Leonard, those type of guys coming out of college. I can't wrap my brain around that."