England’s Paul Casey limited his mistakes and grinded his way to a one-shot victory on Sunday at the Valspar Championship, becoming the first player to defend his title at the event in Palm Harbor, Fla.
Casey let the challenging Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort whittle away his competition down the stretch. His 1-over 72 in the final round left him at 8 under, edging Jason Kokrak (final round of 71) and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen (69) by a stroke.
Bubba Watson fired a 68 on Sunday to climb 10 spots and into a tie for fourth with Sungjae Im of South Korea (71) at 6 under.
Casey began the day at 9 under and never surrendered the lead, although there were times when others tied him atop the leaderboard. One of those times happened when Casey bogeyed the par-3 13th, allowing Oosthuizen and Kokrak to join him in first place.
Casey then birdied the par-5 14th after hitting a pitch to within 3 feet to retake the lead. He survived the par-4 16th by again relying on his short game, pitching from a gnarly, deep-grass lie from behind the green to 5 feet and calmly rolling in the ensuing putt.
After Casey bogeyed the 17th to fall back into a tie with Kokrak, he watched from the fairway as Kokrak bogeyed the 18th — not even touching the hole from 5 feet on his par putt.
Casey then hit his approach from a fairway bunker, found the putting surface 23 feet from the cup and two-putted to close out the victory. His victory here last year was his second on the PGA Tour and first since the 2009 Shell Houston Open.
It was the third career win for the 41-year-old Casey on the PGA Tour (he had 12 European Tour wins and three others internationally) and the first time he has ever defended a title.
D.J. fades away
Two of the scenarios that could have played out on Sunday never did.
Casey was paired with Dustin Johnson, the world’s top-ranked player, and those two could have turned the final 18 holes into a match play competition. Bogeys at Nos. 3 and 4 by Johnson, who began the day a shot behind Casey in second place, quickly dropped him off the pace and he never recovered.
Johnson’s birdie-free 74 was his first over-par final round of the season. He finished tied for sixth at 5 under with Spain’s Jon Rahm (68) and Ryan Armour (69).
Casey was also wary that a golfer or two from a few shots off the pace but playing earlier in the day when the course was a little easier might post a good score and sit and watch in the clubhouse as the leaders faltered at the end.
Casey knew of that opportunity because that’s how he won here last year, beginning the final round tied for 11th before carding a 65 and completing his round when the final group was on No. 12.
Thirteen players began the final round within five strokes of the lead to set that table, but the situation never materialized, with the Copperhead Course and the warm and windy conditions allowing a low round of 68 on Sunday, achieved by four golfers.
Instead, Casey trudged along, recording four birdies and four bogeys through the first 14 holes as the last four groups headed into the course’s treacherous “Snake Pit,” which ranks among the toughest closing stretches on Tour.
The PGA Tour heads to a split schedule next week with the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play being competed in Austin beginning Wednesday and the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic teeing off on Thursday.
–Field Level Media