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If Tiger couldn't win, Casey glad he did

By Rex HoggardMarch 12, 2018, 12:02 am

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – On Friday as Tiger Woods was turning back the clock at the Valspar Championship, Paul Casey skillfully straddled the line between fan and competitor the way a player who has been a witness to greatness could.

“If I don't win this week I want Tiger to win. I'm afraid to say that,” he shrugged.

It was a common theme among Woods’ PGA Tour frat brothers. As competitive as the game can be at the highest level, there’s no better story in sports than a reclamation project, even among contemporaries.

For the better part of four days at Innisbrook Resort, Woods awoke the ghosts of past greatness with impressive flair. He opened with rounds of 70-68 to head into the weekend just two strokes off the lead, and on Day 3 he was nearly flawless on his way to a 67 to trim a shot off that advantage.

The anticipation was palpable and wide reaching. Historic crowds swarmed to the Copperhead Course to get a glimpse of the moment Woods completed the comeback and won his first Tour event in 1,680 days.

Unlike the 2015 Wyndham Championship, the last time Tiger began a Sunday with a legitimate chance, this promised no false hope. There were no qualifiers, no excuses and seemingly no doubts.

Healthy, happy and hungry, this was Woods’ event to win.

Maybe it was a sign of the changing times or the byproduct of an exceedingly small sample window, the Valspar Championship was Woods’ fourth official event since undergoing fusion surgery on his lower back in April, but the Sunday everyone anticipated was late to transpire and when it did it was too little, too late.

Woods played his first 16 holes in even par, taking the lead briefly with a birdie at the first only to drift back into the pack with a bogey at No. 4. That was followed by a parade of routine pars and iron shots that simply weren’t close enough to gain any kind of momentum and left a massive gallery that had little to cheer for for the first time all week.

Full-field scores from the Valspar Championship

Valspar Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Through three rounds, it seemed for the first time on a course not named Augusta National you could track the action by the direction and intensity of the cheers.

When his tee shot sailed to 44 feet at the 17th hole, Woods was two strokes behind Casey and the outcome seemed just as preordained.

Casey, who’d teed off an hour and 20 minutes before the leaders, was awaiting his fate in the locker room, a few par 4s away from the action on the 17th hole, but when Woods’ birdie putt dropped into the hole the Englishman didn’t need an update.

Moments later, Casey was able to again read the room. This time it was a chorus of anguish as Tiger’s birdie attempt from 37 feet at the 72nd hole came up short. Like that the air was pulled from Innisbrook.

“I had a chance today,” lamented Woods, who clearly had no interest in moral victories.

Throughout this comeback, Woods has taken a long-view approach. Baby steps, not breakthroughs, have been the focus, but with the stars aligned perfectly and his game as complete as it’s been since 2013 it was difficult to keep things in perspective in the hurried moments following his round.

“I was close. I had a chance today,” said Woods, who closed with a 70 to tie for second place with Patrick Reed at 9 under par. “Unfortunately I just didn't quite feel as sharp as I needed to with my irons, played a little conservative because of it. I just needed to handle the par 5s a little better.”

Even Casey, who is nearly nine years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, was surprised by the outcome. He has, after all, spent his entire career watching Woods defy the odds and make the extraordinary seem standard.

Before Casey teed off on Sunday five strokes off the lead, he shared the view of the vast majority of fans that this would be Woods’ comeback exclamation point.

“I actually thought he was going to win today before the round started. I thought it was just teed up beautifully for him,” said Casey, who birdied three consecutive holes starting at the 11th and scrambled for pars at the three closing holes on his way to a 6-under 65 and a 10-under total.

Like most who have watched Woods make the impossible look easy for the better part of two decades, Casey figured that settling back into his winning ways was as easy as slipping into a red shirt and black pants. Maybe even Woods allowed himself such an indulgence.

Lost in the disappointment of Woods’ defeat, however, is the degree of difficulty involved with winning at the highest level after two years of competitive inactivity and four back surgeries.

Woods has repeatedly stressed that his climb back to relevance would take time, time to understand his rebuilt body and refine a swing that until a few months ago was completely foreign. But his 12th-place finish two weeks ago at the Honda Classic and now Sunday’s near miss at Innisbrook will make that difficult to digest.

In an odd way, Casey’s victory may ease those wild expectations, at least for Woods. Although comparisons between the two players are few, they do share an unmistakable desire to persevere. For Casey, it was the steady drumbeat of missed opportunities as his last Tour victory at the 2009 Houston Open became a distant memory.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn't say there weren’t [doubts he could win again],” he admitted. “The last couple of years I've been very much at peace with it, having great times on the golf course and bad times on the golf course. But I'm content with the life that I built.”

Woods was far from content with his finish at the Valspar Championship - his body language made that abundantly clear - but like Casey he seems truly at peace with his plight and quietly convinced he’s finally on the right path.

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Garcia leads as Valderrama Masters extends to Monday

By Will GrayOctober 21, 2021, 3:52 pm

Weather continues to be the enemy at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, where Sergio Garcia remains in front as the tournament heads for a Monday finish.

European Tour officials had already ceded the fact that 72 holes would not be completed this week in Spain, but players were not even able to finish 54 holes before another set of thunderstorms rolled in Sunday afternoon to once again halt play. Garcia remains in front at 10 under, having played seven holes of the third round in even par, while Lee Westwood is alone in second at 7 under.

Officials had previously stated an intention to play at least 54 holes, even if that meant extending the tournament to Monday, given that this is the final chance for many players to earn Race to Dubai points in an effort to secure European Tour cards for 2019. Next week's WGC-HSBC Champions will be the final event of the regular season, followed by a three-event final series.

Full-field scores from the Andalucia Valderrama Masters

Garcia, who won the tournament last year, started the third round with a four-shot lead over Ashley Chesters. He balanced one birdie with one bogey and remains in position for his first worldwide victory since the Asian Tour's Singapore Open in January.

Westwood, who has his son Sam on the bag this week, made the biggest charge up the leaderboard with four birdies over his first eight holes. He'll have 10 holes to go when play resumes at 9:10 a.m. local time Monday as he looks to win for the first time since the 2015 Indonesian Masters.

Shane Lowry and Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano are tied for third at 6 under, four shots behind Garcia with 10 holes to play, while Chesters made two double bogeys over his first four holes to drop into a tie for sixth.

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After Further Review: American success stories

By Golf Channel DigitalOctober 21, 2018, 8:35 pm

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On the global nature of Koepka's rise to No. 1 ...

Brooks Koepka is an American superstar, and a two-time winner of his national open. But his rise to world No. 1 in, of all places, South Korea, emphasizes the circuitous, global path he took to the top.

After winning the CJ Cup by four shots, Koepka was quick to remind reporters that he made his first-ever start as a pro in Switzerland back in 2012. He cracked the top 500 for the first time with a win in Spain, and he broke into the top 100 after a good week in the Netherlands.

Koepka languished on the developmental Challenge Tour for a year before earning a promotion to the European Tour, and he didn’t make a splash in the States until contending at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst.

It’s a testament to Koepka’s adaptability and raw talent that he can handle the heights of Crans-Montana as well as the slopes of Shinnecock Hills or rough of Nine Bridges. And as the scene shifts to China next week, it highlights the global nature of today’s game – and the fact that the best in the world can rise to the occasion on any continent. - Will Gray

On the resurgence of American women  ...

American women are on a nice roll again. Danielle Kang’s victory Sunday at the Buick LPGA Shanghai was the third by an American over the last five events. Plus, Annie Park and Marina Alex, emerging American talents looking for their second victories this season, tied for second. So did American Brittany Altomare. Two years ago, Americans won just twice, their fewest victories in a single season in LPGA history. Overall, women from the United States have won seven times this season.

The Americans are making their move with Stacy Lewis on maternity leave and with Lexi Thompson, the highest ranked American in the world, still looking for her first victory this year. Yes, the South Koreans have won nine times this season, but with four LPGA events remaining in 2018 the Americans actually have a chance to be the winningest nation in women’s golf this year. With all the grief they’ve received the last few years, that would be a significant feat. - Randall Mell

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In Buick win, Kang overcame demons of mind and spirit

By Randall MellOctober 21, 2018, 3:33 pm

Danielle Kang beat three of the most formidable foes in golf Sunday to win the Buick LPGA Shanghai.




Kang overcame these demons of mind and spirit to win for the second time on tour, backing up her KPMG Women’s PGA Championship victory last year.

“I’ve been going through a lot mentally,” Kang said.

Kang birdied four of the last eight holes to close with a 3-under-par 69, coming from one shot back in the final round to win. At 13-under 275, she finished two shots ahead of a pack of seven players, including world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn (71) and former world No. 1 Lydia Ko (66).

It hasn’t been easy for Kang trying to build on her major championship breakthrough last year. She started the fall Asian swing having missed three cuts in a row, five in her last six starts.

“I had to go through swing changes,” Kang said. “I had the swing yips, the putting yips, everything possibly you could think of.

“I was able to get over a lot of anxiety I was feeling when I was trying to hit a golf ball. This week I just kept trusting my golf game.”

Through her swoon, Kang said she was struggling to get the club back, that she was getting mentally stuck to where she could not begin her takeaway. She sought out Butch Harmon, back at her Las Vegas home, for help. She said tying for third at the KEB Hana Bank Championship last week felt like a victory, though she was still battling her demons there.

“Anxiety over tee balls,” Kang said. “People might wonder what I'm doing. I actually can't pull the trigger. It has nothing to do with the result. Having to get over that last week was incredible for me. Even on the first round, one shot took me, I think, four minutes.”

Kang, who turned 26 on Saturday, broke through to win last year under swing coach David Leadbetter, but she began working with Harmon while struggling in the second half this year.

Buick LPGA Shanghai: Articles, photos and videos

“I was actually very frustrated, even yesterday,” Kang said. “Things just weren't going my way. The biggest thing that Butch tells me is to stay out of my own way. I just couldn't do that. If I had a short putt, I just kept doubting myself. I couldn't putt freely.”

Kang said her anger and frustration built up again on the front nine Sunday. She made the turn at 1 over for the round. She said her caddie, Oliver Brett, helped her exorcise some anger. After the ninth hole, he pulled her aside.

This is how Kang remembered the conversation:

Brett: “Whatever you need to do to let your anger out and restart and refresh, you need to do that now.”

Kang: “Cameras are everywhere. I just want to hit the bag really hard.”

Brett: “Here's a wedge. Just smash it.”

Kang did.

“Honestly, I thank him for that,” Kang said. “He told me there are a lot birdies out there. I regrouped, and we pretended we started the round brand new on the 10th hole. Then things changed and momentum started going my way. I started hitting it closer and felt better over the putts.”

Kang said the victory was all about finding a better place mentally.

“I'm just so happy to be where I'm at today,” Kang said. “I'm just happy that I won.

“More so than anything, I'm finally at a place where I'm peaceful and happy with my game, with my life . . . . I hope I win more. I did the best I can. I'm going to keep working hard and keep giving myself chances and keep putting myself in contention. I'll win more. I'll play better.”

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Goal for new world No. 1 Koepka: Stay healthy

By Will GrayOctober 21, 2018, 1:38 pm

Last season Brooks Koepka bagged a pair of majors en route to the PGA Tour's Player of the Year award. He started the new wraparound season with an emphatic win at the CJ Cup to reach world No. 1 for the first time.

But amid the best form of his career, Koepka has a simple goal in mind as he gets ready to turn his attention to the new year.

"Stay healthy," Koepka told reporters. "That's been the big thing. I need to be healthy to be able to play all these events, play all the majors."

Koepka's breakthrough year comes despite the fact that he missed four months in the spring, including the Masters, while recovering from a wrist injury. He hit the ground running once he returned, with strong finishes at TPC Sawgrass and Colonial preceding wins at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

Now Koepka has added a third trophy after cruising to a four-shot win in South Korea on Sunday that allowed him to move past Dustin Johnson at world No. 1.

"I'm 1-for-1 this year, which is nice," Koepka joked about his undefeated record in the new wraparound season.

Koepka will be in the field next week in China for the WGC-HSBC Champions before putting the clubs on the shelf. With Justin Thomas paving the way by making the goal-setting process more public in recent years, Koepka explained that even after summiting the world rankings he plans to wait until 2019 to adjust his expectations for himself.

"I keep the same goals through the calendar year," Koepka said. "On Jan. 1 I go to the beach in the morning and go write down my goals and figure them out for the calendar year, but I just need to finish this year off. I've got next week and I would like to, coming out the first week as No. 1, I'd like to play well."