PALM HARBOR, Fla. – One year after Tiger Woods nearly blew the lid off the Copperhead Course, the sequel isn’t exactly lacking for star power.
Two of the biggest names in the field will occupy the final spot on the tee sheet Sunday at the Valspar Championship, with defending champ Paul Casey one shot clear of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. The nuance and difficulty of Innisbrook make this much more than a two-man race, and three others will begin the day within three shots of Casey.
But the spotlight will start out fixed on the day’s final pairing, where power will face off with precision.
Casey had some fun with the Tour’s spring break initiatives in play this week, opting to go with “THE CHAMP” in place of his last name on caddie John McLaren’s bib. The thought, he explained, was simple: how often do you get to do it?
For the Englishman, the answer is not very often. Last year’s win, when he rallied from five shots back with a closing 65 to hold off Tiger Woods and Masters champ-to-be Patrick Reed, was his first on Tour since the 2009 Houston Open. But returning with title in hand has loosened up the affable veteran, and his play has reflected that freedom. A second-round 66 gave him a share of the lead, and he increased that to a three-shot advantage during the late hours Saturday afternoon before a closing bogey dropped the lead to one.
Sometimes, being “the champ” has its benefits. For Casey, it means a more laid-back approach to a highly visible final pairing.
“Having won this, my mindset now is I’ve won it, I have nothing to lose. I’m feeling in a good position, like I don’t have really any pressure,” Casey said. “Now I’ve got one of those trophies. Yeah, I want another one, but it’s not as much sort of urgency or pressure. Tomorrow’s going to be highly entertaining for me.”
Entertainment factor aside, the task of holding off the world’s top-ranked player is a formidable one. Johnson already has two worldwide victories to his credit this year, including a dominant performance at last month’s WGC-Mexico Championship, and he tied for fifth at TPC Sawgrass a week ago. He’s currently riding a streak of 14 straight rounds of 69 or better, one that dates back to the second round of the Genesis Open and includes a third-round 67 that got him into the final pairing alongside Casey.
“I’m comfortable with every club in my bag,” Johnson said. “I mean, [the game’s] in pretty good form right now. It can always get better, but it’s in good form.”
Casey left Innisbrook a year ago hoping that his comeback victory might lead to more hardware, but his consistent play has yet to translate into another victory. His record with at least a share of the 54-hole lead on the PGA Tour is just 1 for 5, a mark that includes the Travelers Championship in June when he led by four and lost to Bubba Watson, and last month’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am when he coughed up a three-shot lead to Phil Mickelson.
With the margin even slimmer and the closest opponent even more daunting, Casey is taking the approach of deflecting the attention as he looks to become the tournament’s first-ever repeat champ.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Casey said. “Obviously he’s the prominent one in the group of guys near the lead. Who is the obvious one? Dustin. Who is the favorite tomorrow? Probably Dustin. So I actually feel kind of very little pressure.”
On a track as unpredictable as the Copperhead Course, this is hardly a match-play situation. Casey’s victory a year ago is a testament to the power of posting a score and waiting around these parts, and the five-shot margin he erased last year would mean the likes of Luke Donald (three back), Louis Oosthuizen (four) and Jim Furyk (four) all still have a chance to win.
“I’m not too far back,” said Donald, a winner here in 2012. “You kind of always have a chance around this place, even being four, five, even six back. It’s happened before.”
But the majority of fans, many of whom were likely lining the fairways for Woods’ stirring runner-up performance, will have their eyes fixed on the final pairing. Rarely does the world’s top-ranked player make a detour to Innisbrook, and rarer still is the opportunity to watch him contend for what would be a third victory on the year before the azaleas even have a chance to bloom.
“I feel like I’ve got a good game plan for this golf course,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to change it. Just try to go out and play my game and see how low I can shoot, which is what I do every day. I’m not going to do anything different.”
It’s a stern challenge, sure. But it’s one that Casey welcomes with open arms, as the champ hopes to retain the paint brush trophy for another year.
“You look at my results versus Dustin’s, and he’s the better player,” Casey said. “So it’s pretty simple. If I go out tomorrow and beat him or match him, I should win. Plain and simple. It’s a great scenario.”