PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Heading into a final-round pairing alongside the world’s top-ranked player, Paul Casey surmised that he needed to beat or match Dustin Johnson in order to successfully defend his title at the Valspar Championship.
Turns out he was right. But it wasn’t exactly that simple.
Facing conditions that felt more like a U.S. Open than the Tour’s usual swing through Tampa, Casey battled in equal parts a difficult Copperhead Course and a cast of contenders that each took a shot at swiping the paintbrush trophy from his hands.
The Englishman doubled his one-shot lead with a birdie on the opening hole, and he held at least a share of the lead the entire afternoon. But it wasn’t until he found the green from a fairway bunker on the 72nd hole and lagged a 22-foot putt to inches that he knew for sure he would become the first back-to-back winner in tournament history.
“The Champ,” as was emblazoned on Casey’s caddie bib all week, is now “The Champ x2.”
That was quick. pic.twitter.com/H4Om7CbHol— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) March 24, 2019
“It feels very different but not any less cool,” Casey said.
Casey embraced a laid-back attitude throughout his title defense, bearing with frequency the same toothy grin he flashed last year when he roared from five shots back with a closing 65 for his first PGA Tour victory since 2009. It was a breakthrough that the 41-year-old insisted changed his approach to his Innisbrook return: Last year, he hoped to win. This year, he knew that he could.
Winning on Tour is difficult by any measure, but for a player of Casey’s caliber and tenure, his trophy cabinet is somewhat lacking. He’s (deservedly) quick to point to his 13 European Tour victories, four of which bridged the gap between his 2009 Houston Open title and last year’s comeback victory.
But Casey’s record from the front of the pack entering Sunday was suspect. He was only 1 for 5 with at least a share of the 54-hole lead in his Tour career, having coughed up a four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship in June and watched Phil Mickelson erase a three-shot deficit with relative ease last month at Pebble Beach.
Casey, though, finished the job in style Sunday on a crispy layout, turning away Johnson and winning by a shot despite a 1-over 72 in winds that, according to caddie John McLaren’s estimation, came from six different directions.
“The thing is with Paul, we’ve had some chances that people may have thought we haven’t taken,” McLaren said. “Today, stuff like this shows me that when you’re really in the mix of everyone having a chance, Paul’s got a way to finish. He knows how to do it.”
Casey’s Copperhead close was not without its tense moments. Consecutive bogeys on Nos. 6 and 7 dropped him into a share of the lead, and a three-putt bogey on No. 17 momentarily left him tied with Kokrak with a possible playoff looming on the horizon. They were the kind of blips that might have cost Casey in recent years, especially last summer at TPC River Highlands when he appeared poised to build upon his Valspar triumph from a year ago but faltered in the final round.
No such issues Sunday, as he ticked off birdies on each of the four par-5s and salvaged a number of pars the rest of the way.
“Paul in the past may have carried the hangover of some of those things a bit more,” McLaren said. “He’s doing it less and less. That’s what makes him a much better player.”
Casey’s bogey on No. 17 preceded by minutes Kokrak’s dropped shot at the last, meaning that he played the final hole knowing that par would be good enough. He then delivered the shot of the tournament from the fairway bunker, and a year after waiting on a couch for 90 minutes to close out a win, he enjoyed the enveloping applause that followed a tap-in par this time around.
“People forget, I’m not a prolific winner, but I’ve won 17 times around the world. It’s not bad,” Casey said. “I know how to win, plain and simple. I think I had forgotten, and last year’s victory maybe kind of broke the seal for lack of a better term.”
The seal is officially open for Casey, with a chance to make it a three-peat at Innisbrook next spring. But for now he can enjoy this latest victory on a demanding layout, one that comes on the heels of a few close calls and feels a little different than last year’s watershed.
“I’ve always enjoyed the work that goes into it, and the process and the quest, because golf is really that,” Casey said. “You don’t beat the game. Occasionally, you take a chunk here or there and you make a few birdies. But you have to enjoy that quest for whatever it is, and I’ve always enjoyed that.”