Valspar Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
PAUL CASEY ended a long victory drought when he won the Valspar Championship but the real story was the return to form of Tiger Woods, who finished second. It was proof positive that the 14-time major champion’s comeback was the real thing, that he really could be a contender again after years of injury problems and fears that he may never play again. He would go on to contend at The Open and US PGA Championship, win the Tour Championship and force his way into America’s Ryder Cup team. But this was the big one. This was the one where he began to believe again, and where the rest of us looked on in awe.
The result of Woods’ performance was that Casey’s play was overlooked in many quarters. The Englishman hadn’t won on the PGA Tour since the 2009 Houston Open and was beginning to wonder whether it would ever happen for him again. He struggled to hold back the tears at the end of it all.
Casey closed with a six-under 65 to win, but only after a long and anxious wait in the locker room as Woods came up one short of forcing a playoff. It was the closest he had come to winning in nearly five years. Casey, who started the final round five shots behind, had three straight birdies early on the back nine at Innisbrook to take the lead, and he closed with four par saves to post at 10-under 274, a score he genuinely didn’t believe was going to be good enough to win. But nobody caught him.
Patrick Reed was tied for the lead and appeared headed for a playoff at worst until his approach to the 18th came back down the slope, and his 45-foot birdie putt was so weak that it rolled all the way back to his feet. He three-putted for bogey and a 68.
Woods closed with a 70 — the first time since The Barclays in 2013 that he posted all four rounds under par on the PGA Tour — and tied for second. That was his best finish since he tied for second at that Barclays tournament, right about the time his back started to give out. Casey had gone 132 starts on the PGA Tour since winning in Houston, though he had won five times worldwide, including the European Tour's flagship event at the BMW PGA Championship. He had seven top-five finishes in the FedExCup playoffs over three years.
Woods looked closer than ever to winning in his remarkable return from fusion surgery on his lower back. Each week had been a little better. He was on Sunday in successive weeks, and a gallery that stood 10-deep around just about every green could sense it that they were witnessing something special. Unfortunately, he just couldn't deliver after a two-putt birdie on the par-five opening hole. "I didn't feel that sharp with my iron game," Woods said. "I played conservatively into the green because I wasn't as sharp as yesterday. It was one of those days I kept getting half-clubs."
He missed birdie chances on both par fives on the back nine, pulling a wedge into the rough at the 11th and three-putting from 80 feet at the 14th. He missed a couple of putts in the 15-foot range. But just when it looked like he was done, he holed a 45-foot birdie putt to keep his hopes alive.
Casey believed his hopes ended on Saturday when he hit into the water on the 16th and made double bogey, falling five shots behind. But he battled back during the final round while all eyes were on Woods by going out in 33, and then being rewarded for aggressive play. He got up-and-down from a bunker short of the green at the 11th for birdie, put his approach to 12 inches at the 12th and then holed a 20-foot birdie from just off the green at the 13th.
Justin Rose, among six players who had a share of the lead at some point in the final round, had back-to-back bogeys on the back nine and never atoned for his mistakes. He closed with a 72 and finished three shots behind.
So will Woods be back this year? Sadly not. He played more tournaments last year than he intended to as he attempts to manage his troublesome back. He only played in the Valspar last year after missing the cut at the Genesis Open, desperate to get some competitive play under his belt. Playing this year would have meant playing at least three weeks in a row.
In his words: “I had an unbelievable week last year so it gets very complicated. That’s what I’m trying to figure out, how much to play, how much is too much, how much is not enough, and at the end of the day being race ready enough for April [and The Masters] and making sure I get enough competitive rounds. That’s one of the reasons why I put in Tampa last year after I missed the cut in L.A., to make sure I get some rounds in and be race ready. This year’s even more complicated. I feel better, but I’ve got four events right there in my state that I live in and it gets very complicated.”
It was won in 2011 by Gary Woodland, in 2012 by Luke Donald, in 2013 by Kevin Streelman, in 2014 by John Senden, in 2015 by Jordan Spieth, in 2016 by Charles Schwartzel, in 2017 by Adam Hadwin and last year by Casey.
It is an important tournament for a number of players who are trying to find some form as The Masters approaches. Henrik Stenson, of Sweden, has been struggling for most of the season and will be alarmed by his slide down the world rankings. But he has been working hard on his game and will hope to turn things around soon. Jon Rahm is another who will fancy his chances of slipping into the Green Jacket and he has shown flashes of brilliance in 2019 but seems to have spent more time throwing temper tantrums than actually enjoying himself on the course. His competitive fire is what makes him the player he is but there is a fine line to be drawn and he needs to stop crossing it and discover a way to forget bad shots.
Image Credit: Kevin Diss Photography
It is also high time that the wonderful young Australian golfer Cameron Smith started living up to his undoubted promise. He appears to have every shot in the locker, together with a wonderful temperament and there is a sense among his peers that when he begins to realise just how good he is then he could become a serial winner.
Cameron Smith. Hugely talented young Australian
Gary Woodland. Beginning to believe in himself
Jon Rahm. Can win anywhere
Cameron Smith. Beautiful swing, perfect temperament
Gary Woodland. Hitting the ball even further these days
Jon Rahm. A birdie machine
Tommy Fleetwood. Still looking for his best form
Jason Day. Brilliant ball striker
Sergio Garcia. Showing signs of life again at last
Charles Howell III. Mr Top 10
Paul Casey. Will have great memories to draw upon
Si Woo Kim. Showing some decent consistent form
Henrik Stenson. In need of a big week - and soon
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