Paul Casey Maintains European Run of Success on PGA Tour
Paul Casey arrived at Innisbrook with the determination to successfully defend a professional title - something he hadn't achieved during his career - and that is exactly what he did in becoming the first player to retain the Valspar Championship on one of the PGA Tour's most notoriously difficult venues.
The Englishman may have shot a one-over par 72 on Sunday for an eight-under total - it's the nature of the Copperhead Course in these fiery conditions - but it was enough to win by one shot from American Jason Kokrak and South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen, who remains in search of his maiden victory on US soil, a remarkable statistic for the former Open champion who has regularly contended in majors across the Atlantic.
Casey, who was runner-up to Phil Mickelson at the A&T&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and finished third at the Genesis Open, dismally missed the cut last week at TPC Sawgrass, but returned to happier grounds and the site of his triumph of 12 months ago, when his final round of 65 capitulated him ahead of Patrick Reed and a resurgent Tiger Woods. This time, however, it was to be a different kind of finish, but no less satisfying for the 41-year-old.
In a tense finale, the Ryder Cup star three-putted the 17th to fall into a tie with Kokrak, the 33-year-old who remains winless on tour, but the former Ohio native dropped a shot of his own at the final hurdle to fall into a tie with Oosthuizen. That's not to say it was over, far from it, with Casey's tee shot on the 72nd hole of the tournament finding an unhelpful lie in a bunker. Presented with just enough room to proceed, the 13-time European Tour winner played a tremendous approach to the green, holding his nerve to two-putt and complete a victory that elevates him to the fringes of the world's top ten, harkening back to the halcyon days of 2009 when he was the game's third highest ranked player.
Casey may have expected a stronger challenge from playing partner Dustin Johnson, but the world number one didn't make a birdie in a disappointing round of 74 that saw him slip back into a tie for sixth. Ultimately, this was to be another triumph for the Europeans, the continent having claimed the last three events on the American circuit. "It was messy but this golf course is so difficult," Casey said to Sky Sports' James Haddock. "I did make errors, but we look at it holistically, we are looking at 72 holes as much as we can.
"It was hard work. In my mind I was going up against the world No 1 - it was beat him and I've probably got this - and it turned out to be a very different scenario as Dustin struggled today and I feel so good right now."
Heading towards the Masters - a mere fortnight away - Casey will be considered one of the leading outside contenders at Augusta National, a venue where he has recorded five top ten finishes during his career. He is certainly hoping that his 13th appearance down Magnolia Lane could prove to be lucky.
“I've got to play like that. I drove the ball so well this week, these fairways are so narrow. Drive it like that [and] I've got a very, very good chance.
“Clean up the putting a little bit and I need someone like Rory and Dustin to maybe not play their best because I'm not sure I can beat them when they are on their best game - I give them full credit, I'm not as good as they are - but I've got a good chance.”
Elsewhere, Luke Donald - continuing his comeback after lengthy injury - was near the summit of the leaderboard all week in an event that he won in 2012, before falling back into a tie for ninth after a final round of 73, but there were only positives to take away from his four days in Florida.
Big-hitting Australian Scott Hend was embroiled in a remarkable finish to win the Maybank Championship, a conclusion that was scarcely believable, ultimately overcoming the challenge of Spain's Nacho Elvira in a play-off.
Play was dramatically suspended with the final pairing on the 18th hole when a thunderstorm struck at the worst possible time, certainly for Elvira, who was distracted and left his pitch way short of the flag on the closing par five. Having to wait for 100 minutes, astonishingly, the 32-year-old from Madrid holed his putt from 30-feet to force extra holes after Hend could only par the 72nd. Both players finished at 15-under, two-ahead of Thailand's Jazz Janewattananond.
Returning to the 18th tee as the prolonged duel continued, Hend's tee shot fortuitously struck a tree and rebounded back onto the fairway, a position from where he would eventually make birdie, which was enough to secure the 45-year-old's third European Tour victory, and tenth Asian Tour-sanctioned title.
The Queenslander appreciated the efforts of Elvira during an incredible Sunday.
"What a putt by Nacho, unbelievable", he said. "If I was to go out there and hit that putt, you'd probably hole it one in 10 times. It was an amazing putt and the situation he holed it in was awesome. All credit to him.
"I had a bit of luck on the play-off hole to win, you need luck to win and I was fortunate to have the luck today.
"Unfortunately for Nacho, he was against the luck but his time's going to come, he's a great player and he's going to win."
Additionally, there were valuable top tens recorded for Englishmen Oliver Fisher, Jordan Smith and Andy Sullivan, while it was a milestone for the great Ernie Els, whose tie for seventh was his 300th top ten finish of a storied career that has included four major championships.
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