PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) – Paul Casey became the first back-to-back winner in the 19 years of the Valspar Championship, and it was every bit as tough as he expected.
Not because of Dustin Johnson.
Because of Innisbrook.
Casey held his nerve down the tough closing stretch on the Copperhead course for a 1-over 72, blasting out of a fairway bunker safely to 20 feet for a two-putt par and a one-shot victory over Jason Kokrak and Louis Oosthuizen.
It was the first time since this event joined the PGA Tour schedule in 2000 that the winner was over par in the final round. The course was so dry and fast that no one shot better than 68, and the average score of 72.143 was the second-toughest final round his year behind rainy, windy Riviera.
“Today wasn’t easy,” Casey said. “Last year’s win was so big. It felt like my first victory as a pro. I’m getting older, but I feel like I’m getting better.”
Kokrak (71) and Oosthuizen (69) each had a share of the lead on the back nine until one mistake cost them.
Oosthuizen, who hit only six greens in regulation, opted for a fairway metal from just behind the green and hit it too firmly. He missed the 8-foot par putt and never caught up.
“There was too much grass behind the ball,” he said. “I saw all the grass behind the ball and I just gave it a little bit too much. I don’t think I would have chipped it any closer.”
Kokrak had a good lie in trampled, dry grass near the cart path on the 18th hole, but his shot came out short of the green into a sprinkler hole. A free drop put him in a position to putt, but he was short and left, and missed the 8-foot par putt to fall one shot behind.
“Played good golf all week, just not the way I wanted to finish,” Kokrak said.
Behind him was Casey, in one of the bunkers that resemble a miniature version of Oakmont’s church pews, facing a key shot into the wind to an elevated green. It came out perfectly to the right of the flag, and his birdie attempt grazed the left edge of the cup and left him with one of the easiest shots he had all day.
Casey finished at 8-under 276 and moved to No. 11 in the world.
It was the third straight week for a European-born winner on the PGA Tour, the first time that has happened since 2010 when Justin Rose (Memorial), Lee Westwood (St. Jude Classic) and Graeme McDowell (U.S. Open) won in successive weeks.
Nothing came easily for Dustin Johnson, who started one shot behind and failed to make a birdie putt for the first time in 31 tournaments worldwide. The last occasion was the HSBC Champions in 2017, when he lost a six-shot lead. This time, even with no birdies and two bogeys until late in the round, he was still in the mix.
That ended on the par-5 14th, when Johnson was just short of the green facing a stock chip. He ran it 5 feet by the hole and missed. Casey was on the hill and lofted a pitch onto the green to 2 feet for a birdie that restored his lead.
Johnson closed with a 74 and tied for sixth.
“I didn’t feel like I played bad,” Johnson said. “Felt like I was swinging well and I still feel like I’m swinging well. I still got a lot of confidence in the game but just, yeah, tough day. Tough conditions and wasn’t spot on.”
Casey, who last year made up a five-shot deficit in the final round with a 65, appeared to have the tournament in hand when he found the green about 35 feet below the hole on the par-3 17th. But he left it 5 feet short and missed the par putt, falling back into a share of the lead.
Kokrak made bogey ahead of him, leaving Casey only needing par on the 18th for the victory.
The tournament allowed players to choose whatever name they wanted for the caddie’s bib. Casey went with “The Champ,” and he found one positive to the week before he even collected his trophy.
“I don’t have to change the caddie bib,” he said.