For years, the story on England’s Paul Casey was that he cannot close.
However, the script may finally be flipping, as the 41-year-old converted on his 54-hole lead at the brutally difficult Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort, pulling off the first successful championship defense in the history of the Valspar Championship.
It was not easy, or really all that pretty. A 1-over 72 in the final round and just 8-under for the week are rarely winning scores on the PGA Tour, but they were just enough this week as Casey triumphed by a single stroke over Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Kokrak.
When Casey won last year’s Valspar, his first victory since the 2009 Shell Houston Open, he started the final day well off the lead, went low early, and watched from the sidelines for hours while no one was able to catch up to him.
This year’s victory had a different feel, as Casey was finally able to do enough while holding a lead to truly “close” a tournament. A three-putt bogey on 17 could have caused him to unravel again, but a clutch par on the final hole after Kokrak had bogeyed 18 sealed the deal.
Even more impressive for Casey: he held the lead while playing in the final group with World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who was abysmal on Sunday – failing to card a single birdie in a 3-over 74.
Casey did not allow DJ’s negative momentum to cause his own round to flounder, at least not too much anyway. He did card five bogeys on the day, but made the shots he needed to in order to pull off his third career victory.
Casey remarked that he has been playing with a “new” confidence since last year’s Valspar win. He is likely to gain even more with what happened this week, which is great timing given next week’s WGC event, and The Masters coming up very soon.
FINAL TOP-10 FINISHERS
Pos-Player-Score (Final Rd)
1. Paul Casey -8 (+1)
2. Louis Oosthuizen -7 (-2)
2. Jason Kokrak -7 (E)
4. Bubba Watson -6 (-3)
4. Sungjae Im -6 (-1)
6. Jon Rahm -5 (-3)
6. Ryan Armour -5 (-2)
6. Dustin Johnson -5 (+3)
9. Denny McCarthy -4 (-2)
9. Austin Cook -4 (+1)
9. Scott Stallings -4 (+2)
9. Luke Donald -4 (+2)
13. Lucas Glover, Bill Haas -3
18. Jim Furyk -2
24. Zach Johnson, Henrik Stenson -1
42. Danny Willett +2
54. Sergio Garcia +4
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HOW PAUL CASEY WON THE VALSPAR CHAMPIONSHIP
As is typical for Casey in recent years, he came into the week with a plethora of high finishes, notching seven finishes inside the top 25 in nine starts. However, any positive momentum he had was dashed at THE PLAYERS Championship, his most recent start, where he opened with a 78 and missed the cut by a mile.
Showing a short memory, Casey looked infinitely better than he did at TPC Sawgrass, and after rounds of 70-66-68, he found himself the 54-hole leader in his championship defense, an excellent result for someone who has not seemed to embrace attention in the past.
While playing partner Dustin Johnson pared the par-5 1st and 5th holes, unusual for a man who led the Tour in par-5 scoring last year, Casey birdied both to stretch his lead over Johnson early. However, back-to-back bogeys on 6 and 7 brought him back to field, and a “here we go again” sense was starting to build.
Casey made the turn at 1-over, but got his round back to even with a birdie on 11, a bogey on 13 dropped him into a three-way lead with Oosthuizen and Kokrak, but he bounced back immediately with a birdie on 14 to get back out front. A shaky 17th hole meant he needed to par the difficult 18th to win outright, but a solid approach got him to 23-feet from the hole, and even with his poor putting this year, he was easily able to two-putt his way to the win.
12 bogeys for the week is a lot for a tournament champion, and it ranked T40 in this field, but Casey was also T3 in birdies and he led the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green, always an important statistic at the Copperhead Course. He also finished top 10 in the field in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation. Only his putting gave him difficulties this week.
CASEY’S FINAL STATS
Driving: 306.6 yards (11th)
Fairways: 35/52, 67.3% (9th)
Greens: 46/72, 63.9% (4th)
Putts: 1.652 (5th)
Scoring: 1 Eagle, 18 Birdies, 41 Pars, 12 Bogeys
WHAT IT MEANS FOR CASEY
With his history, any win for Casey, even against a so-so field like this one, should be enormous for his confidence. As the major season quickly approaches, Casey should be looked at as a
serious threat to become the Tour’s latest first-time major winner, something the sport has seen a great deal of in recent years.
The talent has always been there, he just needed to improve in the mental game. He will definitely be one to watch at next week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, an event he has played well in the past, twice finishing runner-up.
With the victory, Casey moves from 15th to 11th in the world rankings. He finds himself a short distance behind Rickie Fowler to reach the top 10 for the first time since the 2011 season.
CASEY’S 2019 PGA TOUR SEASON
Cuts Made: 8
Wins: 1 (Valspar Championship)
Additional Top 10s: 2
Money: $3,032,473 (4th)
Points: 1,193 (4th)
World Rank Before/After: 15th/11th
The Copperhead Course firmed up, making it especially difficult on Sunday, but several players still found their A games.
Among the four players to lead the Sunday field with a 3-under 68 was Bubba Watson, who bogeyed just one hole the entire day. He had just seven bogeys for the entire week, which tied for the lowest in the field, and his excellent round jumped him from 14th to 4th in the final standings. The Florida native picked up his second top-10 of the season.
Ryan Armour is one of the shorter hitters on Tour, but he threw himself into the championship mix when birdies on 9, 10, and 11 got him to 4-under for the day. He did not play quite as well down the stretch, but still finished 2-under for the day, which allowed him to finish the week T6.
Armour led the field in scrambling for the week and was second to Casey in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Jon Rahm is just one week from removed from squandering the 54-hole lead at THE PLAYERS Championship, playing the final round 4-over, but he was much, much better on this Sunday. The young Spaniard shot a 3-under 68 to finish T6 and post his sixth top-10 in just nine 2019 season starts.
Given the strength of field and his recent successes, the final-round implosion of Dustin Johnson was shocking. The World No. 1 had three bogeys to zero birdies, and not a single part of his game was a considerable strength as he hit just five fairways and eight greens in regulation.
Impressively, he still finished 7th for the week in birdies, but he would have liked to have done better than T6 with where he was after 54-holes.
Luke Donald, a man who once finished atop the money list on BOTH the PGA and European Tours in the same season was looking reborn after injuries limited his action over the past year. His short game in particular was especially strong (he joked on Twitter that short game lessons with him are now tripled in cost), but after playing each of the three rounds under par, he ran out of gas on Sunday.
Donald opened the day with an eagle, but double bogeys on 7 and 11 dropped him to 2-over for the day and dropped him into 9th on the final leaderboard. However, he is likely to be encouraged by the fact that he posted his first top 10 in nearly two years.
After a first round 66, Sepp Straka was tied for the lead, but on Sunday he struggled with the kind of inconsistency that has plagued his young career so far. A 5-over 76 caused the 25-year-old Austrian to plummet 25 spots down the final leaderboard, into a tie for 46th. He shot 66-69 in the odd-numbered rounds, but had 76s in both rounds 2 and 4.
Straka matched Dustin Johnson’s feat of finishing in the field’s top 10 in birdies despite having a round (second round) where he failed to card a single birdie.
“This feels very different from last year, it feels better, I’m enjoying this one so much more. Today it was a struggle, but all week has been so cool to be defending champion.
“When Tracy West and the great organizers said, what do you want on the back of your bib, and I went for the champ, because I am, and I thought, let’s just roll with it, let’s just stand up there proudly and do it.
“And it’s been so much fun, the crowds here they have been cheering both myself and Dustin on all day and everybody else in the field, but it’s proud to be anybody’s champion, the Valspar Championship is a great, great golf event and the people around here who support it know what I’m talking about. So to be their champion again I feel very proud and honored.”
– Paul Casey, Back-to-Back Valspar Champion
FINAL SCORES, MONEY & POINTS: VALSPAR CHAMPIONSHIP
Innisbrook Copperhead | Palm Harbor, FL | Mar 21-24, 2019
Credits: Getty Images, PGA TOUR Media, ASAP Fastscripts