Paul Casey prevails to defend Valspar Championship, Anirban Lahiri T30

Paul Casey successfully defended the Valspar Championship title with some measured golf on Sunday. He earned a one-stroke victory over Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Kokrak

Paul Casey wins Valspar Championship - PGA TOUR - GettyImages

Jeff Babineau, PGA TOUR – 25 March 2019: Paul Casey again went home with the champion’s trophy Sunday evening at the Valspar Championship, mostly because it would be awkward to hand one to a golf course. Anirban Lahiri found his voice right on cue, producing a brilliant back nine to claw back to even par and finish in T30.

Anirban shot the low round of the day, a 68, to work his way back after enduring a patchy week with some determined golf.

At the 445-yard par-4 10th, Lahiri’s tee shot went 270 yards to the fairway bunker, his second shot went 162 yards to the left rough, his second shot was a drop, his third shot went 17 yards to the left rough, and his chip went 6 yards to the green where he one putted for bogey. This moved him to 1 over for the round.

On the 575-yard par-5 11th hole, Lahiri reached the green in 3 and sunk a 7-foot putt for birdie. This moved Lahiri to even for the round.

On the 380-yard par-4 12th hole, Lahiri reached the green in 2 and sunk a 16-foot putt for birdie. This moved Lahiri to 1 under for the round.

On the 590-yard par-5 14th hole, Lahiri reached the green in 3 and sunk a 27-inch putt for birdie. This moved Lahiri to 2 under for the round.

All credit to Casey for how hard he battled. But the arduous Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort gave players everything they could handle and more, firming up to produce its toughest exam on a sunny Sunday just outside Tampa. Casey, 41, who became the first man in the event’s 19-year history to repeat as champion, shot 1-over 72, making a strong par from a fairway bunker at the last, and simply survived better than the rest. He finished four rounds at 8-under 276, one shot better than Louis Oosthuizen (69) and Jason Kokrak (71).

A year ago, Casey shot 65 on Sunday, then waited about 90 minutes to see if anyone would match him at 10 under. No one did. This time he teed off in the last group, against the top player in the world, with plenty of attention on him. Needing par at the final hole, he took a little off a wedge from 130 yards, his ball settling 24 feet from the flagstick, leaving him two putts for the win. He nearly did it in one.

“It feels very different,” Casey said, “but not any less cool.”

Three players had a great chance to win late on Sunday; surprisingly, top-ranked Dustin Johnson, who began the round just one shot behind Casey and in the final pairing, was not among them. Johnson failed to make a single birdie, shot 74 and slid to T-6, three shots out. It was Johnson’s first round outside the 60s since the opening round of the Genesis Open in February.

“I still have a lot of confidence in the game … but yeah, tough day, tough conditions, and I wasn’t spot on,” Johnson said. It had been nearly two years since he’d played a round on the PGA TOUR without making a birdie.

As Johnson exited the picture, in stepped Oosthuizen, who was 7 under on the weekend (66-69) despite playing the final five holes in a combined 3 over. On Saturday, bogeys at 16 and 18 would cost Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open Championship winner from South Africa, what would have been the best round of the week. Sunday, he made a costly 5 again at the 16th, driving it into the left rough and needing three shots to get down from 30 feet just off the back of the green. He used a 3-wood for his third shot and juiced it 8 feet past the hole.

“I hit four good tee shots on 16 and I bogeyed it all four days,” Oosthuizen said. “I would love to come back next year and try to make a par on that hole.”

He did make a clutch up-and-down from left of the 18th green to give himself a chance, finishing at 7 under. Behind him, Kokrak, a long-hitter who was sparked by an ace at No. 15 a day earlier, was seeking his first victory in his 197th PGA TOUR start. He’d temporarily pulled alongside Casey and Oosthuizen at 8 under with a birdie at the par-3 13th hole (Casey would nudge ahead with a great pitch to set up birdie at the par-5 14th) and entered the final act of the feared Snake Pit – Copperhead’s closing three-hole stretch – tied for the lead. Kokrak drove it right, came up short with his approach, chose to putt and pulled his first attempt 9 feet left of the hole. The putt for par to be first player to the clubhouse at 8 under never touched the hole.

“Just a little bit of a tough read and I didn’t hit it as firm as I needed to,” said Kokrak, who collected his third top-10 finish at Valspar. “All in all, a good week and another stepping stone toward hopefully that first win.”

Casey hadn’t won on the PGA TOUR in nine seasons when he pulled out a victory at Valspar in 2018. He said last year’s victory had a tangible effect in raising his his level of comfort and confidence. That would prove key down the stretch on Sunday. Asked his biggest challenge in the final round once Johnson struggled to make a run, Casey said, “A combination of myself and this golf course.”

Casey had turned to his caddie, John McLaren, after his 68 on Saturday and asked why his play had been so vastly better here than it had been earlier in his career. He always has loved the golf course, but was confounded to produce an answer why he’d been so much better on it. To which McLaren, who wasn’t working for Casey when he was struggling earlier in the decade, quipped, “Well, the only difference is your caddie.”

But Casey has learned to be more patient at the Copperhead, tending to shape more shots than he used to, and he places more of a premium on spin control with his iron shots. Casey hit nine of 13 fairways on Sunday and 11 of 18 greens. The only time he opened the door for other players was with three-putt bogeys at Nos. 7 and 17. Other than that, he was rock solid.

“I had a lot of confidence. My victory here last year put me back into a frame of mind, a comfort that I felt many years ago during my career, back in, pick a year, when I was winning consistently in Europe,” Casey said. “People forget, I’m not a prolific winner but I’ve won 17 times around the world. It’s not bad. I would like it to be more, obviously. I know how to win, plain and simple. I think I had forgotten, and last year’s victory kind of maybe kind of broke the seal, for lack of a better term.

“Today was a very different attitude to maybe I had had the last three, four years, and an attitude that I had, and a comfort and a relaxed approach, confidence in my game. I still felt Dustin was the favorite. But it didn’t mean I didn’t think I could beat him.”

Casey moved to fourth in the FedEx Cup standings, and Sunday’s victory marked the first time as a professional he had successfully defended as champion. Casey won three PAC-12 individual titles while at Arizona State and won back-to-back English Amateurs, but had yet to win back-to-back as a professional. At 41, there still is room for firsts.

After a long week and a stringent Sunday exam, Casey this time was the last man standing on the 18th green, his arms raised as much in sheer relief as they were in triumph. After Casey’s hard fight, the name across the back of his caddie’s bib said all that was needed to say.