Paul Casey outduels Tiger Woods to capture Valspar Championship

Paul Casey kisses the champion's trophy after winning the Valspar Championship golf tournament Sunday, March 11, 2018, in Palm Harbor, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) Mike Carlson/Associated Press

Paul Casey outduels Tiger Woods to capture Valspar Championship

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Paul Casey outduels Tiger Woods to capture Valspar Championship

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Paul Casey.

Paul Casey won the Valspar Championship.

That was the answer to the question posed by the 50-something man riding a bicycle, circling the exterior of a massive fence that surrounds the players’ parking lot a short golf cart ride away from the first tee at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course.

“But Tiger finished second, right?”

The man was trying to get an autograph and catch a glimpse of Woods as he left the property, oblivious to the fact that Casey finished off a 6-under 65 nearly an hour prior to win for the first time on the PGA Tour since the 2009 Shell Houston Open.

The man wasn’t alone, nor was he the only one fixated on Woods this week while 143 other guys quietly went about their business. Even the 40-year-old Englishman who shot 10-under 274 on the week said if he didn’t win, he was hoping to see Woods finish on top.

“We’ve been friends and competitors for a long, long time,” Casey said. “It’s the only time he’s congratulated me immediately after a victory. Normally it’s the other way around. That’s something special.”

The PGA Tour has produced back-to-back winners in their 40s. Phil Mickelson was victorious at last week’s WGC-Mexico Championship at age 47, and Woods, 42, finished T-2 at the Valspar alongside Patrick Reed at 9 under.

Young stars such as Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm dominated the landscape for much of 2017, but 2018 has had more variety with Woods’ resurgence and Mickelson’s steady play.

“It’s becoming a young man’s sport,” Casey said. “So it’s very rewarding to be able to go up against the young guys and still beat them and still compete with them.”

Reed shot 3-under 68 in the final round to finish T-2 but made bogey at 18 to miss forcing a playoff. Sergio Garcia matched Casey’s final-round 65 to finish alone in fourth, and Corey Conners, the 54-hole leader, shot 6-over 77 to finish T-16.

All of them were playing to modest-at-best crowds, because the fans go where Woods goes and they desperately wanted to witness the trademark Sunday magic when he began the final round firmly in the hunt.

Woods delivered with a theatrical 44-foot birdie putt at No. 17 to get within a shot of the lead, but he missed several significantly shorter birdie attempts in the prior 15 holes and wasn’t quite as sharp with his iron play. He shot 1-under 70 Sunday, his sixth consecutive round of par or better.

This was a huge week for Woods to test his new swing under final-round pressure and remember how it feels trying to close out a win, something he hasn’t done on Tour since 2013.

“I felt very comfortable,” Woods said. “I’ve been here (in this situation) before a few times. So I felt very comfortable. My game was quite solid this entire week. As a whole I feel very good about what I did this week.”

Woods heads to the Arnold Palmer Invitational next week at Bay Hill in Orlando, where he’s won eight times. His reputation and presence will transcend the tournament, as it were, just as it did at the Valspar. Perhaps more so now that everyone has seen a man who at least resembles the Woods of old.

Casey, a 13-time winner on the European Tour, is flying back to England after just his second career PGA Tour victory. He spoke about the buzz Woods brought to the tournament, the vintage roars he heard throughout the week and the quality golf he played for four consecutive rounds to finish on top.

“Probably not the most significant win of my career,” Casey said. “But it’s certainly one of the most satisfying ones.” Gwk

 

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