Paul Casey famously denied Tiger Woods an emotional comeback win in Tampa last year and on Sunday in the same Florida city he will attempt to fight off world No 1 Dustin Johnson. Yet as far as the Englishman concerned, it is the bigger the better at the Valspar Championship.
Casey stands on nine-under after a three-under 68 and will be in the final group at the Copperhead course alongside Johnson, who is only one behind following a 67.
Johnson will obviously be the favourite to win his third title from his last six events with just two more weeks before the Masters. But Casey, 41, is relishing the challenge. As well as trying to become the first player ever successfully to defend the Valspar, there will also be a sniff of revenge in the air.
“You know, I’d like to have kept a two-shot advantage over the world No 1 and not bogeyed the last today, but I look forward to playing against him tomorrow,” Casey said. “We had a tussle back in 2016 at the BMW Championship, in which we separated ourselves from the field. He won on that occasion, but this is what you want. As a professional you want to be playing against the best on a great golf course like this.”
Casey knows that it will be far from straightforward, not least because the world No 15 has a poor record when holding the 54-shot lead on US soil. He has been at the top of a PGA Tour leaderboard on six previous occasions after three rounds and only prevailed once. And Casey is only too aware of the threat that Johnson poses.
“Dustin’s got so much ability,” Casey said. “Everybody talks about his length, but his touch around the greens is just remarkable and I don’t often say that about a lot of guys. He is one of the few guys out here who I watch and say ‘wow!’. He has so many weapons in the arsenal that he’ll be difficult to go up against, but I’m looking forward to it.”
There is not only Johnson to resist but another American in Jason Kokrak, who is on seven-under in third place, and one shot further back is Casey’s countryman Luke Donald. The former world No 1 is only playing his second event of 2019 and just his fourth time in a year, following a back injury, but he has reminded everyone of his prowess.
Down in 932nd in the rankings, Donald, who is also 41, could prove one of Casey’s main dangers, especially as he won this trophy back in 2012. But Casey is in confident mood and is determined to lay down a marker for the season's first major.
“Last year’s memories should help me, no doubt, but I I do feel very different this time around,” Casey said. “ Tweve months ago, I was ‘hoping’ to win, but now I know that I can and that puts me in a different mindset, a very good mindset. And by the way the trophy spins around and my boy [four-year-old Lex] loves playing with it. So I want to take it back to him.”