Paul Casey made history by becoming the first player successfully to defend the Valspar Championship on Sunday night at the same time as putting himself firmly in the frame for the Masters in two weeks’ time.
A brilliant shot from the fairway bunker on the 18th at Copperhead saw the Englishman pull off a one-shot win over the American Jason Kokrak and the South African Louis Oosthuizen. After three runner-up placings since he lifted this title, this felt overdue for the 41-year-old, although one must remember that his victory in Tampa 12 months ago was his first on the PGA Tour in nine years.
Starting one shot ahead of world No1 Dustin Johnson, Casey shrugged off two three-putts to post a 72 for an eight-under total. With the gusts blowing, Johnson shot a 74 to finish down in sixth, proving the trickiness of the conditions on the tight Florida layout.
“This feels b----- cool,” Casey said. “It was messy but this course is so difficult. I did make errors, obviously the two three-putts, but it’s 72 holes. It was tough as I came out here today thinking that if I beat the world No 1 then I’d win the tournament. But it was a very different scenario as Dustin struggled. This is the first time I have successfully defended a title and it’s great.”
As Casey said, it was anything but straightforward. When he bogeyed the 17th, he fell back into a tie with Kokrak and suddenly the recollections of him losing a four-shot 54-hole lead at the Travelers Championship last June and one of three shots last month at Pebble Beach loomed large in the memories of the observers.
Yet after Kokrak messed up a relatively simple up-and-down to bogey the last, Casey made his tremendous 133-yard recovery shot from a wretched lie to 20 feet, from where he two-putted for the £900,000 first prize. “I didn’t think of the times I’d come close in the last year, as this was a very different challenge,” Casey said. “I was the defending champion, I know how to win around here and my scoring average had been strong here the last couple of years. This was an important one and I did it.
“To get another victory, it is very much the icing on the cake and fills that void and that makes me even happier. Last year’s win was so big. It felt like my first victory as a professional and I’ve felt so different since then, with new confidence. I’m getting older but I feel like I’m getting better.”
Casey moves up to world No 11 and also shoots up the betting lists for the first major of the season. He would put off nobody who fancies a flutter on him for Augusta. “This is mega for my confidence with the Masters coming up,” Casey said. “If I drive the ball like that, then I’ve got a very, very good chance, especially if I can clean up my putting. I probably need Rory [McIlroy] and Dustin not to play their best, but I do feel good.”
This was Europe’s third win in as many weeks on the American circuit, following Rory McIlroy’s triumph at The Players and Francesco Molinari’s win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. There was also the pleasing sight of Luke Donald, the former world No 1, coming ninth, his first top 10 in two years.