England’s Paul Casey successfully defended his title Sunday at the Valspar Championship, holding on for a one-stroke victory over Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Kokrak and out-playing a flustered Dustin Johnson, the World No. 1 player.
Not that we’re counting (though we are), but that’s three straight victories by European players in PGA Tour event after Italy’s Francesco Molinari rallied to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational—in the most dominating effort on the American tour by Europeans, who secured the top five places—and the omnipresent Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland captured the Players. Casey cobbled together a sufficient, though not scintillating, one-over 72 at the uncooperative Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., to secure his third tour title and the honor of the second-best story of the week.
The best story belonged to the guy ranked 919th in the world who registered a quiet T-9 for his first finish inside the top-10 in nearly two years. More on him in a minute while we give Casey his well-deserved due.
The event’s first back-to-back winner, Casey triumphed despite shooting over par on Sunday. No champion at Innisbrook had ever failed to close in red numbers. Casey finished at eight-under 276 on a course that was dry and fast and yielded no better than a three-under 68 on Sunday. The final-round scoring average for the 70 men who made the cut was 72.143, the second-highest of the season after the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club, where it was cool and windy.
“I’m very satisfied with that today. It was a scrappy round of golf,” said Casey, who last year shot a six-under 65 to nip Tiger Woods and eventual Masters winner Patrick Reed by a stroke. “Today wasn’t easy. The golf course was so difficult that it’s darn near impossible to go around and not make mistakes. But I was composed and keen to play well, and I did.
“I know how to win. Last year kind of broke the seal. It was big,” Casey added after achieving his No. 1 goal for the year, which was to win again. “I think the difference is attitude, because I don’t think my game is any different than a year ago, two years ago. … I'm getting older, but I feel like I'm getting better.”
Casey is 41, not an age when players improve appreciably, unless they are named Vijay Singh. Some players have amazing staying power, however. Phil Mickelson has done it. Tiger Woods has been impressive in his comeback from a seemingly career-ending back injury. Maybe Casey has found something, had an epiphany.
Luke Donald also is 41. He doesn’t seem like a candidate for rejuvenation, but time will tell.
Casey’s fellow countryman once was No. 1 in the world for 56 weeks, but that was in 2011 and part of 2012, the year Donald won the last of his five PGA Tour titles at this same event. He is just returning from a lower back injury that sidelined him for six months, and the Valspar Championship was just his second start of the year after he missed the cut at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
That’s right, Donald is the guy who is ranked 919th in the world but showed flashes of his former self in finishing at four-under 280, good for a share of ninth place and a check worth $174,200—more than twice what he earned last year.
Donald, who closed with a 73, said earlier in the week that his goal was to play four rounds and feel good physically, hoping that all of the rehab that he has done on his lower back would hold up for 72 holes. Then he found himself in contention, playing in the penultimate group Sunday with Kokrak.
“This was somewhat unexpected,” he admitted. “I had pretty low expectations.”
Playing on a major medical extension this season, Donald has 15 starts to earn enough FedEx Cup points to regain his tour card, and the 73 FedEx Cup points earned on Florida’s west coast helped a bit, though he is still far down the list in 175th place in the standings.
“This is a fickle game. You get going in the wrong direction and your confidence takes a hit and it’s hard to build it back,” Donald’s coach, Pat Goss, told PGATour.com. “But as I always say to him, form is temporary. You’ve just got to keep working at it.”
That is, when you can work at it. Donald’s back flared up at the Sony Open and has been relegated to mostly chipping and putting. He didn’t start hitting drivers until two weeks ago.
That would explain how he ranked fourth in scoring around the greens, which offset finishing 69th out of 70 in driving distance, averaging 271 for the week, or what Johnson or Jon Rahm, one of the players who also tied for ninth, average with a utility club. Donald suffered only eight bogeys for the week, third best in the field. Pretty impressive outing.
What makes it all the more impressive is that Donald had been doing things during his absence from tour that tend to signal that he had put one foot out the competitive door and the other was shuffling that direction. He served as a vice-captain under Thomas Bjorn last September at the Ryder Cup in France and had done some broadcasting for Sky Sports. That’s next career stuff.
But Donald is back and seems determined to regain a semblance of his world-beating form. He believes there’s a chance to excel again, maybe win that elusive major, though he hasn’t had a legitimate shot at one since the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, where he was outplayed by his final-round playing partner and fellow Englishman Justin Rose, the eventual winner. Donald recently admitted that coming close that day hurt him. He hurt himself more when he left Goss for a short period in an attempt to get better, changed too many things at the same time, and threw more than one wrench in his tight, synchronized swing.
That’s all behind him now. Hopefully, so are his back problems.
“I still think I'm good enough to compete and win and be one of the better players in the world,” Donald said, obviously not ready to capitulate. “I've done it before so there's no reason why not. We have seen lots of players around my age have been very successful, even Justin Rose is only a couple years younger than me and still playing great golf. It's a little bit of a different style of golf that I play because there's certain courses that I'm just going to struggle on just because I don't hit it quite far enough these days. But there are courses out there I can compete and do well at and win, hopefully.”
Paul Casey could tell him that he’s on the right track. It is about attitude. And with the right one, there is time to be a better player, even when you were once ranked the best.