The Valspar Championship has seldom been encumbered by significance. As stops go, it is pretty much just another Cracker Barrel on the interstate of professional golf.
But, Sunday, if you could get past the backdrop of moss-draped scrub oak and the shrill cries of ospreys in their penthouses of twig, you’d almost think there was a Masters-esque quality to the final round here.
You had drama and a bit of what passes for golfing tragedy (those with a cruel streak or something personal against Patrick Reed would label it comedy).
You had a scoreboard with the kind of excellence, both domestic and international, that is an Augusta specialty. The top four included three of the top 27-ranked players in the world as well as the world’s most famous 388th-ranked player ever, one who pretty much consumed all the oxygen in Pinellas County all week long.
That group included last year’s Masters champion, Sergio Garcia, who put up a Sunday 65 one day after being so enraged by a three-putt on 18 that he left a sizable dent in the scoring trailer with his foot. He moved up the board to 8 under for the tournament and a sole fourth place. So, yeah, he is primed and ready to defend.
And, just like a Masters tournament the way they used to make it, Tiger Woods was in the conversation right to the final pendulum swing of his putter. The Make Woods Great Again campaign did not reach its conclusion here in just his 14th competitive round since back fusion surgery. His 1 under 70 lacked the closing conviction required to win out here. But it did not pass without a warning shot for all his heirs on Tour: A 43-foot birdie putt on the 71st hole of this tournament that just about changed everything.
Woods finished tied for second with Reed, just one stroke back of the hard-charging Paul Casey, who earned his second PGA Tour victory (to go with 14 international victories) on the merits of a Sunday 65.
The three take-aways from a high-volume afternoon in a normally low-profile event:
First, there Casey’s victory. He came out of nowhere Sunday, tied for 11th at the beginning of the day. At just 5-foot-10 (maybe) in spiked shoes, Casey can easily stay beneath eye and radar level.
He went out and played the kind of dynamic golf often expected of him, but seldom seen on this side of the Atlantic (his only other PGA Tour victory happened nine long years ago in Houston). Just one bogey, on the third hole, negated by an immediate birdie on the fourth. And the run was on, allowing him to post a low score early and then stew for an hour while so many other antics played out.
“It’s been too long (between victories),” Casey said. “Very satisfying. Probably more satisfying the fact that it was on a week where Tiger played some good golf and got to see some amazing stuff and hear the roars. It was just a great week. I loved it.”
“I actually thought (Woods) was going to win today before the round started. I thought it was just teed up beautifully for him,” he said.
“I’m glad it’s this way, though.” Casey may have been the only one.
Second, there was Reed’s finish, that will go down in the everlasting annals of golfing misfortune (self-induced chapter).
Needing to two-putt from 45 feet 9 inches on No. 18 to tie Casey for the lead, Reed occupied an awkward corner of a sloping green, with a patch of rough between him and the cup. Choosing to putt, Reed did not get his ball to the crest of the slope and watched its tumble back to his feet.
Hard lesson learned. “I knew there was no way I could putt it, (pulling out his wedge next). It had to be a chip. I chipped and ended up there six inches for a tap-in,” Reed said.
He was just one of two players who wear red and black on Sunday who didn’t quite have enough to win.
Which leads, thirdly and obviously, to Woods.
Yeah, he didn’t win, but he did position himself with a 39-foot putt on 18 to tie Casey. It checked up 2-and-a-half feet short, prompting Woods to spank the offending club.
He leaves here knowing the trajectory of his comeback is purer than that of his Sunday iron play. Just too many long putts to go on any kind of serious birdie binge (his 32 putts Sunday by far the most he took all week).
But overall: “I think I’ve gotten a little bit better than I was a couple weeks ago at Honda. I keep getting a little bit better and sharper and today wasn’t quite as sharp as I would like to have had it, but I had a good shot at winning this tournament,” he said.
“I believe my game is progressing.”
He’s on to play again next week up I-4 at Arnold Palmer’s namesake event in Orlando, an event he has won eight times. And then he’ll await the Masters, where he has made a bit of history. For the first time in a long time – given the feel of Sunday at the Valspar – there is evidence that he could make more.