Paul Casey came up with a massive understatement when the carnage was over late Sunday at the Valspar.
“Today wasn’t easy,” said the man who became the first player ever to go back-to-back on what proved to be a golf course that takes no prisoners.
The Copperhead showed no mercy this go-round. For the final 18 holes, the winds blew around 20 miles per hour, the firm and fast greens reacted like they were sprayed with ball repellant, the USGA would be proud to call them their own. Add the penal rough and you had yourself an extreme test, one so extreme that it crushed the No. 1 player in the world.
Dustin Johnson, playing with Casey, started a shot back but by the time he was battered by The Copperhead, he wound up with a soul-crushing 75 — his worst round in nearly a year-and-a-half and his first over-par round this season.
Indeed, unlike last year when Casey made seven Sunday birdies to win, he shot a one-over par 72 and found himself having to produce an incredible second shot at the 72nd hole to wrap it up.
Jason Kokrak had just made a heart-breaking bogey on that last hole to remain winless in his 197 PGA Tour starts. He was there down the stretch, tied with Casey. At 18, the long-hitting Kokrak came up with a great break. He had a nice lie after blowing his tee shot way right and his wedge approach came up short of the green. He used putter for his third and left himself a bender of an eight-and-a-half footer for par. He missed and posted seven-under along with Louie Oosthuizen.
But there was hope for both as Casey’s drive found the second in a row of four fairway bunkers right of the fairway. Casey was fortunate to draw a nice lie this his second narrowly missed the lip of the bunker and landed just 25 feet from the hole. Casey nearly made the putt and had what every player wants for the winner — a three-inch tap-in.
“Last year’s was so big,” Casey said of his 2018 win in the event, a win that ended a nine-year winless drought. “I have new confidence. I’m getting older but I feel like I’m getting better,” said the 41-year-old Brit who often hit his drives as far as Johnson’s.
It was a long afternoon for everyone in the hunt. Conditions made for fewer birdies. Just ask D.J., he went without one all day.
Kokrak was the only player in the final two groups who didn’t shoot over par. He shot even par, thanks to that costly bogey at 18.
Casey started the day at nine-under par, a shot in front of Johnson at eight-under.
Casey deflected the pressure from himself, declaring late Saturday that D.J. was indeed the favorite to win.
“Obviously he’s the prominent one in the group of guys near the lead,” Casey said. “Who is the obvious one? Dustin. Who is the favorite tomorrow? Probably Dustin. So I actually feel kind of very little pressure. Tomorrow’s going to be highly entertaining for me.”
Casey has a pretty masochistic perception of “entertainment.”
But the day was entertaining for the large crowds that showed up.
It was a regular PGA Tour event and something akin to a U.S. Open broke out.
By day’s end, there were broken hopes galore.
Except for the Mighty Casey.