PALM HARBOR – England’s Paul Casey worked really hard and played very well through most of Saturday’s third round at the Valspar Championship. He fired a 3-under-par 68 and leads by one shot with a 204 total after 54 holes. So why does it seem like he has to do the chasing on Sunday rather than enjoy his night atop the leaderboard?
Casey, the defending champion, finds himself trapped in that scenario because of what happened on the final hole Saturday at the Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course.
Casey had ripped off three birdies in a four-hole stretch of the back nine and led by three shots with two holes to play in the third round. But that’s when Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer playing two groups in front of Casey under flawless, sun-splashed conditions, birdied the 18th, cutting into Casey’s lead with a 4-under 67.
Casey then bogeyed the closing hole to end the day at 9 under, allowing Johnson to pick up two valuable shots on the demanding track’s daunting, three-hole “Snake Pit” finishing stretch.
Casey is bidding to become this event’s first back-to-back winner. His victory last year here was his second on the PGA Tour and first since the 2009 Shell Houston Open.
“Having won this, my mindset now is I have nothing to lose,” Casey said. “I’m feeling like I’m in a good position, like I don’t have really any pressure. I’ve got one of those trophies. Yeah, I want another one, but it’s not as much sort of urgency or pressure. Tomorrow’s going to be highly entertaining for me.”
Thirteen players are within five strokes of the lead heading into the final round, and 20 golfers are within six shots.
“There’s a lot of guys in with a chance, but it’s a tough golf course to shoot low,” Casey said. “A 65 by somebody out of the pack just behind us would be problematic, but I can’t control that. I’m going to go out there and attack the golf course the way I attacked it today.”
Jason Kokrak (66 on Saturday) is two shots back, while Luke Donald of England (who shot a 70 on Saturday) and Scott Stallings (70) are three back at 207.
Johnson blasted a “moon-ball” approach out of a fairway bunker on the closing hole to set up a curling, downhill 10-foot birdie putt to close the gap on Casey’s lead.
“That was a tough shot and I hit a great shot and then made a tough putt, too,” Johnson said about the 18th hole. “Today it was a good day — I hit it well, and had a couple of loose shots, but around here you’re going to hit a couple. I hit my irons really well, controlled distance good, I gave myself a lot of opportunities, hit a lot of really good shots and even hit a lot of good putts that didn’t go in.”
Kokrak’s round included five birdies, a bogey, and a hole-in-one on the 218-yard par-3 15th hole.
“I like this golf course,” Kokrak said. “It’s a good, hard golf course. There’s nothing quirky about it, it’s right there in front of you, you just got to hit quality golf shots. You hit good ones, you’re rewarded. You can make birdies, but if you hit bad ones you can make bogeys.”
Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa also shot a 66 and headed a pack of six players tied for sixth at 208 that included Canada’s Nick Taylor (67), Jim Furyk (68), Curtis Luck of Australia (70), Sung-jae Im of South Korea (71) and second-round co-leader Austin Cook (72).
Kokrak and Oosthuizen fired the low rounds of the day.
Matt Jones (68) of Australia and Brian Stuard (69) finished the third round tied for 12th at 209, five shots off Casey’s lead.
Casey and Cook started the third round at 6 under and a stroke up on Stallings, Donald and Im. Cook momentarily tied Casey for the lead at 8 under with a birdie on the 12th hole, but had bogeys on 13, 16 and 18 to fall off the pace.
“We have seen people come from behind, shoot good rounds here,” said Donald, whose most recent victory in the United States was this event, then called the Transitions Championship, in 2012. “If you get on a hot streak and can get off early and with the greens a little bit softer, a little bit more receptive and make a few putts, six, seven shots still has a chance.”
–Field Level Media