Canadian rookie Corey Conners shot a third round 3-under par 68 at the Valspar Championship to take the lead into a Sunday for the first time in his 18th start on the PGA Tour. He would be paired with Tiger Woods who was tied for second place (with Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker), a stroke behind. Talk about a baptism of fire.
Woods has not been this close to victory since he claimed his 79th win at the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone in 2013 https://www.birdgolf.com/the-79th/ . This was all unfamiliar territory (recently) for the man who with 4 more wins would become the all-time winningest golfer on the PGA Tour. Woods had been unable to even practice short game shots until five months ago after his fourth back operation in just as many years.
In his sights were a shot at his 80th career victory on the PGA Tour and a renaissance that fewer and fewer people believed could happen. It was his fourth “comeback” and most recent since his ill-fated attempt at the end of 2016/beginning of 2017 https://www.birdgolf.com/tiger-woods-returns/
Woods missed the cut in his first two starts back at Torrey Pines and then at Riviera. Two weeks ago though at the Honda Classic, the 42-year old was on the periphery of contention before finishing in tie for 12th which was his best finish since a tie for 10th at the Wyndham Championship in the fall of 2015. It was most certainly a positive sign of life for the once dominant Woods.
Although he finished 8 shots behind the winner, Justin Thomas, Woods felt that he was finding his game saying to Dottie Pepper afterwards: “I thought I played well this week. I really did. I thought I had control of it. I didn’t play the last few holes well the last couple days. Overall, I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made. I gave myself a chance at it. I made a big leap this week because I really hit it well.”
Perhaps more telling than any shot he hit that week (or in his other two starts) was a definitively pain-free Woods swinging with a controlled force that we have not seen in over 5 years. Gone were the winces with an awkward flail or the ginger steps that betrayed a back that could no longer withstand the fury of his swing.
The biggest move in Sunday’s final round came from Englishman, Paul Casey, whose 6-under par 65 left him at 10-under for the tournament and the lead in the clubhouse with a host of other contenders still on the course. 40-year old Casey had had a slew of near misses in the last three years and has been consistently one of the best players on Tour but to date has only one win, the 2009 Shell Houston Open, on his resume.
27-year old American star, Patrick Reed would join Casey at 10-under with three holes left to play and they were two shots clear of Woods and Rose and a surging Sergio Garcia (who matched Casey’s 65) at 8-under. The brash and abrasive Reed is one of the few players on Tour who wear red on a Sunday, eschewing the unofficial “only Tiger wears red on Sunday” fashion rule in what he says is a mark of respect for Woods.
Reed stumbled with a bogey on his last hole, while Woods made a birdie-2 on the 17th hole to bring him to within one of Casey and evoke memories of when he could simply will his way to the top of a leaderboard. A closing birdie would catapult him into a playoff but his birdie putt came up just a little short, leaving him tied with Reed at 9-under, in second place.
As expected, the overnight leader Conners, had fallen away and his finishing 77 would ultimately leave him in a tie for 16th.
While history will record that the Valspar was Casey’s second PGA Tour win, this week belonged to Woods whose return to the main stage was a virtuoso statement; “I’m Back”.