Woods forced to wait for comeback win as Casey ends long drought

Woods forced to wait for comeback win as Casey ends long drought
Tiger Woods salutes the crowd after making his 44 footer at the 17th

Tiger Woods salutes the crowd after making his 44 footer at the 17th

Tiger Woods roared too late and it was Paul Casey who ended a long PGA Tour drought — nine-years — with an emotional one-stroke win in the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook.

The Englishman (40) had a career-best 21 putts in a six-under 65, getting up and down for gutsy pars on the last two holes to set the target at 10-under par.

He felt it would not be good enough and was forced to suffer helplessly in silence for over an hour as first Patrick Reed and then Woods threatened to force sudden-death as overnight leader Corey Conners and England's Justin Rose failed to spark in the final group.

"I expected guys to continue to make birdies," Casey said of his long wait for victory, not just over the last five years worldwide but on Sunday.

"I think when I finished I expected somebody to kind of get to 11 because there were still a couple of par-5s to play and then sitting down in the locker room watching the last three holes, yeah, it's rubbish, can't stand it.

"It's the only time I've ever felt that way was maybe a Ryder Cup where you're watching your teammates and you're rooting for your teammates. Now I know what my family goes through."

Reed looked like he'd be the man to spoil Casey or Woods' victory party after he left himself a 35-footer up a steep tier at the 18th for victory.

But instead of two putting through a shoulder of fringe grass to force a playoff, his putt lost speed as it crested the tier, rolling back to his feet. He chipped his next shot to six inches and tapped in for a bogey and a 68 to finish one behind.

Reed said: "It happened to be unfortunate it got around the corner of the green where I was on the green, had to go over the fringe, through about seven feet of fringe and back on the green and I thought I could putt it and I pulled out putter first time and I gave it extra because I knew it was going to either pop or come out slow. I just didn't hit it hard enough, obviously."

He ended up tied for second with Woods, who birdied the first to get a share of the lead but made a clumsy bogey from just off the green at the par-three fourth and failed to hit the ball close all day, no doubt suffering from the anxiety any player might feel when in contention for their first win in almost five years.

Had he not three-putted for par from just off the green at the par-five 14th, hitting his 80-footer ten feet left of the hole, it might have been a different story. But he never quite got the ball close enough and didn't come to life until he willed an outrageous, downhill, left-to-right curling bomb from 44 feet into the hole at the 17th to get within one. 

A birdie at the last would have forced a playoff but left himself too far back after hitting an iron off the tee and failed to convert a 39-footer for another miracle.

"If anything, that 2-iron I could have hit it flatter and hotter but, hey, I'm in the fairway," Woods said of a tee shot that left him a seven-iron from 184 yards. "I got a shot at this thing. Unfortunately, I didn't hit it close enough."

Even though it was 39 feet, Casey feared the worst.

"I thought he was going to hole that one on 18," said relieved Casey, who said he was playing with a heavy heart after a close friend in the UK recently lost a long battle with cancer. 

"I thought before the start of the day that Tiger was going to win."

Woods didn't end his near five-year victory drought but he was still pleased with his week and looking forward to chasing a ninth win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill this week in what will be his final warm-up event for the Masters.

"It was a very good week," Woods said. "And I thought I held up really well."

He added: "I felt very comfortable, actually. I didn't feel that sharp with my iron game. I played very conservatively into the greens because I wasn’t as sharp as I was yesterday and just tried to hopefully get a couple good numbers and fire at a few flags.

"Unfortunately, I didn't hit the ball close enough to make putts. Missed a short one on four and should have birdied 14. Those little mistakes will get you and they got me this week.

"I think that I've gotten a little bit better than I was a couple weeks ago at Honda, 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 golf tournament. Couple putts here and there would have been a different story."

Shane Lowry's hopes qualifying for next week's WGC-Dell Technologies Championship evaporated when he closed with a 72 to finish tied for 49th on two-over.

Needing solo 15th place to make the top 64 available players in the world rankings before today's qualifying cut-off, he was 20th at halfway but slipped to a 73 on Saturday before hitting just four fairways in a disappointing final round.

Portrush's Graeme McDowell, who only made the cut on the mark, finished tied 40th on level par after weekend rounds of 68 and 71 but will be encouraged that he's not far away as he heads to Bay Hill in his adopted hometown of Orlando — a venue where he's had success in the past, including runner-up finishes to Kenny Perry in 2002 and Woods in 2012.

It was an emotional win for Casey, who felt that Woods might take inspiration from Phil Mickelson's victory at 47 in the WGC-Mexico Championship the previous Sunday.

"I loved his putt on 17,"  said Casey, who moves to world No 12, relegating Rory McIlroy to 13th. "That was amazing. I thought he was going to hole the one on 18. I'm sure he was disappointed he didn't get the victory.

"I actually thought he was going to win today before the round started. I thought it was just teed up beautifully for him. I said a couple times if I don't win this thing I actually want Tiger to win it. I'm glad it's this way."

Despite racking up 33 top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour since he beat JB Holmes in a playoff for the Shell Houston Open in 2009, Casey has struggled to get back into the winner's circle.

While he won the 2013 Irish Open at Carton House and the following year's KLM Open at Kennemer, poor putting on the weekend has proved costly.

But by deciding to become as carefree on the greens as he is with his long game — getting away from technical thoughts — he has become more relaxed on the greens.

Explaining the turnaround, he said: "Two things: I've worked technically on the putting because it wasn't good. I was basically shutting, de-lofting the putter and shutting it on the way back. I'm very simply trying not to do that, open the putter face on the way back and allow it to close and rotate...

"The way I strike the golf ball, if I'm hitting other clubs in the bag I don't stress about technique, I never have. I figure everything out and I pick the target and hit it.

If it's a good shot, great. If it's a bad one and went slightly offline and maybe I make a small adjustment and try not to do the same with the next one.

"I've never done with that the putting. I've always been super critical and try to have a great stroke. I'm approaching it the same way I approach the rest of the game. It's carefree.

"If it's not, I'm not beating myself up. I'm now striking the ball much better. My speed is infinitely better and I'm not shutting the putter face. And starting online I can now read putts again. It's pretty simple, but for so long I just couldn't see it and trying to be perfect and trying to be better and the trying wasn't getting anywhere. Getting in my own way."

Green-reading books have also helped him plan his approach shots better to leave himself easier putts, which will be music to the ears of European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn now that he's rejoined the European Tour.

As for winning at 40 just a week after a 47-year-old, he sees no reason why a 40-something can't win the Masters.

"Inspiration from Phil's victory? Yeah. I loved Phil's victory. That's why I thought Tiger was going to win today because he's probably watched Phil win, I want to win. At least it's another one for the 40-year-olds this week, very much so.

"A lot of inspiration from Henrik's victory at The Open Championship. It's becoming a young man's sport and so it's very rewarding to be able to go up against the young guys and still beat them and still compete with them.

"It's what I said. It's one of the reasons I want to play a Ryder Cup because I want to play -- especially looks like we're going to get some of the old characters back. I want to play against a different generation, JT and Jordan and Rickie. Looks like we might have Phil and Tiger.

"I think it's great. That's what I love about golf. I think the place I'm in and how good this feels and although it's been nine years since the last victory there's no reason I can't get more victories this year."

Asked if a 40-year old can win anywhere now, he said it depends on the course. Even Augusta National?

"Augusta," he mused. "40-something could take on anybody."