Casey goes for 3-peat at Innisbrook against top-heavy field

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Paul Casey, of England, hits on the 12th hole during the second round of the Masters golf tournament on Friday, April 9, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Paul Casey is going for his third straight victory at the Valspar Championship, a feat difficult enough that only eight times in the last 40 years has a player won the same tournament at least three times in a row.

It didn't take long for Casey to take a stab at who else was on the list.

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“Tiger, Tiger, Tiger?” he said.

Now repeat.

Tiger Woods owns six of those eight occasions. He won three in a row at Firestone twice (1999-2001 and 2005-07), along with the Memorial (1999-2001), and he won four in a row at Bay Hill (2000-03) and Torrey Pines (2005-08). The other was a World Golf Championship that was held at three courses (Harding Park in 2005, The Grove in England in 2006, Doral in 2007).

The other two players were Stuart Appleby at Kapalua and Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic.

It's no small task.

Now throw in a field that includes Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, the top two players in the world, along with Patrick Reed to round out three players from the top 10.

“I've never had a three-peat as a professional, and I feel like the pressure is not on me,” Casey said. “We've got Justin Thomas and guys like that playing this week, and the focus is going to be on them. So I feel like I'm kind of in a sweet spot and raring to go.”

Casey has won three in a row as an amateur, and that wasn't easy either. He won the Pac-10 championship three straight times while at Arizona State. The second time, he shot 60 in the final round.

The Copperhead course at Innisbrook is regarded as among the best tournament courses in Florida, relying on such un-Florida characteristics as elevation and bending, tree-lined fairways. Yes, there’s water, but it comes into play on only a half-dozen holes.

Casey is a premier ball-striker on the PGA Tour, which explains why he has fared so well at Innisbrook.

“When he's on, it's really impressive,” Thomas said. “The sound his ball makes when it comes off his irons ... it's a short, compact move. It's fun to play with and it's fun to watch.”

That doesn't mean it's easy.

When he won in 2018, Casey rallied from a five-shot deficit and still didn't have victory secured until Woods failed to make a 35-foot birdie putt on the final hole. The following year, he had a one-shot lead over Johnson in conditions so tough Johnson didn't make a birdie in the final round. He won by one shot over Jason Kokrak and Louis Oosthuizen.

The Valspar Championship took one on the chin like no other PGA Tour event last year. The entire tournament structure was in place and it was four days away from the start of tournament week when the PGA Tour shut down golf because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m excited to be finally back, and I’m sure everybody else is, too,” Casey said.

Like other PGA Tour events, the Valspar Championship is allowing limited spectators — 30% of available capacity, though no one has been able to define what full capacity is at a golf tournament.

Johnson is hoping he can piece together all parts of his game and contend, which he hasn't seriously done since he went into the final round at Riviera two shots out of the lead. He shot 1-over 72 and finished in a tie for eighth, six shots behind. That was two months ago. It also was his last top 10.

Five straight tournaments out of the top 10 is his longest drought since the final eight tournaments of 2019, when he was struggling with his left knee and had surgery at the end of the season.

A little bit of everything has held him back, either his putting or long game or irons, not all at the same time.

“I feel like it’s really close,” Johnson said. “I just haven’t put it all together, especially for a week. But I feel like I’m driving it good again. Just the only thing, just a little off with the irons at Hilton Head. But it feels like it’s getting better and it’s trending in the right direction.”

He should get a strong test from Innisbrook. The tournament has moved this year from the middle of March to the last week in April, with warmer weather and no significant rain in the forecast.

“You've got to drive it well. You’ve got to hit your irons well. You've really got to kind of think your way around here just because ... you can get out of position, and it’s tough to make pars,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to shoot way under par. You just shoot a couple under each day, and you’re going to have a chance to win come Sunday.”


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