The PGA made its way back to Florida for the Valspar Championship at Copperhead at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor near Tampa. Copperhead is known as one of the most difficult courses on tour, regularly holding its victors to single digits under par, only rewarding the most consistent ball-strikers and putters on tour.
The course features an extremely tough test on the final three holes known as the “Snake Pit”. The sixteenth hole is a 475 yard, par 4 with a narrow fairway and water off the tee down the right side, restricting players from overpowering the hole. The 215 yard, par 3 seventeenth hole, known as “the Rattler” is well guarded by bunkers and trees and has a very narrow landing area. The home hole, coined “Copperhead”, is an uphill climb off the tee that demands accuracy due to its tree and bunker-lined fairway which ends with a long, severely back-to-front sloping green.
Canadian Corey Conners, who has never won an event on the PGA, jumped out to the first-round lead after posting a four-under par 67, taking a one stroke lead over Kelly Kraft, Nick Watney, and Whee Kim.
Conners continued his consistent play on Friday, carding a two under par 69, which included four birdies and a double bogey. Conners headed into the weekend at six under par for the tournament, extending his lead to two strokes over five players, which included Paul Casey, Kelly Kraft, Brandt Snedeker, Ryan Palmer, a much-improved and seemingly healthy Tiger Woods.
The third round brought much more drama with Woods lurking atop the leader board. Conners fared well with the added pressure, continuing to play well as the leader. Conners posted six birdies in his first twelve holes, finishing his last six holes with five pars and a bogey on his last six holes, finishing his round with a three-under par 68 and holding the lead for the third consecutive day at nine-under par for the tournament.
Woods also played almost flawless in his first taste of the top of the leader board since returning from his four spine surgeries. He finished with five birdies and only one blemish on his scorecard, totaling a four-under par 67 and clinging to a one-shot deficit heading into the final round. Also tied with Woods was Snedeker who matched Woods’ 67 on “moving day”.
With six players within three shots of an inexperienced leader, a Course that doesn’t offer players many opportunities to shoot low scores, and one of the toughest finishing stretches on tour, the final round offered a ton of drama. Paul Casey, who started the final round five strokes off of the lead, offered the first bit of drama. Casey played relatively stress-free with most paying little attention to him, going off over an hour before the final group. He got off to a quick start, with birdies on one, four, five, and seven, making the turn at three-under par before recording back-to-back-to-back birdies on eleven, twelve, and thirteen, bringing his final round to six-under par. Casey made it through “the Snakepit” unscathed, carding a 65 and taking the lead heading into the clubhouse.
Conners did not fare as well as Casey. He struggled out of the gates, bogeying the first hole and another on the third hole, carding a two-over par 38 and losing his confidence he built through the first three rounds. He continued to struggle on the back nine, bogeying ten and suffering a disastrous double bogey on the par three, thirteenth hole, ultimately posting a six-over par 77 and finishing in a tie for sixteenth.
All eyes were on Tiger for the majority of the final round. He started off with a birdie on the first hole but quickly gave it back on the fourth hole after failing to get up-and-down, missing a five foot putt. Woods proceeded to par holes five through sixteen, not giving up any strokes but not making up any ground on the leaders. With the struggles of Conners and no one else taking a commanding lead, Tiger found himself with an outside chance heading into the seventeenth hole, needing to birdie “the Rattler” and “Copperhead” to pull even with Casey. After hitting his tee shot past the pin to the center of the green, Woods was faced with a 45-foot birdie putt. Like has done so many times, Woods answered the bell, sinking the downhill, right-to-left bomb, pulling him to within one of the lead.
Woods chose to play safe, hitting a long-iron off of the tee, finding himself in the middle of the fairway, albeit 190 yards away from the pin, which was perched in the back and on the top tier of the green. Woods chose a six iron and hit his approach to the center of the green, 38 feet from the pin. Woods had one final attempt to capture his 80th PGA tour victory. After looking at the putt from every angle, Woods struck his putt, sending the ball up the hill, but falling two feet short, tapping in for his par and second place finish to Casey who waited almost ninety minutes to claim the title.
Patrick Reed also had a chance in the group just before Woods, needing a par on the final hole to force a playoff with Casey. Like Woods, Reed also hit his approach to the middle of the green, catching an unfortunate break, as his ball trickled down the ridge and settled behind the fringe, yet on the green. Reed chose to putt his 45-foot shot through the fringe. His putt lost speed through the fringe, stopped before the top of the ridge and trickled back to nearly the same spot as it started. On his fourth shot and final chance to force a playoff, he chose to chip off of the green, leaving his shot two feet short, tapping in for his bogey and in a tie with Woods for second place.
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