Casey throws down gauntlet to McIlroy with Valspar victory
Paul Casey threw down the Masters gauntlet to Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson when he retained the Valspar Championship with a dogged performance in Tampa.
The English Ryder Cup star (41), who has five top-10 finishes in 12 appearances at Augusta National, chiselled out a one-over 72 to win by a shot from Jason Kokrak and Louis Oosthuizen on eight-under par at Innisbrook's treacherous Copperhead Course.
"Mega," Casey said when asked what his third PGA Tour win meant for his confidence heading to Augusta National.
"I feel good. But I've got to play like that. I need someone like Rory (McIlroy) and Dustin (Johnson) to maybe not play their best because I don't think I can beat them when they are on their best game. I give them full credit, I am not as good as they are, but I have got a good chance."
The Cheltenham man, who was a shot clear of Kokrak and two ahead of clubhouse leader Oosthuizen, who shot 69, with two to play.
But while he three-putted the 17th, Kokrak did the same at the last and Casey, playing in the group behind, hit the green from a fairway bunker and two-putted for his third PGA Tour win.
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson tied for fourth with Sungjae Im after a 68, but world No 1 Johnson failed to make a birdie in a disappointing 74 and tied for sixth with Jon Rahm and Ryan Armour.
Graeme McDowell, meanwhile, hit just six fairways and made only one birdie in a three-over 74, finishing tied for 46th on three-over.
On the European Tour, Scott Hend claimed the weather-affected Maybank Championship as a thunderclap almost cost Spain's Nacho Elvira his chance to force a play-off.
The Madrid native had to settle for second when Hend birdied the first extra hole to claim his third European Tour win and a cheque for €438,905.
The Australian (45), who was three shots behind Elvira overnight, raced to the turn in five-under 31 to take the lead. He was still a stroke ahead of the Spaniard as they played the par-five 18th in driving rain when the weather gods spectacularly intervened.
As a thunderstorm rapidly approached, Elvira clearly flinched as a clap of thunder broke on his backswing and he almost duffed his pitch from 60 yards, finishing 30 feet short of the hole.
But after officials had suspended play for an hour and 45 minutes, Elvira returned to ram his birdie putt home, carding a 70 to Hend's 67 to force a play-off on 15-under par, only to lose to Hend's birdie four.
"What a putt by Nacho," conceded Hend, who hit a tree with his drive and his second shot on their return to the 18th for the playoff but still made birdie to win after Elvira drove into sand.
European Ryder Cup captain Pádraig Harrington finished tied 30th on five-under-par in his first start for four months, racking up six birdies in a closing 69.
In amateur golf, Castlewarden's Lauren Walsh finished seventh in the Italian Women's Amateur Championship in Sardinia as Holywood's Tom McKibbin finished 25th in the men's event in Lecce.
Walsh closed with a level par 72 at Is Molas to finish on five-over 293 as France's Pauline Roussin Bouchard won by one stroke from Italy's Alessia Nobilio on one-under. Lurgan's Annabel Wilson tied 20th (300) and Lisburn's Paula Grant tied 44th (309) while at Acaya Golf and Country Club, McKibbin signed off with a one-under 70 to finish 17 shots behind Germany's Brandon Dietzel on 297.
On the LPGA Tour, Stephanie Meadow birdied two of her last three holes to close with a 72 to finish in the pack on 10-under par in the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, Shane Lowry was projected to fall 48th in the World Golf Ranking today ahead of this week's WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play but he's expected to make the top 50 who qualify for the Masters on Sunday night as he's projected to move up to 46th next week.