Casey wins at Innisbrook as Woods come up short

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Tiger Woods didn’t win Sunday, but he stamped himself as a full-fledged contender for the Masters Tournament next month.

Woods, who has missed three of the past four Masters because of back surgeries and is in the early stages of his comeback, had a putt to force a playoff on the final hole before finishing tied for second in the Valspar Championship.

Starting the day tied for second place and two shots off the lead, Woods closed with 1-under-par 70, meaning he broke par every day at Innisbrook.

“I was close. I had a chance today, I really did,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t feel quite as sharp as I needed to with my irons and I was playing a little conservative because of that. I was just grinding. I was just trying to put myself in it.”

Englishman Paul Casey won for the second time on the PGA Tour (he has 14 international victories), coming from five shots back to shoot 65, the low round of the day. Casey had a career-low 21 putts while striking for seven birdies and a bogey. His other PGA Tour win came in the 2009 Shell Houston Open. The last time he won was at the European Tour’s KLM Open in 2014.

“It means a lot,” Casey said. “It’s been too long. Very satisfying. Probably more satisfying the fact that it was on a week where Tiger played some good golf and got to see some amazing stuff and hear the roars and it just was a great week, the buzz, everything about it, the course. I loved it. I played great. I couldn’t be happier. Really a flawless week from start to finish, with some errors. 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.”

“No one really did anything except for Paul,” Woods said. “He shot a low one out there and he put it on us and got it done.”

Casey is 40, meaning its the second week in a row a golfer in his 40s won. Phil Mickelson, 47, won last week in Mexico.

“I loved Phil’s victory,” Casey said. “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. 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.”

Woods tied with former Augusta State golfer Patrick Reed for second. Reed, a five-time winner on the tour who has now gone 42 events without a win, bogeyed the final hole for 68 after his uphill 46-foot birdie putt came up short and rolled back to his feet.

“I felt like I played solid today,” Reed said. “I really didn’t feel like I did anything wrong on the last when I walked off with a 5. Yeah, it’s disappointing. At the end of the day, I was back in contention. Having a chance to win a golf tournament is always fun.”

It was Woods’ best finish since he tied for 10th place in late August 2015.

He’s missed most of the past two seasons after back surgeries. His last victory came in the 2013 Bridgestone Invitational. That was the 79th of his career, which includes 14 major championship wins.

“I felt very comfortable (being in contention again),” Woods said. “I’ve been here before a few times. And my game was quite solid this entire week. As a whole, I felt good about what I did this week.”

Unlike the previous three days when Woods shot 70-68-67 while striking for 14 birdies, there was little to excite the throngs that followed Woods until near the end.

He birdied the first hole and didn’t make another one until he rolled in a 43-footer for birdie on the 17th hole, moving him within a shot of Casey, who had finished. On No. 18, Woods had a 39-foot birdie putt to tie, but he came up 2 and a half feet short and made par.

“I’m glad I made that putt on No. 17 because I gave myself a chance on 18,” Woods. “The only thing you can’t do is leave it short (on the birdie putt). That grain just chewed it up as it went up that hill. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it there.”

Reed just needed a par on No. 18 for force a playoff with Casey. However, his approach shot rolled down a slope on the green and he had fringe he had to navigate to get to the hole. He choose to putt it the first time.

“I had to go through about seven feet of fringe and back on the green and I thought I could putt it,” he said. “I just didn’t hit it hard enough, obviously. Absolutely killed it and the ball rolled back down to where it was.”

He chose to chip it over the fringe the second time and it ended up 6 inches from the hole.

Woods, he will go for PGA Tour career victory No. 80 this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times. It will be his fourth event in five weeks, proving that the back fusion surgery he had in mid-April 2017 has been successful.

His showing this week also proved he can get himself back in contention and stay there. In his previous starts this season, he tied for 23rd, missed the cut and was 12th.

“I think my game is progressing,” he said. “My game was quite solid this entire week. As a whole I felt very good about what I did this week.”

Canadian rookie Corey Conners, seeking to be a wire-to-wire winner in just his 21st start, lost his solo lead after a bogey on the first hole. He would have three more bogeys, one double bogey and no birdies for 77, finishing tied for 16th.

Brandt Snedeker, who is trying to play his way into the Masters, also had a disappointing day as Woods’ playing partner for the second round in a row.

Two shots off the lead after 54 holes, Snedeker shot 78 and tied for 31st. Ranked 74th in the world going into the Valspar, he needs a win over high finish in the next two weeks to make it into the top 50 and earn an 11th-hour Masters invitation. Snedeker has played in 10 Masters, including the past seven and has three top-10 finishes.