PALM HARBOR ― In the final round of last year’s Valspar Championship, Paul Casey finished a full 90 minutes ahead of the final group. He remembers the agonizing wait on a brown couch in the player’s locker room until he found out his 10-under-par score was good enough to win the tournament.
This year there will be no waiting around in a locker room.
After shooting a third round 3-under 68 Saturday on Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course, Casey was 9 under for the tournament. He had a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson and a two-shot lead over Jason Kokrak.
Casey and Johnson will be paired in the final group. The defending champ and the No. 1 ranked player in the world. There’s no Tiger Woods, but this is the next-best scenario.
“Of the guys on the leaderboard, (Johnson) is the one I’d want to be paired with," Casey said. “He’s the best player in the world. That’s why I do what I do, to play against the best in the world. He’ll be the prominent one in the group of guys near the lead. Who is the favorite tomorrow? Probably Dustin. So I actually feel very little pressure.
“Look at my results vs. Dustin’s. He’s the better player. So it’s pretty simple, if I go out and beat him I actually might win. Great scenario.”
Casey started the day in the lead and ended that way. He had an uneventful front nine, on which he had two birdies and one bogey. He got to 10 under on the back nine after he birdied the 14th hole. A bogey on the 18th hole dropped him to 9 under.
Just ahead of him, Johnson was plugging away. He started the day at 4 under. He had one setback, a bogey on the ninth hole. But he bounced back from that and played the back nine bogey-free to get to 8 under. A highlight was a birdie on the difficult 18th hole.
“I feel like I have a good plan for the golf course," Johnson said. “I ain’t going to change. I’m just going to play my game and see how low I can shoot. I ain’t doing anything different."
Casey and Johnson certainly aren’t the only players who have a chance in the final round. Kokrak shot a 4 under 67 that was highlighted by a hole-in-one on the par-3 15th hole.
Luke Donald, who was one shot back after two rounds, stayed in the hunt with a 1-under 70 and is three shots back at 6 under. Scott Stallings did the exact same thing and is also at 6 under.
Then there was a group of six players at 5 under, including Jim Furyk and Louis Oosthuizen, who shot 66. Austin Cook, who was tied for the second-round lead with Casey, shot 1-over 72 and fell to 5 under.
“You can be three, four or five shots out at this golf course and really make some noise if you get it going early," Kokrak said.
But most of the noise will likely be with Casey and Johnson.
Johnson has played all three rounds in the 60s. In fact, he has played 14 straight rounds in the 60s dating back to the Genesis Open in Los Angeles. He has already won this year and has 20 overall PGA Tour wins.
Casey is hoping to be the first player to ever defend at Innisbrook since the tournament started in 2000. He got himself into position on Friday when he shot a 5 under 66.
He said at last year’s tournament he thought he blew it after a third round 71. This year’s 68 was much better. And it got him in the group he always likes to be in.
“I’d rather be in the final group," Casey said. “This is much better."