PALM HARBOR — In the days leading up to the Valspar Championship, Paul Casey and Austin Cook were busy trying to figure out their games. Casey was coming off a missed cut at the Players Championship, where he said he played like “rubbish.”
Cook was so frustrated with his play that he ditched his old putter on Monday and had a new one made. After two rounds on Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course, they have clearly turned things around.
Casey, the tournament’s defending champion, shot a second-round 5-under 66. Cook, who has missed three cuts in five previous tournaments, fired a 4-under 67. Both were tied for the second-round lead at 6-under 136.
It was a jammed-packed leaderboard.
A total of 70 players made the cut and were within seven shots of the lead. It’s been nearly two years since this many players were this close to the leaders.
Luke Donald, Scott Stallings and Sungjae Im were one shot behind. Dustin Johnson, first-round co-leader Joel Dahmen and Curtis Luck were two shots back.
Seven more players were hanging three shots back, highlighted by Jon Rahm.
The fact that Casey was at the top isn’t that surprising. He is the tournament’s defending champ. But after his play last week, which included an opening-round 78, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Despite missing the cut, he stayed at TPC Sawgrass over the weekend and worked on his swing.
“(Players Championship winner) Rory McIlroy saw me at the end of the range on Sunday and gave me kind of a funny look,” Casey said. “But if it wasn’t there it was going to be at a range somewhere else. I did a lot of hard work on Saturday and Sunday. I’ve been full tilt working.”
The results showed Friday. He made three birdies, had eagle on the par-5 fifth hole and made only one bogey. That was on the ninth hole, his last of the day.
“It’s amazing how it turns around,” Casey said. “It’s just two or three days in golf. One good sleep and things can change.”
The grind has been a bit longer for Cook. A 28-year-old from the University of Arkansas, he won the 2017 RSM Classic. But this year has not gone well. His best finish was a tie for 61st at the Pebble Beach Pro Am.
He has missed his last two cuts. Disgusted with his putting, he felt a change was needed immediately. He kept the mallet-style putter, but made it lighter. The result was a round of five birdies and one bogey.
“I’m not a big club changer,” Cook said. “But I lost so much confidence in my putting that something had to change. I messaged the Ping (golf company) guys that I needed a new putter in my hands.
“It’s 100 percent mental. My stroke was fine. Nothing has changed with the set up. It’s just a new putter. Sometimes that just helps clear your mind of bad memories.”
Now Casey and Cook will see if their changes are good enough to hold up for 36 more holes. With so many players right behind them, there are sure to be some who will make a run.
Donald, who won the 2012 tournament, has been surprisingly good through two rounds. He has played sparingly since last April due to back problems. After 15 holes, he briefly held the second-round lead at 7 under. But he bogeyed the sixth and eighth holes to finish one shot out.
“I had pretty low expectations,” Donald said. “The goal was to just play four rounds. It’s nice to be in the mix already. It’s a course I know well.”
As does Casey. He will try to be the first back-to-back winner of this tournament. After hours of practice he believes the swing is where it should be. The confidence this week was already there.
“Last year I was kind of hoping to win,” Casey said. “Now, knowing that I have won around here, I have a slightly different approach to it.”