Valspar Championship Finish Had More Lead Changes Than a NASCAR Race

Kathy BissellCorrespondent IMarch 17, 2014

John Senden.  Pointing to a wayward shot perhaps? He was not alone.
John Senden. Pointing to a wayward shot perhaps? He was not alone.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

If you went to the kitchen for a snack or a beverage while watching the last nine holes of the Valspar Championship, you probably missed a lead change or two. For a time, particularly during the last hour of the telecast, there were three tied for the lead, three additional players one shot back and another pack of professionals right behind them, ready to pounce. It was like the fox had been smelled, and the hounds were after it, howling all the way.

Had the leaders been named Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, the ratings for Valspar would have been off the charts with excitement. In reality, the battle was between 42-year-old Aussie, John Senden; faster-than-he-used-to-be-but-still-relatively-slow Kevin Na; U.S. Open champ Justin Rose; former world No.1, Luke Donald; long-hitting Jason Kokrak; former snowboarder Will MacKenzie; and left-hander Scott Langley, who has the distinction of being the only player on the PGA Tour who came through the First Tee program.

The finish was punctuated by 20-mile-per-hour winds and complicated by Sunday pin placements that created more tragedies than a Shakespearean play. There were bad hooks and slices into the timber, and miraculous shots out of wooded areas and off pine straw and roots. We saw lucky bounces, hole-outs and plenty of anguish. The trees got so much action, it's a wonder NBC didn't hire an arborist.

Robert Garrigus, who had the 54-hole and 36-hole leads, had a few choice words for the vegetation after his final round, which saw him fall into a tie for fourth. He said next year he's, "going to bring a damn chain saw out to the place and cut a few trees down. I kept hitting it behind them all day."

Luke Donald uncharacteristically sent putts to the right instead of into the hole.

"I had a chance for the whole back nine and couple, you know, untimely three-putts on 11 and 13," Donald said. "Those were my only two bogeys over the last 36 holes." He won the event in 2012.

MacKenzie finished early, well ahead of the rest of the leaders, and waited to see if his score would hold up.

"I was kind of chopping out there, but everyone was," he said. "You know you're going to make three, four bogeys even if you're playing good. Maybe one or two if you're playing really well." He said he only started thinking about having a chance to win after he birdied the 11th, 12th and 13th holes.

Scott Langley wasn't even aware he was tied for the lead. "That was probably good," he said. "Those (finishing) holes are so demanding."

Kevin Na was just one shot off the lead at the beginning of the day. After shooting three over par 39 on the front nine, it looked like his chances were gone until he rebounded with birdies at the 14th and 17th holes. Meanwhile, everyone else lost ground.

"I felt like if I shot par I had a chance to win," Na explained. "If I break par, I felt like it was going to be a lock."

Play was slow, and this time it was not Na's fault.

"We were waiting every shot.  If they didn't talk about that, I don't know what to tell you," Na added, as though proving he was not slower than anyone else.

Finally, John Senden, after gaining and then losing the lead, finally grabbed a tie at the top with a birdie hole-out on the 16th. It was particularly satisfying since his tee shot found a tree.

"I just had to hang about and try to change momentum somehow and, you know, the short game came through," he said.  

A 21-foot birdie putt at the 17th gave him a temporary two-shot lead, until Na birdied the 17th and reduced the margin to one. At that point, Senden only needed a par at 18 for the victory, and had to hope Na did not birdie the final hole.

Na's chance to send the tournament into extra holes ended when he missed a monster 40-foot putt, which handed the title to Senden. It was Senden's second PGA Tour victory in his 345th career start. The other was at the 2006 John Deere Classic.

"It's a great test of golf," Senden said about the Copperhead course. "I love coming here. A couple of runner-up finishes gives me confidence here, and to come out on top today was another dream come true." He may love the course, but with the wind, no one loved the conditions.

Even though all the names on the leaderboard were not instantly recognizable, the finish at Valspar was exciting. And who is to say that John Senden won't go on to even bigger things. Six months ago, few people had heard of Jimmy Walker, and now he's a three-time winner. As they say, on the PGA Tour, anything's possible.


Kathy Bissell is a Golf Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand or from official interview materials from the USGA, PGA Tour or PGA of America.