Managing to hang on for a victory after holding the 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event is no easy task. Bill Haas found out the hard way at the Valspar Championship on Sunday, as Charl Schwartzel roared back and won in a playoff for his second tour victory.
Haas entered the day with a one-stroke advantage over Graham DeLaet, who faded down the stretch because of a misbehaving putter. A sparking 67 from Schwartzel forced the extra action, and par was good enough to secure the win on the first playoff hole at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Florida.
Check out the top finishers, scores and payouts from Sunday's leaderboard:
|2016 Valspar Championship Leaderboard, Top Payouts|
|Pos.||Player||Scores||To Par||Prize Money|
|4||Lee McCoy (amateur)||74-71-66-69||-4||—|
|T5||Charles Howell III||67-72-70-72||-3||$268,400|
|Source: PGATour.com. *won in playoff|
Justin Ray of Golf Channel noted how historic Schwartzel's charge to the top was:
No Laying Up captured what was going on during the back nine, when Schwartzel was the only one going against the grain and getting hot with the flat iron:
DeLaet had a particularly tough time on the greens, three-putting for bogey at Nos. 2 and 6 to get his round off to a rather unsavory start. Haas birdied the second but dropped a shot at No. 3, bogeyed the par-three fourth and bogeyed the par-four ninth to turn in two over.
But Haas found the par-five 11th green in two and two-putted for birdie and rolled in an 11-footer for birdie at the par-four 12th to get a firmer grip on the lead. The former FedEx Cup champion had some short-game magic in store at No. 15 as well:
After that momentous surprise, though, he bogeyed the 16th to fall back to seven under, tied with Schwartzel at that point.
Schwartzel birdied two of his first three holes and had four birdies on the back against two bogeys, highlighted by a magnificent downhill putt at the 71st hole:
That was only topped in degree of difficulty by his other par-three birdie on the last nine, which came at No. 1 in dramatic style:
The 2011 Masters Tournament winner just missed birdie at the 18th on a lengthy putt but still posted the best round of the day. Haas also had a chance to win outright in regulation but missed an uphill birdie bid from the fringe.
Haas and Schwartzel returned to the 18th tee for the playoff, and the former sprayed his drive to the right and found the greenside bunker thereafter. Meanwhile Schwartzel found the fairway and was safely aboard, pin-high to the left in two.
Leaving himself too much work for par coming out of the bunker, Haas' downhill par attempt missed, allowing Schwartzel a routine two-putt to end it.
Another big storyline to emerge from the week was local amateur Lee McCoy. The University of Georgia senior turned in a magnificent weekend, capped by a 69 on Sunday playing alongside world No. 1 and defending champion Jordan Spieth, who stumbled to a 73 and a tie for 18th place.
Golf Digest's Ashley Mayo applauded how well McCoy did under the circumstances:
Spieth did well to make the cut after opening the tournament with a 76. He had to be disappointed with his form on Sunday, but it was still a fine comeback from a disastrous opening score.
With the Masters less than a month away, Spieth is showing signs that his game is rounding back into form. A lot of other stars have been coming on strong as of late, including past Masters winners in Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, who won the previous two PGA Tour tournaments on the slate.
Louis Oosthuizen lost to Watson in a Masters playoff in 2012 and posted a top 10 this week, so he should be a factor at Augusta National.
As should Oosthuizen's compatriot Schwartzel, who has struggled to live up to the hype since seizing the green jacket at age 27.
The Florida Swing has featured some tough courses and demanded a lot out of even the best players in the world. Those who stuck to the grind and played spectacular golf during this stretch may be a bit depleted leading up to the year's first major, adding to the excitement preceding April's tournament at Augusta.
"Disappointment" is a term that wouldn't do justice to describe how Haas felt about his shot from the sand in the playoff.
"Thinking about that bunker shot, I won't get to sleep tonight," said Haas, per Golf Digest's John Strege. "That was one of those bunker shots you think about making. It was just poor execution."
With commendable candor, Schwartzel reflected on the long road back to the winner's circle on U.S. soil, per Strege:
Today was one of those days I thought anything could happen. I was just trying to hit mostly in the middle of the green and keep the ball in play and take the birdies where I can.
After winning Augusta you think you're going to win a lot. ... But it was a rough ride. It was tough for a few years. My game felt good enough, but it became a mental thing and it's nice to overcome it.
Rising young star Danny Willett congratulated Schwartzel, referencing the first start he made this year en route to a win at the Tshwane Open:
Former world No. 1 Luke Donald, who finished tied for 22nd in the Valspar Championship, appreciated how hard Innisbrook's Copperhead Course kept with the challenging theme of the Florida Swing.
Donald tweeted: "Love that the traditional courses are holding their own. Honda -9, Doral -12, Valspar -7? Modern architects take note!"
Schwartzel rose to the top on this occasion and notched his third win worldwide since November. If his recent form is an indication of what's to come, perhaps he'll be racking up far more stateside victories during the prime of his career.