By Keith Jackson
Last Updated: 23/03/19 2:23am
Paul Casey maintained his bid to successfully defend a title for the first time in his career, after earning a share of the halfway lead at the Valspar Championship.
Casey carded four birdies and rolled in a huge putt for eagle at the fifth, although a closing bogey cost him the chance of holding the outright lead as he settled for a 66 and a tie at the top with Austin Cook, with Luke Donald just one off the pace having climbed into the lead before he dropped two shots over his last four holes.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson heads into the weekend just two behind, while Jon Rahm, Danny Willett and the evergreen Jim Furyk are among just 33 players to have completed 36 holes under the card over a tough Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort.
Casey, who pipped Tiger Woods to the title last year, got off to a great start early on when he birdied 10 and 11 and added another at the 14th before an excellent up-and-down from sand at the first for birdie lifted him to five under.
The Englisman’s form on the par-fives continued at the fifth, where a superb blind second from 276 yards found the back of the green and he rolled in a tricky 27-foot putt for an eagle-three which swept him into the lead on his own, although two trips to bunkers and a missed six-footer for par at his final hole took a little gloss off a good day’s work.
Casey came into the event on the back of a missed cut at last week’s Players Championship, and his decision to remain at TPC Sawgrass over the weekend to work on his game on the range has paid off so far at Palm Beach Harbor.
“I’ve never defended a professional title, which I would love to do,” he said. “I feel like I can around this golf course, because it requires a certain amount of ball striking and quality putting, I like slopey greens, and I worked very hard on the game after missing the cut last week.
“Rory McIlroy gave me a strange look across the range as he’s warming up to go try to win a Players Championship, and there’s PC at the end of the range at Sawgrass trying to do some work. Obviously I was the only guy out there in the cold and the rain because I wanted to play well this week. And it looks like this work’s playing off.
“It’s clicked. This is just a fun golf course to play and there’s a great buzz to the tournament, so it’s nice to turn it around after the missed cut last week to suddenly be near the top, which is good.”
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Casey was joined in the clubhouse lead by Cook, who handed in a five-birdie 67, while Donald got to three under for the day with his fifth birdie at the fifth – his 14th – before he missed a short putt for par at six and then three-putted the eighth green from over 50 feet to drop back to five under for the tournament.
Donald, the 2012 champion, is making only his second start of the year and his first since the Sony Open in January, and he said: “It was a mixed bag today, a few bogeys, a few birdies, but overall, I’m pretty pleased.
“This is my first event back since the Sony and I really haven’t had too many reps, so I maybe lost a little bit of focus down the stretch there the last few holes, but overall I’m in a great position and thankful that I feel good and healthy and ready for a weekend. It’s been a while.”
Johnson, playing alongside Casey, birdied the 11th but found water at the short 13th and ran up a double-bogey five before dropping another shot at 16, but he battled back on the front nine and reeled off four birdies in five holes.
The American went on to complete back-to-back 69s to close a shot ahead of Rahm (68), with Willett, Furyk and Bubba Watson all firing level-par rounds of 71 to remain on two under par.