PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Paul Casey was on the verge of building a comfortable lead Saturday until a bogey on the final hole for a 3-under 68 that cut his lead to one shot over Dustin Johnson in the Valspar Championship.
Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player, had some say in the margin going into the final round at Innisbrook.
From a narrow bunker right of the 18th fairway to an elevated green with a front pin, Johnson blasted 9-iron to 10-foot birdie and a 67.
Casey was at 8-under 205.
Jason Kokrak had a hole-in-one on the 15th hole and shot 30 on the back nine for a 66 that left him three shots behind.
Casey is trying to become the first back-to-back winner in the 19-year history at the Valspar Championship.
The 70 players who made the cut were separated by seven shots, the first time it has been that tight on the PGA Tour in nearly two years. Louis Oosthuizen, who made the cut by one shot, had the lead at one point with seven birdies through 13 holes until he dropped a pair of shots, coming in for a 66. Eight players had at least a share of the lead at some point until Casey started to pull away.
He ran off three birdies in a five-hole stretch to start the back nine on the Copperhead course and led by as many as three shots until the finish. He went into the first of a series of miniature church-pew bunkers on the 18th, couldn’t get to the green and missed his 15-foot par putt.
Johnson looked to be giving up plenty of opportunities, especially on the par 5s. He had an iron just off the green at No. 1 and No. 11, both times missing short birdie putts. And then he picked up a birdie on the par-5 14th in the most unlikely way.
From light rough with trees partially in his way, he tried to hammer a 5-wood 290 yards. But it came out with too much wind and floated into the wind, hit a tree well short of the green and nearly went into water that isn’t typically in play. Still, he had a tree between his ball and the green. Johnson hit a hard pitch from 73 yards to the right of the tree and let the hill bring it back to the green. And then he made a 35-foot birdie putt .
“Makes up for the other two,” he said, walking to the 15th tee.
But the big shot was on the 18th, his ball a few paces from a steep face, the pin tough to access even from the fairway.
“Luckily, I made really good contact with it and it flew just past the hole,” Johnson said. “And even then, I still had a big, swinging, downhill putt.”
It was enough to get him into the last group as he goes for his second victory in his last three starts, which would extend his lead at No. 1 in the world with the Masters three weeks away.
Kokrak is still looking for his first PGA Tour victory. He was playing well even before his ace, with three birdies on the back nine, when he hit 8-iron with a breeze at his back that carried just far enough to get rolling toward the pin like a putt.
“You can be three, four, five shots out at this golf course and really make some noise if you get it going early,” Kokrak said.
Casey knows that from experience. All the attention will be on the final group with the defending champ and the No. 1 player in the world. Casey last year rallied from five shots behind, and there were 13 players within five of the lead going into the final round.
That group includes Nick Taylor (67), former Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk (68) and Oosthuizen, who were four behind. Luke Donald and Scott Stallings were three back after each had a 70, an especially impressive performance by Donald considering he hasn’t played in two months.