PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — John Senden never imagined it would take more than seven years to win again. Even more surprising is how he won the Valspar Championship.
Sunday at Innisbrook had all the trappings of a tournament that is survived more than it is won. Robert Garrigus, who started the final round with the lead, hit a tee shot that bounced off a lawn chair and wound up next to a tree, leading to a double bogey. Kevin Na, playing in the final group, missed a 3-foot putt and made a double bogey during a meltdown at the end of his front nine.
Each mistake brought more players into the mix on the Copperhead course until at one point there were nine players separated by three shots with more than an hour to go and the treacherous "Snake Pit" stretch of three fearsome closing holes ahead.
But that's where Senden seized control — on the 16th hole, with a shot into the trees. In a three-way tie for the lead with Na and Scott Langley, Senden's tee shot was headed for a tiny forest when it smacked off a tree and left him an opening.
"I got a pretty good break there with hitting the tree and dropping straight down," he said. "Then I hit a really good second shot to get in some sort of position near the green. Walking up to the shot, I just felt like, 'OK, I need to hit a really good shot here to get this up-and-down and try to have a chance to do something down the stretch.'
"I thought it came out well," he said. "It disappeared. Amazing." He chipped in from 70 feet for birdie to break the tie. He made a 20-foot birdie putt on the next hole to stretch his lead to two shots. And when he could hear Na made a birdie putt on the 17th hole behind him to cut the lead to one, the 42-year-old Australian hit one might have been his best putt of the day that didn't go in.
It was a 40-foot putt that went up a ridge and moved slightly to the right, and then went down the slope and sharply to the left. Senden hit it so well that he only had a few inches left to tap in for his par and a 1-under 70.
All that was left was to wait to see if Na could make birdie and force a playoff. Na caught a flier out of the first cut of rough with a pitching wedge to 40 feet, and the birdie putt didn't have a chance. He closed with a 72 to finish second, his best result on the PGA Tour since he won at Las Vegas at the end of 2011.
"I knew coming into today that I felt like if I shot par I had a chance to win," Na said. "If I break par, I felt like it was going to be a lock." Senden finished at 7-under 277, the third straight event on the Florida swing where the winning score was single-digit under par. He wasn't thinking about all the perks that go along with winning, though he was clear on one thing — he won't have the week off the second week in April.
Senden earned a spot in the Masters, always the biggest major for Australians, even with Adam Scott winning last year. He also locked up a berth in the PGA Championship, two World Golf Championships the rest of the year (at Firestone and Shanghai) and Kapalua to start next year. It's a good feeling for Senden, one that he had forgotten.
His only other PGA Tour win was in 2006 at the John Deere Classic. Senden capped off that year by winning the Australian Open at Royal Sydney. "It's something that makes you believe more than you can get it done again, rather than just once and thinking back then in '06, 'Was it a flash in the pan?' I don't believe so," Senden said. "But now it makes me feel (validated) from the John Deere."
Scott Langley, hitting superb shots to account for the wind, didn't hit a green over the final four holes and still managed to save par on three of them. The one bogey on the 16th hole, when he went long of the green from the middle of the fairway, proved costly.
Langley and David Hearn were the only players who shot par or better all four days. Langley closed with a 70 to finish alone in third. Garrigus made two double bogeys on his way to a 41 on the back nine. He also went 26 holes without a birdie dating to the third round Saturday, when he led by as many as four shots. By the time he made birdie at No. 14, it was too late. Garrigus, now 0-4 when he has at least a share of the 54-hole lead, closed with a 75. He tied for fourth with Will MacKenzie (69) and Luke Donald (70).
"I know what I'm not going to be doing next year — fishing," said Garrigus, who figures he caught three dozen large-mouth bass this week. "I'm 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. I just didn't get any breaks."