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Maybe the names weren’t familiar, but Valspar’s final round was inspired

PALM HARBOR — As he stepped out of the scoring trailer, there was a roar from the crowd.

Cameron Young never even flinched. He didn’t look back toward the noise, he didn’t look over his shoulder at a nearby TV monitor. He just walked over to his bag, pulled out a handful of balls and then crouched down to sign each one with a Sharpie.

The applause was not his to enjoy. The cheers, the whoops, the clapping from the bleachers all belonged to soon-to-be Valspar Championship winner Peter Malnati, who was approaching the 18th green about 100 yards away from where Young stood silently.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Young had been tied with Malnati with the end in sight. Now, he was far enough away from the lead that he didn’t feel compelled to follow Malnati’s finishing strokes on the final hole.

“Honestly, I realized I wasn’t going to win pretty quickly,” said Young, who had a bogey on No. 18 at the same time Malnati was sinking a birdie on No. 17.

So, Young never saw the tears welling in Malnati’s eyes as he approached a final tap-in shot at 18 for par. He never saw Malnati’s wife and two boys share an emotional embrace in front of a national television audience. He never saw what could have been.

Watching Young at this moment was, in retrospect, terribly sad.

And, strangely, inspiring.

These are the moments that make us care about meaningless games and athletes we’ve never met. These are the opportunities that keep Malnati and Young and countless others just like them coming back again and again.

Yes, the big names had disappeared from the leaderboard by Sunday afternoon at Innisbrook. In their place were rookies, dreamers, wannabes and grinders.

Viewers might have been tempted to switch the channel, but it would have been a mistake. Maybe the final round wasn’t sexy, but it was compelling. It was entertaining. It was the story of every underdog who finally breaks through and every aspiring star who falls short.

Six players had a share of the lead at some point Sunday. There was a moment on the back nine when Mackenzie Hughes had the lead at 10 under and five other players were one stroke behind him.

“It was a blast,” said Hughes, who finished tied for third at 9 under. “I love being in the battle, in the fight.”

Days ago, there was no reason to believe Malnati could win this tournament. He had played 258 events since joining the PGA Tour in 2014, and he had exactly one victory and one second-place finish.

Young, on the other hand, is an up-and-comer who could have been a dark-horse pick earlier in the week. He’d played only 59 tour events but already had six runnerup finishes, which was more than any current PGA player without a victory.

When it was over, he was asked about his emotions about coming in second for a seventh time.

“I have a four-hour drive home with a 1- and a 2-year-old,” said Young, who lives in Jupiter. “So, whatever emotions are attached to that.”

For Malnati, the victory provides him with a $1.5 million paycheck, which is more than he won in 35 tour stops last season. And yet, he never once mentioned the money in a 30-minute media session afterward. Instead, he talked about how the win guarantees him another two years on the tour. He talked about what it meant to his family. He talked about the journey it took to get here. And he talked about the importance of events like Valspar for golfers not in the spotlight.

“In terms of the people who participate in golf at the highest level, 90% of us dream of the moment that I just had,” Malnati said. “There’s 10% that probably gear their schedules and focus on the majors, but 90% of the people who have made it to the top level … live for that moment I just had.

“It’s amazing. I’m proud of myself; I did a lot of hard work. I’m proud of my family; they supported me. But it doesn’t matter, all the hard work, if we don’t have tournaments to play in. If we don’t have communities that think these tournaments matter. And if we don’t have host organizations like Copperheads.”

Asked how he might celebrate the victory, Malnati looked over at his wife, Alicia, and two boys.

“Do we have PB&Js in the car for the trip to the airport?” he asked.

“Yup,” Alicia said, “we have four of them.”

As for Cameron Young, the drive home had already begun. While the Malnatis were celebrating on the 18th green, he had slipped away with hardly anyone noticing.

On his way out, he gave all the autographed balls he had signed to a handful of children waiting near the exit.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.