‘Can’t describe it, it’s just so cool:’ Peter Malnati wins for first time in nine years at 2024 Valspar Championship

March Madness crowned another Cinderella on Sunday, only not on the basketball court but rather at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course Palm Harbor, Florida.

Peter Malnati, who hadn’t won in nine years, drilled his tee shot at the 17th hole to 6 feet and rolled in the putt to assume a one-stroke lead. With a finishing par, he closed with a final-round 4-under 67 to finish at 12-under 272 and win the Valspar Championship by two strokes over Cameron Young.

All the emotions poured out of Malnati, who held his four-year-old son Hatcher, and with watery eyes and a wide smile, said, “You wonder if you’re ever going to do it again.”

He had seen that winning moment on the PGA Tour so many times before where the family rushes on to the green and the victor gets a hug and kiss and lifts his child.

“That’s something that I’ve seen other families have and that has been my dream,” Malnati said. “If I had never had the moment I had today, I would have been completely fine. But, man, was that special.”

Indeed, it was. Malnati, a 36-year-old pro in his 10th year on Tour, had one career victory to his credit at the 2015 Sanderson Championship. He had to battle during the fall to maintain full exempt status this season by finishing 116th on the season-long points list. He’s ranked No. 184 in the world, the second-highest world ranking for the winner of the Valspar in tournament history and he drew the angst of his fellow pros who felt he was unworthy when he was awarded a sponsor’s invite into the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. Moreover, winning at the Copperhead Course, where he  had missed the cut in six of his seven starts at the Valspar Championship, with a career-best of T-60, seemed a pipe dream. To make matters worse, he entered this week coming off a final-round 81 at the Players Championship.

“I just kind of had to chalk that up as just one of those days you get in golf…I was off on all facets of the game,” he said. “When I got here and got to work on Tuesday I was really pleased, everything felt kind of as it had most of the week at Sawgrass, not how it did on Sunday. So I just haven’t missed a beat.”

His first-round 66 was a career-best at the Copperhead Course and just his second in the 60s in 17 career rounds at Innisbrook Resort. But despite his choppy record, it never diminished his appreciation of the course.

“I love this kind of course because I think it really distinguishes good ball striking from mediocre ball striking,” he said.

He followed with an even-par 71 during difficult weather on Friday and shot 68 on Saturday to trail 54-hole leader Keith Mitchell by two strokes. Malnati reveled in the opportunity to be in the trophy hunt.

“It’s why I play and practice, to come out here on the PGA Tour and have a chance to win golf tournaments. This is my 10th season. I can’t think of very many times where I’ve actually teed off on Sunday realistically thinking of winning the tournament,” Malnati said.

VALSPAR: Winner’s bag | Prize money

The former Missouri Tiger is a career grinder, who works as hard as anyone on his putting routine and has added the responsibility of serving as a player director on the Tour policy board during a critical time in the Tour’s future. It’s been a lot to balance but through it all family always comes first for Malnati. Take his explanation on Saturday for why he plays with a yellow golf ball, which he began using at the 3M Open in July.

“The reason I switched to it is because my, at the time, three-year old, who is now four, liked them. And so, he’s kind of over it now, but it still makes me think of him, and that’s worth a smile or two, which is worth a lot out there for me,” he said.

On Sunday all of Malnati’s discipline and hard work paid off. He overcame a slow start, missing a 5-foot par putt at No. 4 and nearly cold-topping a fairway wood at the fifth, which didn’t cost him. He sank a 14-foot birdie putt at the sixth and made his move with three straight birdies to start the second nine. That included making a 15-foot putt at No. 12 that he was convinced he’d missed.

“The minute I hit it I thought I had left it short,” he said. “I wasn’t watching the ball roll because I knew it was going to stop this far short and I was going to tap it in. And then I heard the crowd go nuts.”

He added: “I always hear people say, like, sometimes when you win, some things have to happen and go right.”

Six different players held or shared the lead during the final round and 10 players were within three shots of the lead on the back nine, but ultimately several players took themselves out of the running with an assortment of mistakes and the tournament turned into a two-man race between Young, the Tour’s rookie of the year two years ago who was seeking his first PGA Tour win, and Malnati winless for the last 3,058 days.

Young hooked his tee shot into trouble at 18 and by the time he assessed the situation, Malnati had pulled ahead at 12 under with birdie after his clutch 5-iron from 208 yards at 17. Young managed to find the green but left his 51-foot birdie effort nine feet short and missed for par.

“I just over read it a hair,” said Young, who recorded his seventh runner-up finish, the most of any player without a win in the last 40 years.

For Malnati, he earned his first berth in the Masters, a spot in the PGA Championship, all of the remaining Signature events this season and the Sentry in January.

“He played incredible. He deserved to win,” said Mackenzie Hughes, who finished T-3 with rookie Chandler Phillips, who notched his best finish on Tour. “He played better than I did. He was in control of his golf ball.”

Young’s closing bogey gave Malnati a two-shot cushion. He had always dreamed of his wife and kids running on the green to celebrate his victory and now the moment he waited for was upon him.

“I don’t think I saw ’em until after I hit the first putt, but I definitely saw ’em before I tapped in, and I was — man, I had lost it before I had hit my last shot of the tournament, for sure,” he said, “but luckily it was like literally 2 inches from the hole. But, yeah, that moment’s pretty amazing.”

Even better than he always dreamed it would be.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek