Golf’s everyman Peter Malnati wins for something greater than himself at Valspar

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Peter Malnati can breathe easier now. With his nerve-racking, hard-fought victory on Sunday at the Valspar Championship, where he found four birdies on his final nine to shoot 4-under 67 and win by two at Innisbrook’s demanding Copperhead Course – he now will have access to playing his favorite major of the season. Big exhale.

Yes, Malnati, an 36-year-old golf everyman of sorts with his floppy bucket hat and yellow golf ball, is guaranteed, as a PGA TOUR winner again, a spot in the summer’s Travelers Championship, now a reduced-field Signature Event played on what he considers to be the most fun golf course on the PGA TOUR, TPC River Highlands in Connecticut.

“That’s my major,” he said. Oh, and he should soon be receiving an invitation to the Masters in Georgia in three weeks as well. “I will probably accept it,” Malnati deadpanned, having never played the event before in his 10-year TOUR career.

 If TPC River Highlands is the place he wants to play everyday when he is 75 years old, what of the Copperhead, which he had just freshly conquered, only one of two players from a starting field of 154 to have finished double-digits below par? He certainly respects it, borderline fears it, and relishes everything that the tournament represents. The Valspar, the last leg of the four-tournament Florida Swing, is yet another homespun TOUR event with deep roots that means a great deal, and can make a significant impact in its Tampa Bay community.

But the course? It is a true brute. “Fun,” Malnati said, “might not necessarily be the word I use. Amazing, but very stressful.”

It was fun once he had that bronze snake trophy in his arms, with his wife, Alicia, and two young children watching on next to the 18th green. This was the first time that Malnati had won as a father. It was his son, now 4-year-old Hatcher, who recommended he play with a yellow ball last summer, and Valspar, a paint company, does bill itself as the most colorful event on the schedule.

This was one of those moments that Malnati works and practices so hard to taste. Winning is something he thinks about each time he pulls out of the home driveway to catch another plane to yet another city. With so much young talent coming onto the TOUR these days, it’s not easy for a player in his mid-30s ranked 135th in Driving Distance and 184th in the OWGR to win. He said it admittedly has become much harder than when he collected his first trophy, in 2015, at the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi.

Malnati had started his day at Valspar in the penultimate group, two shots behind leader Keith Mitchell. He finished 72 holes at 12-under 272, two better than young hotshot Cameron Young, who played nicely (68) but left with his seventh runner-up finish, still seeking that first victory.

Rookie Chandler Phillips had his best showing to date on TOUR, shooting 69 Sunday to earn a tie for third with Canadian Mackenzie Hughes, who birdied his last hole for 70. Sunday was wild, as expected, with the lead changing hands several times.

Malnati hung around on the opening nine, then made his move after the turn. He hit wedges in close to set up birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. At the 12th, a par 4, he had 15 feet for a third consecutive birdie, picked an aggressive line, then was convinced he did not get the putt to the hole. He quickly looked away, disappointed in the effort, but soon, the crowd roared, which told him differently. That little yellow ball had tumbled into the cup.

“I don’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I wasn’t watching the ball roll because I knew it was going to stop this far short (he held his hands a foot apart) and I was going to tap it in. And then I heard the crowd go nuts and I was like, ‘Okay. So that was cool. Awesome little bonus.’”

Malnati and Young were tied at 11-under as Malnati stepped to the par-3 17th and Young readied to his his tee shot at the par-4 18th. Malnati needed a tee shot to cover 208 yards, thought about hitting 4-iron, but being pumped up, grabbed the 5-iron. He struck maybe the shot of his life, his ball finishing 6 feet from the hole. The shot was only great if he converted the birdie putt, and he did, reaching 12-under. He floated to the next tee. He said he’d been shaking since walking off the 12th green, trying everything he could to maintain focus and keep making quality swings.

“His ball-striking was amazing today,” said his caddie, Chad Antus, who has been on Malnati’s bag for seven years. “He kept his cool, kept his rhythm all day, putted really good. He played awesome on that back nine.

“That birdie at 17 was huge, considering where we were standing in the tournament. It gave us a little cushion.”

And a little cushion was all he would need. Up ahead, Young badly pulled a tee shot at 18 that left him little among the trees and bushes and concession tents. He somehow found the right front edge of the green with a punch gap wedge, but he three-putted from 51 feet, under-reading his par putt from 9 feet. Young had done well to be there, but once again came up just short. From the fourth tee to the 14th green, Young kept building momentum, making four birdies to keep the pressure on all those surrounding the lead. And then he just ran out of birdies and would bogey the last.

Young said he was proud how he had handled his emotions all week, and was the only player in the entire field to shoot four rounds in the 60s, if that were any consolation. Immediately after the finish, it wasn’t.

What emotions did he experience after finishing second for a seventh time?

“Honestly,” Young said, “I realized I wasn’t going to win pretty quickly, and I have a four-hour drive home (to south Florida) with a 1- and a 2-year-old, so whatever emotions are attached to that.”

This would be Malnati’s day to celebrate, and he had waited patiently, too. It had been more than eight years, he all of a sudden was exempt through 2026, and that means he’ll have at least a 12-year career on a circuit he never really thought he would play in the first place.

Lots of young golfers stand on greens at the local municipal course and think about making a putt that would win the Masters or the U.S. Open. Golf wasn’t really Malnati’s thing. He was more apt to be throwing a ball against a wall, thinking he was fielding like pro shortstop Omar Vizquel, or shooting hoops alone in his driveway, pretending to be Michael Jordan. When he did dream about winning a golf tournament one day, his dreams were different than most. He thought about having a wife and young family run out to share his joyous moment.

On Sunday at Valspar, that’s the exact scene he received. Standing on the 18th green about 25 feet away for birdie, leading by two, he figured he would win. He nearly holed the birdie putt, and said he was fortunate that he had only inches remaining by par. By then, he’d seen his family awaiting him on the edge of the green, and he made that last putt through tears.

“You don’t know if you’re ever going to have another moment like this,” said Malnati. “Pretty amazing to have that dream come to life.”

Afterward, Malnati saluted the “smaller” tournaments that fill the PGA TOUR schedule, such as the Valspars of the world.

“I feel like this win, this win is, you know, first and foremost, it is, it’s for me,” Malnati said. “It’s for my family, it’s for my caddie, it’s for my team of people who support me. But on a larger scale it’s also for Tampa, it’s for the Copperheads, it’s for Valspar, and it’s for all the events on the PGA TOUR who find themselves in this new ecosystem kind of wondering where they fit and if they matter …

“There are thousands of Peter Malnatis out there who are 10 years old right now, teenagers right now, who dream of playing golf on the PGA TOUR, and they want to have the moment that I just got to have. If we don’t have communities that believe in what the PGA TOUR does, and sponsors who support what the PGA TOUR does, we don’t have those moments.”

With that, the Malnatis were bound to catch a flight home, and then Peter will be off to Houston for the Texas Children’s Houston Open on Tuesday to do it all again. The grinder inside him looks forward to working toward that next win, and this time, he doesn’t plan on waiting eight-plus years to do it again. The feeling was that good.