Paul Casey: From a standing ovation to please give me a hand

Once his fellow pros simply stood and applauded but the world No 10 has had to overhaul his game leading up to this week's US Open in Maryland. James Corrigan meets Paul Casey
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It says so much about the rude health of British golf that the player ranked 10th in the world can be described as "the forgotten Englishman". In previous decades Paul Casey's standing would have seen him going into this week's US Open as "the only Englishman".

But that is where British golf happens to be right now, and that is where Casey happens to be. He will see the fellow Euros above him in the rankings – Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer at Nos 1, 2 and 3, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell at Nos 7 and 8 – and will sense the urgency. But what will genuinely make him jolt and take notice is the calendar sitting atop the empty major trophy cabinet.

"I'm fully aware that at 33 I'm now in my prime of my major-winning sort of golf," he said. "If you look at it statistically, guys tend to be at their peak from 33 to whatever it is, 36 or 39. So Martin's and Graeme's major victories in the last year have highlighted that I need to hurry up. I don't have that long if I want to take full advantage of my best golf."

The problem is that Casey is not playing his best golf, not in this build-up anyway. In his last 10 tournaments his best finish has been a tie for 12th at the Northern Trust Open in February. Here we are in June and his win in, of all places, Bahrain at the beginning of the year seems a long time, not to mention a bloody uprising, ago.

"The last couple of months have been frustrating," he said. "The season started OK. Obviously it was a great result to win in Bahrain but actually I didn't feel as if I was playing brilliant golf by any means. The ball-striking was a bit off. I've worked very hard the last couple of months, but if anything I've gone backwards. And I've really struggled with confidence. Wentworth was particularly disappointing."

Two years ago, Casey won at the Surrey course to haul himself up into the world's top three, becoming, at that point, only the fifth Briton to have risen so high. This time around the experience was rather different. While Westwood and Donald were fighting out an unprecedented play-off to see who would emerge as No 1 of Wentworth and the world, Casey was trying to come to terms with his final competitive drive before the US Open.

"The tee-shot I hit on the 18th at Wentworth on the Sunday just underlined the flaws in my game at the moment," he said. "I was trying to cut a three wood around the corner. I end up hitting a draw into the left trees and making a bogey. You know that is pure technical.

"It wasn't as if I was in a position when I was nervous trying to win the event. I was trying to make an eagle maybe to finish in the top 15. For me to hit a double-cross is not good. It destroys your confidence when you're stood there not knowing where the golf ball is going. I feel all crossed up."

If only it was just his driving that he was faced with rectifying in time for the vigorous demands of Congressional. "At least I feel like I had a millions things to work on," he said. "I actually wrote down what these were when I went away from Wentworth. Flop shots, bunker shots, putting, driving, cut three words... In the end I just put a line through it and wrote down 'golf'."

Casey was clearly looking forward to the time he was to spend with his long-time coach, Peter Kostis, when he returned to Arizona. The fortnight off he has enjoyed before travelling across to Maryland has been just what the swing doctor ordered. "There was so much going on in the run-up to Wentworth that there was hardly any chance to work on my game and it was so windy and the course was so tough, I got to the end of that week and thought, 'My game's actually gone backwards'," he said.

"With Kostis we'll just return to basics. With me it's always grip, alignment, posture, making sure they're all in the place, that sort of thing. I haven't seen him for a while and when we are repairing the damage travel does, he always says to me: 'If you return after a trip away with a swing which is as good or better than when you left, then you haven't been playing golf. You've been playing golf swing.' He expects the swing to deteriorate. He thinks it's a natural occurrence."

As, no doubt, is the erosion of self-belief. Casey has not cut a contented figure on the fairways recently and, as professionals tend to, sought to effect a shift in momentum by a change of caddies. But most professionals don't change back to a caddie they have already hired and fired twice before. It is joked on Tour that Casey and Craig Connelly are just like a married couple, but because of the number of reunions that analogy only works if the married couple is Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.

In true Hollywood style, Casey actually took a private jet to Scotland three weeks ago to convince Connelly into carrying his bag again. The former had just dispensed with Christian Donald, brother of Luke, while the latter had just been sacked by Kaymer and agreed to join up with Francesco Molinari. Confused? You should be.

"Craig is the best caddie I've ever had for the emotional stuff," said Casey. "That's important. He knows me better than anyone. Yeah, he does plenty of things that wind me up. But he's my mate. Simple as that."

Perhaps Casey is in dire need of a mate after a testing couple of years since he stood on the heels of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. First came the rib injury, "which I tore the crap out of"; then came the recuperation period which lasted a year; then came The Open at St Andrews when he faltered in the final grouping on the final day; then came the Ryder Cup when, despite being the world No 7, he was overlooked; and all around was good form with no titles to show for it. As he says: "The whole of 2010 was a bit weird."

But now he's healthy and the rejection is behind him, surely it's time to look back and be inspired by past achievements. For Casey, in the US Open, that should only mean one round: his 66 at Oakmont in 2007.

"When people ask me what's the best I ever played I will always think of the second 18 in the 2006 World Matchplay final against Shaun Micheel when I just caught fire," he said. "But that Friday at Oakmont must be right up there. The average round that day was 77 or something and I shot a 66.

"I remember receiving a round of applause from the players. I tapped in on the ninth green [his 18th hole] and some of the guys were on the practice putting green, which was close by. They actually all stopped and started clapping. That was something special. If they say anything at all, the guys usually just grunt, 'Well done'."

What he would give for another standing ovation this time around, not only from his peers but from the tens of thousands in the Congres-sional grandstands. Casey certainly has the talent, he has the caddy and when the major tees off on Thursday his form and ranking won't mean a thing. Forgotten or not.

Early groupings at Congressional

Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer will play together in the first two rounds of the US Open, which begins at Congressional on Thursday. The USPGA released the draw yesterday, revealing that the top three players in the world will form the marquee grouping. Among the other notable three-balls will be Rory McIlroy teeing it up with Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. The organisers have been mischievous with this group as McIlroy shot an 80 when leading The Masters by four in April, while Johnson shot an 81 when leading last year's US Open by three shots.

James Corrigan

Home boys: The four other UK players currently in the world top 10

Luke Donald (England)

World Ranking 1

Best US Open finish T12

Considering the emphasis on accuracy and a sharp short gamethat the US Open demands, it is mystifying why Donald has never contended. But with 14 top 10s in his last 15 events it is hard to envisage the world No 1 not being involvedat Congressional.

Odds 14-1 (Betfred)

Lee Westwood (England)

WR 2

Best US Open finish 3rd

He has never come closer than he did three years ago when he was one shot off the play-off won by Tiger Woods. Since then Westwood has racked up four more top-three finishes in the majors and is unbeaten over 72 holes since The Masters. He must have a huge chance this time.

Odds 13-1 (Totesport)

Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland)

WR 7

Best US Open finish T10th

Unravelled at The Masters with a final-round 80, but proved he is getting over his Augusta hangover with a top-five placing at last week's Memorial. Majors bring out the best in the young Ulsterman and if his putter is working he will be a factor.

Odds 22-1 (Totesport)

Graeme McDowell (Northern Ireland)

WR 8

Best US Open finish 1st

The reigning champion has not enjoyed the greatest season to date, his frustration being typified by a final-round 79 when leading at The Players. He is struggling to find the "dig deep" which always came so naturally before and if he doesn't, he may be in for a miserable defence of his title.

Odds 45-1 (Totesport)

James Corrigan