Casey closes in on his coronation day

Volvo Masters: England's Ryder Cup hero looks to Order of Merit and beyond after a dream campaign
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The Independent Online

As Padraig Harrington continues to reflect on a missed cut in Mallorca, where he plainly did not play quite as he ought to, his first Order of Merit title must seem as far way as ever. History says that the Volvo Masters - the season's final event - is no place to be chasing down £150,000 leads. And the Irishman's own history at Valderrama positively screams it.

"I am now very much a longshot," said Harrington yesterday, typically honest, typically downbeat. "It's never been the happiest of hunting grounds for me. My best performance there was last year when I finished seventh, and I can't deny that a good result for me next week would be top 10. And that wouldn't be good enough."

Indeed it wouldn't. If Harrington's doomed mission to the Balearic island did one thing for a race the European Tour was praying would be nailbiting, it was to make the maths blessedly simple. To be sure, the Dubliner must take the near- £500,000 first prize; Paul Casey's placing would be inconsequential then. Should Harrington finish second or third it would be in the young Englishman's assured hands. Casey's to win, Casey's to lose.

Admittedly, there are a few variables to be mindful of here. Not least the big, lurking one of Robert Karlsson. The Swede could leapfrog Harrington into second and into the role of main challenger should he prevail in today's final round of the Mallorca Classic. Also, victory at Valderrama for David Howell could see England's quiet man sneak in. In truth, though, most believe that it is that nation's coming man who will be crowned. And nobody believes it more fervently than Colin Montgomerie.

There is not another golfer alive - or dead - who knows more about winning Orders of Merit in southern Spain than Montgomerie. The rumour that the Andalucian Tourist Board have been considering renaming the area "the Costa del Col" has been gaining credence by the year. To Montgomerie, the battle to be next up on his throne is rather straightforward.

"It's over," he said after Harrington's humbling. "If I was a gambling man, I'd be sticking houses on Casey. Out of my eight Order of Merits, seven came when I've been leading going into Valderrama. There was only one where I was behind Sam Torrance, and then I managed to pull it right out of the bag at the end. It's difficult to come from behind in golf, more so at Valderrama, where the fairways are tight and it's almost impossible to attack without coming a cropper. Yes, Casey will be a very worthy successor."

And, Montgomerie believes, a long-lasting one. The Scot is renowned for uttering an incon-trovertible truth one minute, and a wholly contradictory thought the next, and it was only three months ago that Montgomerie said that of all the Europeans - himself notwithstanding, of course - Harrington was the most likely to end the seven-year major drought. But his switch to Casey seems genuine, as does his reason for it.

"Paul has the huge asset over most Europeans in that he hits the ball an awful long way," said Montgomerie. "There's no course getting shorter and the greatest asset these days is length. So Paul is the most likely to succeed in major golf. I am not saying Luke [Donald] won't, because he is a great golfer, and so are David Howell, Sergio [Garcia] and Padraig. But, in my opinion, Casey has the most potential."

Montgomerie is not alone in believing this. The world must have worked out by now that Ian Woosnam is not one for the grand statement - the Ryder Cup captain's delicious "the greatest week in history" apart - but he is not shy in announcing his admiration of the odds-on favourite from Cheltenham. "I think a number of the team will go on to win majors and Paul is at the forefront," he said. "He's had an unbelievable year, when he has picked up the form that left him last year. He's been amazingly consistent and he showed his quality when winning the HSBC World Match Play and then at the Ryder Cup. He's got it all and deserves this Order of Merit."

However, Woosnam palpably does not agree with those curmudgeons who say, and will undoubtedly say again, that the European money list is largely irrelevant, as they point once more to the fact that the non-qualified Tiger Woods's collective earnings of £3.5m in counting events are more than those of Casey and Harrington combined.

"Well it won't be irrelevant to Paul," said the Welshman. "You know, I was about the same age as he is [29] when I won my first Order of Merit and what it gave me was tremendous belief. It was a real stepping stone. Its effect on him, or on Padraig, David, Robert or whoever wins it, should not be underestimated."