Casey flies the flag for England

Eleven years after helping to operate a scoreboard at the Open Championship, Paul Casey put his name at the top of it yesterday. A year after collapsing to an 85 in the opening round at Sandwich, Casey improved by a dramatic 19 strokes. A couple of days after saying there were not as many young British players coming through as there should be, the 26-year-old from Weybridge provided a strong case for being the leader of the pack.

Eleven years after helping to operate a scoreboard at the Open Championship, Paul Casey put his name at the top of it yesterday. A year after collapsing to an 85 in the opening round at Sandwich, Casey improved by a dramatic 19 strokes. A couple of days after saying there were not as many young British players coming through as there should be, the 26-year-old from Weybridge provided a strong case for being the leader of the pack.

Casey, in trenchant mood of late, thinks that being England's No 1 is nice, but being 30th in the world is not. "When Faldo was England's No 1, he was the world No 1," he said. That a European has not won a major for five years is "crap". And some of the young players have the "George Best syndrome". "This country should produce more superstars," he added.

Yesterday, in the opening round of the 133rd Open, Casey made all his significant statements on the famous Ayrshire links. A five-under-par round of 66 left him as joint leader with France's Thomas Levet, the winner of last Sunday's Scottish Open.

Michael Campbell, third in the 1995 Open and a shot behind Levet at Loch Lomond, was four under. It was hardly the harshest day at Troon. The breeze

came and went, shifted direction slightly, yet was always light, but not everyone took advantage. Phil Mickelson, first and second in the last two majors, had a 73 while Europe's top two players, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia, scored 76 and 75 respectively.

Tiger Woods just got into his winning threshold as his 70 matched his worst score in the opening round of the eight majors he has won. No American did better than 69. Yet a gentle opening allowed the assembled company to ease their way into the championship but there were shots of brilliance, two of which came in the early morning.

Gary Evans, in the first group of the day and continuing his trend of finding the limelight at the Open, holed his second shot at the par-five fourth with a five-iron from 227 yards for the first albatross in the championship for three years.

Evans finished in a group on 68, which also included Vijay Singh, the Amateur champion, Stuart Wilson, and fellow Scot Alastair Forsyth, who bogeyed the last two holes. Ernie Els then holed in one at the Postage Stamp, the par-three eighth where Gene Sarazen made a celebrated ace in 1973. Els used a wedge and the ball spun back into the cup accompanied by a roar from a full grandstand.

But Els would give back the gift with a double-bogey at the 17th. The South African found a bunker short of the green and hit his first attempt at an escape into the face of the trap. "It wasn't the most difficult shot I've ever had and I messed it up," he admitted.

Els finished with a 69, as did Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie. All three were better placed during their rounds. Clarke hit a five-iron over the last green and on to the gravel in front of the clubhouse. It was out of bound and cost a double-bogey. "It was the wrong club," he said. "I misjudged the wind. The six-iron for the next shot was the correct club." Pete Coleman, his caddie, accepted responsibility.

Clarke was in contention at Troon in 1997 when he shanked, sorry, pushed his drive at the second on to the beach. Perhaps the disaster is out of the way. Montgomerie, the only club member in the field, was buoyed by vast home support to recover from three dropped shots at the 10th and 11th.

Casey bucked the usual theory of making the score on the front nine by going to the turn in 34 and then coming home in 32. He dropped only one shot, at the ninth, and his seven birdies included a two at the eighth, threes at the 10th and 11th, two of the hardest holes on the course, and a 16-footer for the perfect punctuation point at the last.

"There are a lot of guys who dreamt of shooting 66 at the Open," said Casey, who spent his teenage years playing at the Foxhills academy in Surrey. "The hard work is paying off. I spent a lot of time hitting golf balls when I was 12 years old and dreaming of this."

He missed the cut in his two previous Opens and at five of his seven majors to date. But at Augusta in April there was a glorious sixth place at the Masters. The formula was to be as relaxed as possible, with ping pong in the rented house and cheesy songs on the car stereo. Here, the house is not big enough for table tennis and he is walking to the course.

But running by the beach seems to have worked, although renting Kill Bill on video did not go down too well with his girlfriend. "She had to leave the room," he reported.

Casey missed the cut at Loch Lomond but his swing was corrected with the help of his American coach, Peter Kostis. But his main achievement was "not getting in my own way". "I've been very relaxed and allowed myself to play good golf and if I'm in that sort of frame of mind, as at the Masters, anything is possible.

"Major championships are a big deal but when you try too hard an 85 can happen. You have to try the right amount. You have to want it a lot but not push it over the edge. I feel my game has a lot of potential and this is the tip of the iceberg. I'm not saying I'm going to win dozens of majors but I feel I can be around at Open Championships for years to come."

Taking Levet's back nine from Sunday at Loch Lomond and his front nine yesterday it added up to 18 holes in 12 under. He was not getting carried away. "It means we have a few strokes in our pocket in case things are turning wrong," he said. "This is just one step. There is an enormous marathon on Sunday."

Campbell admitted to cruising along for the last two years having earned the odd bob but was given a roasting by the sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout last week. "It was the kick up the arse I needed," Campbell said. "There were a few swear words. I'm trying to win now, not just make the cut." Vanstiphout can be a scarier proposition than even Campbell's All Black friend Zinzan Brooke in full flight.

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