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Casey takes healthy lead over mentor Campbell

Words of encouragement from US Open champion help to revive young English star

Paul Casey nudged his score a few more into the red here yesterday to stand at 13 under par and hold a two-shot lead at the British Masters.

But if those little statistics imply inexorable progress towards his biggest title to date, they shouldn't. Casey's day of consolidation was more inexplicable than inexorable. And if it hadn't have been for the young Englishman's putter it might even have been inexcusable.

Twenty-footers, 25-footers, 40-footers even: no length and no borrow seemed beyond Casey on the back nine yesterday, which was a good thing as his three-stroke overnight advantage had been whittled down to nought on the front nine.

The US Open champion, Michael Campbell, that increasingly impressive picture of golfing precision, was the inevitable chaser of the hare with three quick birdies that gobbled up the deficit. It was a gauge of Casey's growing maturity that his confidence did not disappear at the very same time.

"I'm extremely happy to enact a great escape with the score I did," said Casey, although to be fair his 70 was born of finding the hole in the ground and not any gaps in the perimeter fence. All in all, the 28-year-old enjoyed nine single putts, which is daft going by anyone's standards. But for a runaway leader who was having to summon the wherewithal to leave the pack flailing all over again? It showed bottle. A winner's bottle.

The 10th was a nerve-jangling case in point. The classic "shall I or shan't I?" hole is supposed to entice one to find water off the drive, not the approach, so when Casey's pitch ducked out into the pond on the left the portents fairly clanged. No matter, Casey simply holed a 12-footer to limit the damage to a bogey and from there the cup just got bigger and bigger. "Yeah, I made a lot of footage coming in," he said. "Long may it continue."

Long did it continue, with bombs dropping on five successive holes, the most explosive being a 20-pacer on the 13th. True, a bogey at the last did ruin his march home somewhat, although even that 15-footer for par looked in until its final turn. Should the lad from Cheltenham reprise a putting show remotely similar in its magnificence today then it will be all over and he will almost certainly be in the Ryder Cup for September. That would be welcomed in all quarters, especially the privileged ones.

For although golf is an individual sport, the big boys do not like to see what they view as a kindred spirit down and feared to be out. So when Casey missed seven cuts around this time last year, there were a few heavyweights kind enough to impart some advice. Ironically, the words Casey took most to heart came from Campbell, his playing partner and biggest rival today.

"I'm not saying I changed Paul's career, but it's nice to see him playing well again and maybe I contributed one per cent to it," said the New Zealander, who underwent something of a golfing breakdown himself at the start of last season before his self-awakening in Pinehurst. "My advice to him was simple: 'just hang in there, mate, be patient, and things will come to you'." Casey followed this mantra to the tee yesterday and Campbell may yet rue his generosity.

But saying all that, he is still in with a sniff at 11 under despite a nasty blocked sinus that saw him backing off a few shots to wipe his dripping nose. Sometimes this Maori's distance control with his short irons flummoxes the mind, never mind the yardage charts, and if he is, as he still has the cheek to maintain he is, "only 75 per cent match-fit" then last season's annus mirabilis could just have a sequel.

Campbell's 68 was one of only seven scores under 70 on a day when the damp conditions made the ball travel slower and then pick up mud when it landed. Only those at the very top of the game didn't struggle to some degree and Darren Clarke certainly did get bogged down early on. To play the last seven holes in four under, therefore, to finish three behind with a 70 shows the mark of the Ulsterman. This could yet be a Sunday to rival The Belfry's very best of them.