There are a few things which Paul Casey can't imagine. One is winning in consecutive weeks, the other is winning after a five-month lay-off. The problem for the Englishman is that both scenarios are threatening the achievement of his ultimate ambition at The Masters next week.
Casey is the defending champion at the Houston Open which begins on this Augusta-aped layout today. He says he would love to overcome a quality field including Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington to win here again, though he accepts that he will probably once again scupper his chances of a first major if he does so.
Never mind the fact that since Sandy Lyle in 1988 only Phil Mickelson had donned a green jacket after coming into the event on the crest of victory. Casey has not managed to go back-to-back in any event, major or otherwise. "If you look at my results in the week after I have won tournaments, I've struggled," he said. "There are guys who managed to string wins together like Ernie and Freddie [Couples] now. I've never been able to do that."
Little wonder, therefore, that Casey's coach, Peter Kostis, has sent him into this event with less of a battle cry and more of a "take it easy" plea. "Peter said to me, 'Yes, you're going to go to Houston to defend, but you know that I want you ready for Augusta,'" said Casey. "He felt that I was hitting the ball well last year and that in a bittersweet sort of way the win took away some of the energy I had for The Masters. But that's just the way it was and I wouldn't change anything."
Casey's affection for the Space City is understandable as is the $100,000 (£66,000) he has donated from the $1m first prize to local charities. Ever since he made his infamous "we proper hate them" remarks about the American Ryder Cup team in 2004, he had waited for his maiden PGA Tour title. When it arrived the emotion flooded out. At last he felt accepted in the country which had become his home. The play-off defeat of J B Holmes helped him rise to No 3 in the world and the immediate future was set. Major ecstasy beckoned.
Alas, major agony hit. Bizarrely, a training drill to "get some more extension in the swing" resulted in a torn rib. He tried to ignore the pain, playing in the Open at Turnberry. But his 47th place finish was as good as it was going to get. Effectively, he was to have five months on the sidelines. As he stared out from his Arizona ranch, Casey's career had peaked and troughed like the surrounding mountain range. However, the rescale seemed anything but inevitable.
"I must admit I was worried what the injury could mean," he recalled. "You know, is this something I'm going to have to deal with for a long time, or even forever? Am I ever going to get my golf game back to where it had been earlier that year? There were lots of questions and not many answers. But it was great motivation sitting there on that sofa and watching Westwood and McIlroy going head-to-head in the finale of the Race to Dubai. I desperately wanted to be part of all that again. Yet I wasn't sure I would be."
Fortunately, Casey has recovered the certainty as quickly as it left him. A runner-up finish behind Ian Poulter in the World Match Play in February was confirmation that the 32-year-old's health was returning. As he has climbed back into the world's top five, his season has been marked by consistency. "Five out of seven top 10s isn't bad, particularly as I haven't been able to hit the ball long because of my rib getting tired," he said. "No I haven't won yet this season, but the good thing there is plenty of things to work on."
The primary focus on the range has been his recent inability to draw the ball. Going into Augusta without a draw is like going into the Champions' Locker Room without a green jacket – inadvisable. But Casey is confident his natural right-to-lefter will soon be relocated. "I'll be ready, I'll ensure I am," he said. "Augusta just suits my game and although my debut [sixth in 2004] remains my best, I'm maturing as a golfer every year. I've said this before, but I feel you have to be ready – although that does not guarantee a damn thing – to accept everything that goes with being a major champion in order to become one. I'm more ready now than I've ever been. But then I think that applies to a lot of my fellow country man. Lee, Ian [Poulter], Luke [Donald]... I think we're all ready to make that next step."
With three Englishmen in the top 10 and another five in the Masters field, the likelihood of an end to the Augusta drought which stretches back to Nick Faldo in 1996 has not appeared more encouraging. Of course, there is another storyline to squash down this Red Rose optimism into the azaleas and it is one which Casey is intrigued by. "Can I imagine winning after five months out?" he pondered. "Erm, nope. I mean I get nervous teeing it up in Abu Dhabi in January having had a month out. I always stand there on that first tee, thinking 'Am I going to shank it? Am I going to put it in the crowd? Is this going to be embarrassing.' But it's Tiger we're talking about here. And I have a sneaky feeling he'll be absolutely fine."
Back in contention: Casey's year so far
10th SBS Championship (Hawaii)
27th Abu Dhabi Golf Championship
5th Qatar Masters
11th Dubai Desert Classic
2nd World Matchplay (Arizona)
4th Honda Classic (Palm Beach)
6th CA Championships (Doral)Reuse content