While the majority of the field may tiptoe on to the grounds of Bethpage Black these next few days as they remember how brutally their professionalism was defiled the last time the US Open was staged there, Paul Casey will stride through those gates supremely confident in his virgin status. "I don't have the scars from 2002," says the Englishman.
Neither does Casey have the tremble in the hands, the shake in the voice or the quiver in the bottom lip whenever the name of the New York State public course is evoked. Yet he has seen and heard all three in motion. Only last Monday he was at a charity event in Philadelphia, standing in a huddle with a reporter from the Associated Press, as Jim Furyk and Kenny Perry poured forth their insecurities.
"Gee I hope it's not winter there again," sighed Furyk, recalling how only Tiger Woods broke par. "It was in the 50s, raining sideways and blowing. Of all the US Opens I've played in, that probably caused me the most problems." Perry nodded his visor. "There wasn't a birdie hole out there," he said.
All of which was music to the young pro's pricked ears. "I've heard all the stories about how tough it was," he said. "But I didn't experience it and no, I don't have the scars of 2002. So many people have told me about it recently. Even the fans. They've been coming up for autographs and advising me about some of the holes. Let's just say I'll be excited to see it."
A day later, Casey made the short trip north and with his coach/mentor, Peter Kostis, embarked on an exhaustive reconnaissance mission of the monster of Long Island. "Paul told me he was very pleased by what he encountered at Bethpage," reports his manager, Guy Kinnings. "He wanted to sample it for himself and one thing Paul will never do is go into a major unprepared. Paul has matured into being very comfortable in his own skin and will have made up his own mind about the place. No, he won't have been distracted by all the scare stories."
So one big hairy distraction down, it seems, and just a few more grizzlies to conquer. Take his new status as the world No 3, and a British world No 3 at that. Not since Colin Montgomerie came within a shot of Ernie Els at Congressional in 1997 has a Briton entered the US Open with such a high ranking. And even the young Monty was not on the roll that the young Casey is enjoying.
Having won his first PGA Tour event in Houston, his biggest European Tour event at Wentworth and collected more money (£2.5 million) and more ranking points than anyone else, Casey, by his own admission, has been the hottest player on Planet Golf in 2009. Only a fool, or perhaps an Irishman with unconditional faith in the major powers of Padraig Harrington [the Dubliner missed yet another cut in Memphis yesterday], would deny that Casey is Europe's best hope of filling the 39-year-old US Open void which stretches back to Tony Jacklin's win at Hazeltine in 1970. Which, of course, brings its own itinerant pressures.
"Obviously Paul goes into this event with everyone saying he has a big chance and yes, a certain amount of pressure will be perceived to be on him," says Kinnings, who also oversees Montgomerie. "But I'm telling you all that will not affect him one bit. Of all the golfers I've worked with, I'd say Paul is the best at not letting anything distract him and in turning down things that he realises could distract him. You know, that's not an easy thing to do, particularly when people are offering inducements and so forth. But Paul says no, this is what I need to do and nothing he can't control is going to deflect from his purpose."
Of course, it was not always like that for Casey. There was a time when his purpose bounced off the peripheral issues like a pinball. In 2004 the tabloid-generated "I hate America" controversy led to him embarking on a slump and retreating into a siege mentality that plainly did not suit this essentially coy persona. In the 2005 US Open at Pinehurst he risked the wrath of the organisers when withdrawing from the second round after an opening 85. That was as low as it got. As he said at the time: "Everything seems broke."
Fast forward four years and everything has clearly been fixed. The immense talent has been unlocked. Kinnings hesitates in taking any of the credit himself – although Casey's switch to the IMG agency did neatly coincide with his resurgence – and instead points to Kostis as the primary factor. "Of course most of it has been down to Paul, but Pete's done an outstanding job with him," says Kinnings. "He's more than just a coach as it's not just Paul's game he is focused on, but everything – his mindset, his schedule, his targets. There is a real clarity about everything Paul does now."
Not least in his personal life. "Nobody should underestimate what the marriage to Jocelyn, his long-term partner, last year has meant to Paul – it gives him certainty," says Kinnings. And then there were the objectives Kostis set out for him on the now famous "list of goals". In December, the pair sat down and wrote down 16 aims for 2009 and so far the manifesto has been as prophetic as it was ambitious. Yet, glaringly, one submission still requires a tick next to it.
To win his first major this week Casey needs not only to deny an apparently back-to-his-best Woods, but also the emotional energy which will be created by the presence of Phil Mickelson (competing as his wife Amy prepares for imminent breast cancer surgery). To this end the USGA's decision last week not to pair the top three in the world together for the first two rounds must have been much welcomed by Team Casey.
"If I was to be honest I was pleased when I found out," confesses Kinnings. "But I doubt whether Paul would have really cared. Of course, the crowds would have been massive and there would have been a lot of moving around, but my guess is Paul wouldn't have been bothered at all. He knows he has to beat them both to win anyway and would have welcomed the challenge. That's where Paul is right now." Long may he stay there.
Thirty years of hurt
How Britain's other world top-five players have fared in the US Open.
Sir Nick Faldo: Destined never to fare better than on his second appearance – in 1988 – when he lost an 18-hole play-off to Curtis Strange at Brookline. He only recorded four more top 10s in 16 US Opens, though he did shoot the week's lowest score (66) when tied for fifth as a 44-year-old in the last championship at Bethpage.
Sandy Lyle: While the Scot won the Masters and the Open, his record in the US Open was the stuff of nightmares: one top-20 in 10 starts, a tie for 16th at Hazeltine, Minnesota, in 1991. Lyle was probably too erratic a driver for golf's toughest test.
Ian Woosnam: He announced himself to the American public when, on his US Open debut, he finished in a tie for second, one shot behind Curtis Strange, in 1989 at Oak Hill. That was as good as it got for the little Welshman, who managed only one more top 10 in his next nine appearances. He did win the Masters, however, in 1991.
Colin Montgomerie: Jack Nicklaus was so certain that the Scottish debutant had won when he signed for a 69 on a windswept final day at Pebble Beach in 1992 that he shook his hand and called him champ. Alas, Tom Kite broke Monty's heart, and runner-up slots in '94, '97 and '06 broke it again. The Mr Nearly of the US Open.
Lee Westwood: Seemingly made for the US Open with his pinpoint driving, last year he came closer than any Briton this century to landing the elusive major. Played with Tiger Woods in the final round and matched him all the way until the 18th when a par saw him miss out on the play-off by one. It was Westwood's second top-five finish.