It was 10 years ago this month that Paul Casey first travelled to Royal St George's for the Open Championship, the difference being that he was then a 16-year-old scoreboard operator, stayed with two mates in a tent in the middle of a field, and spent most of the week in an alcoholic daze.
This time he goes as a competitor, fourth on the European Order of Merit before this week's Scottish Open, with three tour victories to his name since turning pro in November 2000. He is one of a clutch of young men certain to be become mainstays of the European Ryder Cup team for years to come. And if he does not end his career with at least one major under his belt, some of the game's most seasoned observers will be very surprised.
But can he end the month with one major under his belt? Probably not, although you can name on the fingers of one golf glove the players who can hit the ball further than Casey, and if the wind blows, prodigious length off the tee will be an enormous asset at Sandwich next week. Furthermore, he has shown that he can rise to an occasion. He finished birdie-par-birdie to win his first tour event, the Scottish PGA, by one shot from Alex Cejka. And two months ago, in the Benson & Hedges International at The Belfry, he started the final round level-pegging with two formidable competitors in Angel Cabrera, the defending champion, and Padraig Harrington, and won by four.
We are sitting on the terrace outside the players' lounge at the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond. On the adjacent range, Ernie Els is languidly knocking the cover off the ball, while Jose Maria Olazabal, one of the finest mid-iron players in the history of the game, works on his mid-irons.
But Casey has no need to be intimidated by such a spectacle, and nor is he. He is a confident young man - brash, some have said - and admits to being nervous only once, when he found that he had been paired with Severiano Ballesteros in the Tenerife Open. "But on the Tuesday before Seve came over and said he was looking forward to playing with me, that he wanted to see what my game was like. I'm not saying the draw was fixed, but I think maybe he'd requested me. And funnily enough, what he said put me at ease."
There will be no Ballesteros at Sandwich, another reminder that the old order has been supplanted by the new. Casey feels that he, Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell and Sergio Garcia, plus one or two others, are on the verge of forming a European élite as dominant as the Big Five of Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer.
Casey's Benson & Hedges win propelled him into the world top 40, enabling him to play in the US Open, and he is higher-placed than the better-known Rose. It is said, incidentally, that he and Rose are reminiscent of the young Lyle and Faldo in the sense that the success of one spurs on the other. Which is true, except that Lyle and Faldo never had much time for each other. "I don't see Justin much socially, but we are friends," Casey says. "He texted me to say good playing when I won the B&H. And we both think we can crack the [world] top 10."
In the Open Championship, Rose has much the better record. Casey has played in it only once, last year at Muirfield, and missed the cut. Indeed, his record in the majors is unremarkable: three played, three cuts missed. "The Open last year was my first major, and that's a two-stroke penalty right there. I qualified here at Loch Lomond by finishing high, and suddenly I was in the Open, so I dashed over there all excited, and played poorly. This time I'm trying to approach it as if it was any other week on the European tour, which it's not, but... I won't do any more practice rounds than usual. At the Open some guys stand on the practice ground two hours more than they normally do. I'll try not to do that."
He had not played Muirfield before the Open; Royal St George's he is more familiar with. "I remember it as being a great links course, very much set up for the prevailing wind, so if the wind blows in the wrong direction it's impossible, a very difficult golf course. But I won an English Amateur round Royal Lytham, in very bouncy conditions, so I know I can play links courses. I like the choices, getting round with imagination. I like the pot bunkers, I like the hay."
He smiles broadly. If handicaps were dished out for broad smiles, he would be plus-two. I ask whether he is setting himself a particular target at the Open. "Well, I wouldn't say it's to make the cut. That would be too low. I suppose I would like to get a taste of competing, of being up there, seeing my name on the leaderboard. If I walk away with one major, the Open is definitely the one I'd want, although some of the guys say Augusta is perfect for me."
The US Masters is the one major he has yet to play, although he will surely break his duck next April. And it's true that he has the length to reduce those Augusta par-fives to par-fours, Tiger-style. After all, he is registered as the man behind the longest drive on the European tour last season, a blow of 429 yards.
He is not a big man, more Olazabal than Els, but he has always hit the ball further than his contemporaries. Jack Grout, mentor to Jack Nicklaus, instructed the teenage Nicklaus to find length before accuracy, and Casey developed in the same way. "The guys who try to get the perfect swing, a smooth, rhythmical swing, then struggle to hit the ball a long way. It's easier to straighten it up rather than gain length. Even as a kid I was obsessed with hitting it longer than anyone else."
He grew up in the stockbroker-belt of the Home Counties. His father was a reinsurance broker, the family comfortable but not loaded. "My parents saved every penny to put me and my brother through private school, and I won a scholarship to Foxhills Country Club, which paid for my golf. But I still had to make do with some pretty crap stuff. I had a Bernhard Langer golf bag, which I thought was the greatest thing on the planet, but it was really cheesy, really nasty." He omitted to tell Langer that when they played together in Munich in 2001. But he did risk Langer's disapproval by asking him why he was carrying a golf glove in both his back pockets.
Casey laughs at the recollection. "It was the day after the England football team had beaten Germany 5-1. And I can't let things lie, so I said, 'Bernhard, you know you've got two gloves'. I was trying to catch him out, because he's the ultimate professional. If there's anyone I think is awesome it's Langer. There's nobody like him for grinding out a number, sometimes better than he deserves. But I thought maybe he'd slipped up. Maybe he was getting senile. Anyway, he spins around, obviously he thinks I'm a cocky little sod, and he says, 'Good question'. For the next five minutes he explains how one glove is thin, for feel on short shots, and the other thick, for drives, for rips."
Casey laughs again. For him, unlike Langer, golf is more about instinct than science. But that is not to say that he doesn't value advice, plenty of which came his way during his golf scholarship years at Arizona State University.
"In the States, every university has its golf superstars, guys who've gone on to do well on the tour. College golf, tour - that's the progression. If you look at a list of guys playing on the PGA tour, you see they've all played college golf. Jim Furyk, University of Arizona. Mike Weir, BYU [Brigham Young University]. Tiger, Stanford."
The most distinguished golfing alumnus of Arizona State was Phil Mickelson, whose stroke average, then the all-time low, Casey eclipsed. "He was 69.93 or something, and I was 69.87. So that's nice," Casey says. "Over there, guys are very proud of how their old college team is doing. If they're in town they'll come and talk to you, and it gave me access to tour pros I'd never had before, guys I'd heard of, like Howard Twitty. Hysterical characters. And Mickelson came to talk to us, though he would just fill us with rubbish. We'd ask how he spins the ball so much, and he'd say, 'Friction, it's all about friction'. And all these college kids were there, absorbing every word." A merry laugh. "But he was just winding us up."
The man whose advice Casey covets most is Nicklaus. "I would love to play with him. I played with [Jack's son] Gary Nicklaus once and the standard-bearer had Casey and Nicklaus on his sign. I was under par and Gary was a couple of shots worse, and I really wanted to get a photograph of it. I'd love to pick his brains. I'd ask him why he took his sweater off on the 18th at St Andrews [in the 1970 Open] when it hadn't exactly impeded him on the previous 17. And whether he prepared differently for the majors. He knew how to win, that was the key."
So too does Casey, albeit not yet to anything like the same degree. And he knows there is still plenty of room for improvement. "Technically, I think I could swing it better, which would cut down on the bad shots. I still hit more than the occasional crap shot. And I could get fitter and more supple. This game changes you physically. After I turned pro I increased a glove size in a year, from medium-large to large. My hand grew, through hitting golf balls every day."
Unlike Rose, Casey cannot be accused of turning pro too hastily. Despite an excellent amateur record, which included two English Amateur Championships and the distinction of becoming only the third player to go through a Walker Cup unbeaten (at Nairn in 1999), he delayed until he thought he was ready to compete with the best. When he did turn pro, his first European Tour event was the B&H, which compounded the satisfaction of winning it this year.
Casey will win again, and again, of that there is little doubt. His coach at Arizona State, Randy Lein, said he was as good a player as he had coached in over 20 years; a list that includes Mickelson.
His gregarious nature equips him perfectly for the rather odd existence that is life on the European Tour. As he says: "I walk down the range and pretty much say hello to everyone, but I couldn't tell you where most of them live, whether they have families, what cars they drive..."
Speaking of cars, when Casey won the ANZ Championship in Australia earlier this year, he said that if he won again this season he would buy a Lotus Elise. He has won again, but has not yet treated himself. "I'm pretty conservative, really," he says. "I have a flat in Weybridge, a house in Scottsdale, Arizona, which is my winter base, and the rest gets invested. Ready meals from Marks & Spencer, that's about as extravagant as I get."
Yeah, right. If he finishes in the top few at Royal St George's, I bet he'll splash out on more than a parsnip and Gruyère bake.
Paul Casey the life and times
Born: 21 July 1977, Cheltenham.
Highest world ranking: 29 (8 June and 6 July).
Majors record: 2002 The Open finished 129th. 2002 US PGA championship finished 145th, 2003 US Open missed cut.
Tournament victories: Scottish PGA Championship 2001, ANZ Championship 2003, Benson and Hedges International 2003.
Other golfing achievements: Broke the scoring record held by Tiger Woods (18 under par) at the 2000 Pac-10 championship with his 23 under. At Arizona University he broke the scoring average record held by Phil Mickelson. Was in the 1999 GB & Ireland Walker Cup team and became the third player in 77 years to record four victories without defeat. Twice English Amateur champion (1999 and 2000). Recorded longest drive on European tour last year - 429 yards.
Awards: Named as the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year on the European Tour in 2001.
He says: "You could call it making a noose for myself, but I'm not about to say something that I don't feel or believe. I do come across in a certain way, but I don't think I'm really arrogant. There is a little bit of 'I want to do this', but I don't mind that coming across because that's the way I am. I'll probably do that again in the future and I'll probably slip up here and there by predicting things, but I've never felt you should be afraid of saying something if that's what you believe."
They say: "There's an Iberian tinge to his appearance. He's not a chap, he's a bloke, maybe even a geezer." Irish ExaminerReuse content