Paul Casey: Of the majors, the Open is the greatest challenge for me
Brian Viner Interviews: A practice round at Royal Birkdale offers the perfect backdrop for the Ryder Cup stalwart to demonstrate he has the commitment and the quality to triumph this week
Wednesday 16 July 2008
When Vijay Singh accused British golfers of playing within their comfort zone, of being good enough to win majors but having the winning mentality sapped from them by a cushy lifestyle, Paul Casey was doubtless one of those on his mind.
Casey had an outstanding amateur record and during his golf scholarship at Arizona State University he eclipsed the low-scoring record of a previous alumnus, one Philip Alfred Mickelson. Since turning pro in 2000 he has won eight times on the European Tour, played on two winning Ryder Cup teams, and bagged three top 15 finishes at the US Masters. But he has never cradled a major championship trophy and when I step up with him to the 17th tee at Royal Birkdale to find the Claret Jug presented to the Open Champion standing there resplendently, having been borrowed for a feature by the American sports channel ESPN, he, unlike me, does not wish to be pictured alongside it. He barely even looks at it. No matter what Vijay said, the Claret Jug will interest him only when it bears his name.
It is a sunny Friday morning a fortnight before the Open and Casey has driven up from his home in Surrey to take his first look at Birkdale. He has agreed to let me walk the course with him and I risk upsetting his stroke by asking whether Vijay's remarks offended him.
"Well, Vijay's one of the few players who's been No 1 in the world while Tiger's been around, so he's got credibility," Casey says. "But I don't think you should confuse what you see with the amount of effort that a guy's putting in. I get my work done before events, and I'd like to see Vijay in the gym doing what I do.
"Everyone knows what makes themselves tick. Take Monty [Colin Montgomerie]. There's a guy with eight Order of Merits, Europe's best player for however long, but you don't really see him on the range. Justin Rose, on the other hand, works incredibly hard. I always see him on the range at Wisley [the club in Surrey to which both men belong]. Also, Vijay did most of his winning after the age of 35. I'm 30 now. The way I look at it, I've got 10 years now to do something special."
What price him starting with something special at Birkdale? Well, 66-1 as it happens. Despite a third place at the BMW International Open in Munich, Casey's form has been poor this season. At the end of 2007 he was ranked 21st in the world; he has since slumped to 48th. Moreover, of all the majors, the Open, in which he has never finished higher than 20th, is least suited to his high-hitting game. Yet it is the one he covets most. "I honestly think the Masters offers the best opportunity, whereas this is the greatest challenge for me, but this is the one I really want," he says.
If his ball-striking on the day I amble round with him is anything to go by, and it probably is not, then at 66-1 he might be worth a flutter. On the first hole he nails a three-wood, hits a seven-iron to 10 feet and casually rolls in the putt for a birdie. "Top of the leader board," I say. He indulges me with a chuckle.
"The great thing about the Open is that it's got all this infrastructure," he says, indicating the stands. "It means there's so much more to hit at. It's different coming out here as a paying customer. On the other hand, you've still got to choose what kind of shot to hit. At Augusta [where this year Casey tied for 11th] there's often only one way to play shots because of the confined space. Here, you can hit it low, high, a draw, a cut. In the past I've struggled to select that shot and stick with it." His favourite Open venue is Turnberry, he adds. "But I've not played this one before. This could be right up there by the end of today."
His decision to skip both the European Open and the Scottish Open to hone his game for the Open has been questioned by those who think that he should be desperately trying to accumulate Ryder Cup points. He has a swift riposte for them. "I'd rather be in that team as Open champion. It's not that I'm not aware of my position, and it's phenomenal being on the team but, to be brutally honest, the most important thing to me is getting majors on my CV."
He saw some validity in Jack Nicklaus's recent assertion that the Ryder Cup is a mere frippery compared with major championship golf. "Every golf fan knows how many majors Nicklaus won: 18. But what's Jack's Ryder Cup record? Nobody knows. [Nick] Faldo has the greatest points haul of any European golfer in the Ryder Cup, and Monty's just behind him, but I don't know what that number is. All I know is that Faldo won six majors."
We have reached the tee of the par-three fourth. After Casey knocks a six-iron pin-high, I point out the handsome nearby homes of Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen. "I can never get my head round the prices of the houses we rent during the Open," he says. "[His agents] IMG find me a place, but ultimately I'm the one who pays for it, and if you want a house sleeping seven or eight with a nice garden, there's nothing for less than 10 grand."
The temporary Casey residence will house his American fiancée and his American fitness trainer, among others, but not his coach, Peter Kostis. "Peter will be here beforehand, but by the time the Open starts he'll have gone home. His work should be done by then." So he will not have his coach behind him on the range at Birkdale, issuing swing mantras, like many players will? "No. Peter has thoughts about that which I won't repeat. His feeling is that you get the work done then turn up with the goods."
Another rather higher-profile absentee this week is Tiger Woods, three-times Open champion. I ask Casey how much that improves his prospects. "I don't know yet. Majors are difficult to win whether Tiger's there or not, and it's not like there will be an asterisk by the winner's name in the history books. But I want to win a major when Tiger's there. I wish he was playing, because he provides a buzz and I consider him a friend."
Casey's relationship with the American players did not suffer, he says, when in 2005 he was quoted (mistakenly, he insists) as saying that "we properly hate them" at Ryder Cup time. Nevertheless, the ensuing furore gave him a rather bitter taste of the limelight and he duly sympathised when his compatriot Ian Poulter attracted widespread disdain earlier this year for suggesting that, in terms of raw talent it was just Tiger and him, with the rest some distance behind.
"Poults has a big heart and a lot of passion. He desperately wants to win and that's where that stuff came from. I knew what he was trying to say." A pause, and a huge grin. "But at the same time you've got to chuckle. The word going round now is that, with Tiger out for the rest of the year, does that make Ian No 1?"
On the long par-four sixth, Casey smacks a monstrous drive. A few seasons ago he registered the longest drive hit on the European Tour, of fully 429 yards and, although big hitting on its own does not win majors, it is always good for a bit of alpha male posturing. "I played with Vijay on the last two days of the US Open this year," he says, as we start the long trek from the tee to the ball. "We never once talked about his comments, but I did think he was trying to hit it particularly hard and I can tell you this much; I was knocking it a long way past him."
To keep his strength up, Casey tucks into energy bars, almonds and fruit on his way round a golf course; he shows me the plentiful supply in his golf bag which today, in the absence of his caddie Craig, he is lugging round himself. He has heard the malicious and groundless rumour that Tiger's withdrawal from the rest of this year's schedule is not because of his knee, but because drug-testing has finally been introduced to the Royal and Ancient, but not necessarily untainted, game.
"Utter rubbish," he says. "I know that Tiger has had himself tested twice because he changed his amino-acid supplement. A lot of the guys are quite worried [that, although innocent, they might get found positive]. I use stuff from a company called PAS, which is all tested and clean, and run by the sprinter Darren Campbell."
We have now arrived on the 12th, a marvellous par three, where Casey knocks a six-iron just over the back of the green, and sees it run back down a bank towards the pin. "The sort of thing that only happens in practice," he says, ruefully. "Actually, you ignore the pin on a hole like this. It sounds defensive but if you go for the middle of the green, from there you've got a birdie putt to every hole placement. It's a lovely hole, this. It doesn't put the fear of God into you like the Postage Stamp [the eighth] at Troon. That's only a wedge, but it makes you tense up. With a six iron you can swing a little freer."
At the last of Birkdale's par threes, the 14th, we can see Lee Westwood and his father striding up the 10th fairway. Casey gives them a cheery wave and, although he will necessarily be much more focused tomorrow, with no cheery waves to "Westy", he explains that he needs an enjoyment factor. "It might be a joke with my caddie, or it might be the more stressful enjoyment of trying to hit a difficult four-iron over a bunker and stopping it," he says. "But it's important to enjoy it."
How many players enjoy Birkdale's tough finishing stretch remains to be seen. "For 14 holes it's fairly benign, then it gets pretty tough," Casey muses. The new 16th tee, for example, seems a country mile from the fairway, though Casey splits it with a driver.
He then uses his Pinseeker, fiendishly clever binoculars with cross hairs and yardages, to determine that he has another 131 yards to the pin. A nine-iron stiff, and a short putt, gets him home in three. "Here, you have to be aggressive with your tee shot and fairly conservative into the green," he concludes.
On the par-five 17th a drive and a two-iron yields an eagle putt. But the new green, which looks as if three elephants are buried under it, has been widely criticised. Casey concurs with the criticism. "Is it a bad green? No. Does it blend in with all the others, which are pretty flat? No."
It is his only negative comment on the course, which by the time he walks off the 18th, has supplanted Turnberry as his favourite Open venue. "It's incredibly fair," he says. "There's nothing tricked up about it, the greens are fantastic, I like it a lot." A pair of 77s could yet change that view, but what if, right now, I were to offer him his best-ever finish in the Open? Fifth, say. Would he take it? He looks at me almost scornfully. "No," he says. "It's not really about that, is it?" Vijay would approve.
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