Relaxation the right approach in search for a major future

Britain should not have to wait too long for a champion. Andy Farrell at Loch Lomond meets a pretender who could be a contender
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The Sunday-night flight back to London from a Continental venue on the European Tour is a bit like being on a works shuttle bus. Virtually everyone on board is either a player, caddie, official, working for television or a member of the press. It was refreshing, then, when on one such flight last year, a young couple, unseen, sat down in the row behind and nattered away as young couples do, which is to say the subject of golf never came up. It was even more refreshing to discover later that this was Paul Casey and his girlfriend, Jocelyn.

Casey has no problem getting away from golf. This afternoon he would not mind being at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix, but the Sunday before the Open Championship is awkward timing for a professional golfer. "I do need to get to a grand prix some time," Casey says. "I do like my motor racing." Hickstead is another venue he and Jocelyn plan to go to. "Jocelyn has her showjumping stuff and it's fun to go and watch her, get the video camera. It's great to be on the other side for a change.

"I know nothing about horses, other than what they eat and that they cost money. But it's great that I can get away from the game. I can put the clubs down, and you need to do it. Guys get caught up. You need that freshness and you have to want to go out and practise, otherwise it is not effective."

It is debatable whether Casey wants to be practising on the afternoon we arrange to meet. That morning he had scored a 74, three over par, in the first round of the Scottish Open, so what else could he do but go to the range, for punishment if nothing else. It is even more debatable whether he wants to be grilled at this moment, but he ends up chatting away in his usual perceptive and forthright manner.

About the only thing he cannot talk about is his break from his former management company. "It only came out because there were a couple of tournaments, around the time of the PGA at Wentworth, where it was obvious I was looking unhappy and pissed off on the course. It is not a distraction any more. Today I was unhappy and pissed off on the course only because I played so poorly."

This week it is golf's turn in the summer spotlight, but England's No 1 golfer is hardly in the situation of England's No 1 tennis player at Wimbledon, Tim Henman. "I don't think I would like that," Casey said. "It's fine in golf, there is a bunch of good British players who could do very well this year. Obviously, I'd like to be one of them. I know that if I play good golf I can be up there on the weekend."

Tennis players and golfers develop at different rates, but it is intriguing that Casey, who will be 27 at the end of the month, is still a coming force while Henman is 29 and apparently fighting the clock. That there is a resurgence in English golf has been well flagged of late, but Casey dislikes lazy clichés like "young guns". Nor is he about to get carried away about currently being the highest-placed of them on the world rankings. "I've been top English player for over a year now. It means I get to pick my team-mate at the World Cup, but otherwise it is not something I worry about. My concern is to get better. It's great being the No 1 English player but the problem is the No 1 English player is only 29th in the world. That's not actually very good, to be fair. When Faldo was England's No 1 he was also the No 1 in the world. I've got a long way to go. I'm not satisfied with just being in the top 30. I think I can be in the top 10. How soon depends on how much work I put in. It's going to happen, but when it happens, it could be the end of this year, next year, the year after, I don't know.

"We went through a spell where we only had two or three guys in the top 100 [in fact it was only one for a while] - it's nice now, it's good, strong. There are a few guys, Justin [Rose], [Ian] Poulter, Howeller [David Howell], Luke [Donald] in the States. I think if we look back in two or three years and we don't have five guys in the top 50 and perhaps two or three in the top 20 or so, then you could be disappointed. We are still getting there, but the press and everybody else are still looking for who the next guy is going to be. I think a couple of us could do it."

As if to emphasise that Casey is still in the learning phase, this will be only his third appearance in The Open. Rose, a star at the age of 17 at Birkdale, will not be at Troon, as if to prove his place among the very highest echelon is not yet guaranteed. "Justin is what, 23? If he gets to 30 and he hasn't done it then you can slag him off. He's still dealing with stuff, he's changing, he's learning and still developing. He's a guy I'll be looking to beat over the next 10, 15 years."

Casey and Donald were team-mates in the Walker Cup at Nairn in 1999, and both played successfully on the American college circuit. Both have American girlfriends and homes in the States. Casey spends his winters in Arizona but plays on the European Tour and has won three times. Donald is based in Chicago and so far has only competed in America, where grinding your way into contention is harder to achieve consistently.

"It's interesting how we have chosen different routes. I started playing well in Europe and stayed here. People still don't really know who Luke Donald is. He is a very, very good player and works incredibly hard. I think he is going to be hanging around the top 50 players in the world for the next 15 years.

"He's a lovely guy, as well. We get along great. We never call each other but we have one of those friendships where you just pick up where you left off, usually about six months later. If the opportunity came around to renew the partnership we had in the Walker Cup I would definitely jump at the chance. That may be this year, it might be in a couple of years' time." It is a pretty safe bet that they will play in the Ryder Cup together at some stage.

One of the attractions of Scottsdale, Arizona, where Casey was at college, is that is where his coach, Peter Kostis, is based. "It's more than he's my coach and just tells me how to hit a golf ball. I go to him for advice on all sorts of stuff." When he is back in Europe, Casey tries to work things out for himself, although when they meet up, as they will at Troon, Kostis "tells me what is really wrong".

His game from 125 yards and in, he admits, needs work, while sometimes he struggles to accept things out of his control, like the weather or the condition of the course. A poor shot is likely to be followed by at least the initial suggestion that the club could be deposited some way away. "I cut down actually slinging it to only once every few holes," he says with a smile. A sensible caddie like Ken Comboy has drummed out of him the need to worry about trivialities like where the putter goes in the bag. "Now I just throw it at the bag," he jokes again.

In seven majors so far, Casey has missed the cut five times, including in the last two Opens. "I've put too much pressure on myself, but not any more." Last year at Sandwich a 71 followed an opening 85. "Second round I was relaxed, in the first round I got in my own way too much." On his debut at Augusta in April, however, Casey finished sixth, a reassuring result in that he never played the best golf he could and was still on the leaderboard.

Off the course, there was ping pong with some mates and cheesy songs on the car stereo. But Augusta itself had a special effect. "It put me in a relaxed frame of mind immediately. It was one of those weeks where you are so in awe of the place, the way it's presented and the nuances of Augusta. You spend so much time thinking, 'This is cool', that it takes your mind off the fact you have a big tournament to play.

"Augusta is strange because you can see a way of scoring around that place. You turn up to other majors and the main issue is the golf course, whereas the main issue at Augusta is how green the grass is. We do need to create that relaxed approach more often, but I know I can play under the pressure."

It is now exactly five years since a European won a major, Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie, something of which Casey is fully aware. "I think it is very strange. Thomas [Bjorn] should have had one last year. I certainly think guys like [Padraig] Harrington, [Darren] Clarke, Colin [Montgomerie], though he is having a rough time right now, are capable of being up there. I think I have to get a lot better before I start winning majors, though I'd like to think we could have a European winner, especially a British winner, rather soon."

Biography

Paul Casey

Born: 21 July 1977, Cheltenham.

Lives: Weybridge, Surrey and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Pro career: 2000: Turned pro. 2001: Won Gleneagles Scottish PGA Championship, 22nd in Order of Merit; Sir Henry Cotton Rookie Of The Year. 2002: 46th in Order of Merit. 2003: Won ANZ Championship and B & H International; 6th in Order of Merit. 2004: currently 11th in Order of Merit. Played in World Cup in 2001, '02, '03 and the Seve Trophy in 2002, '03.

Amateur career: 1999, 2000: English Amateur Champion. 1999: Walker Cup (one of only three players in 77 years to record four wins without a defeat). Three time-NCAA All-American.

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