by John Huggan
At least in terms of natural talent, he always seemed the best of the so-called “Golden Generation” of English golfers. More gifted than Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose – and certainly more powerful off the tee – Paul Casey for long enough looked a more than good bet to claim a Major Championship victory. And now, clear of the physical and personal problems that for long enough stalled his progress, the 38-year old seems ready to resume that status, especially at the Masters, the Grand Slam title he appears best equipped to win. He certainly thinks so.
“As a group we have under-achieved in terms of Majors,” admits Casey. “I try not to think too much about that though. Like everyone else on tour I tend to focus more on myself. I’ve had a few lost years because of injury and some off-course stuff. But I’m going to Augusta very excited this year. I’m normally just quite excited. But I’m more up for it this time, for whatever reason.
“Actually, I know the reason. I have a greater anticipation because I know I am very capable of winning the Masters. I have the game for it. I know the course like the back of my hand, as does John (McLaren) my caddie. Plus, I’ve had some good results round there. So I can look anybody in the eye and know I can win that tournament.
“The thing about Augusta is that you know what you are going to get. And a lot of those things fit my game. I have the high ball-flight you need. And I can turn the ball right-to-left with my driver.”
Throw in Casey’s experience at the year’s first Major and he is surely right to feel optimistic. Right from his first visit, the former BMW PGA champion has benefited from some top “teachers”.
“The first time I played in the Masters I had practice rounds with Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd and Bernhard Langer,” he recalls. “And I had Carl Jackson’s (Crenshaw’s long-time Augusta caddie) brother on my bag when I went there about a month before the tournament. So I picked up so much quality information before I even teed up for real.
“It was little things. But they all add up. I’ll always remember Bernhard telling me where the pins would be and so where I needed to be putting from. A lot of scoring well there is putting from the right places. And Carl’s brother told me one thing never to forget: ‘Rae’s Creek is over there, so every putt is breaking there, too.’ All of which from day one gave me the knowledge and attitude you need to do well in a Masters.
“Plus, like everyone else in the UK, I grew up watching Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal donning Green Jackets. They showed us all how to do it and what was needed to win.”
As things turned out, Casey proved himself to be a fast learner. That first year – 2004 – he finished seventh and played with Langer in the penultimate group on what was an outstanding final day.
“Phil Mickelson won that epic battle with Ernie Els down the stretch,” says Casey. “It was an amazing atmosphere. Everyone was going bananas. But that first year convinced me that I have the game to win there. I was bricking myself on the Sunday, which is normal. I knocked it into the fairway bunker on the first, then hit an unbelievable wedge to about seven feet from the pin. Then Bernhard chipped in from short of the green for a three. An unbelievable shot. And I missed. That sort of set the tone for the day. But it was still great to be in there and watch it all unfold.”
Since that maiden visit, Casey has picked up much more about the famous old course. He knows exactly where and when to attack and, perhaps even more importantly, when to play safely for the middle of the infamously difficult putting surfaces.
“The first is always a key hole at Augusta,” he says. “You want to get off to a half-decent start, which is always a par on that hole. I’d take a four there every day. It is such a difficult drive, one you have to get in play.
“The par-3 4th is so tough too, especially from the back tee. The forward tee is fine. But from the back it is very difficult and not my favourite to be honest. I bet I’m not alone in that either.
“Once through the 4th, it is almost like tough holes pop up only now and then. The 10th is a brute. So is the 11th. The 17th can be tricky. The short 12th is a potential disaster hole as we all know. If you can make a par on all of those, chances are you will have the opportunity to break 70. There are birdies out there on the 2nd, the 7th if you hit a good drive, the 8th, even the 9th if you drive into the right spot. On the back-nine, 13, 14 and 15 can all be birdies. So there are plenty of opportunities if you don’t mess up the tough holes. Every year we see a lot of five-birdie 70s and four-birdie 72s. It’s that sort of course.”
Apart from all of the above, Augusta National is also a place where odd things can happen, as Casey discovered in 2008.
“I was in contention that year, when Trevor Immelman ended up winning,” he continues. “But I hada ball move on me on the 6th green. No one else saw it move, but I did. So I called the penalty on myself. That’s what you do. But, if this makes sense, I was almost hoping people had seen it because then I’d get some sympathy. But I didn’t even get that.
“So my par at six became a bogey. Then I dropped a shot at the next, my head in a spin. Then I three-putted the 8th for a par. And it was all downhill from there. I wasn’t strong enough mentally at that stage of my career. I was bothered too much by the injustice of the ball moving. I hadn’t done anything wrong but I got screwed. I would have been able to handle it better if I had screwed up a shot. But I didn’t. And it bothered me more than it should have. Still, I look back on that now and know I will handle something similar very differently now.”
Okay, enough looking back, what exactly makes Casey think he will be driving up Magnolia Lane armed with his best-ever chance of victory?
“I feel ready to win generally,” he asserts. “I’ve been a bit frustrated for a little while now.
“For example, halfway through the recent Honda Classic, which Rickie Fowler was leading, I had made as many birdies as he had but I was 11-shots worse. I was turning five-under par rounds into one-unders. Which is hopefully just a stage I needed to go through before I start shooting those five-unders.
“I’m not going to play the week before every Major this year. I’m going to go in early and prepare properly and be fresh when I tee off in the first round. A few years ago I won the Houston Open the week before the Masters and was exhausted before I got to Augusta. So I’m not going there in case I win again (laughs).
“I don’t do much practice with Augusta in mind. But I will work on some off-camber and hanging lies. There are a few of those in the Masters. And I will spend time at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale. The lies there are so tight – just like Augusta – so I’ll work on my chipping there. The quality of strike is so important in the Masters. And those tight lies can be intimidating if you are unsure of your technique.
“The one big thing I will be working on before the Masters is my putting.
“On the greens there you have to get the pace of the putts just right. The lines are not so important, from distance at least. So I will do a lot of ‘speed work’. You can get away with the line a little bit.”
Still, for all his obvious confidence in his current abilities, Casey isn’t putting too much pressure on himself to perform at this Masters. Like all good businesses, he has a five-year plan in operation.
“Being conservative, I still have at least five years where I know I can give 100 per cent to my golf,” he says. “My body is in good shape now. I’m happy off the course. There is no excuse for me really. Five years is 20 Majors. So I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get at least one out of that.”
Let the countdown begin.