Who wants to smile their way to second place? Paul Casey, as it transpires. “Why has it taken me 20 years to figure that out?” asks the Englishman, when he recalls his visibly upbeat demeanour during the closing round of last month’s US PGA Championship. Casey shot four under par on that Sunday at Harding Park but could not keep pace with Collin Morikawa, who marched towards major glory. The American graduated from college in 2019.
“I’m very rarely envious of other players,” Casey says. “You can’t go down that road, but when I see guys who have figured out how to play their best golf, someone who is nonchalant and carefree at 21, 22, 23 … When I came on Tour I was trying so damn hard. Now I cruise around.
“How much I want it hasn’t changed but I was totally chilled out at Harding Park.
Collin played great but I didn’t do anything wrong. I was at ease there, I wasn’t putting pressure on myself. I was accepting of the result. If I keep doing that, hopefully we are having a different conversation in 12 months.”
The possibility is enhanced by six majors taking place within that window and Casey delivering some of the finest, most consistent play of his fascinating career. He will take confidence from San Francisco into this week’s US Open at Winged Foot. Much is made of Brooks Koepka’s approach – not all of it positive – but Casey is effusive about the man he had for company in the fourth round of the US PGA, although the two‑times US Open champion will be missing this week with injury.
“Playing with him was absolutely great because he doesn’t care,” Casey says. “He just wanders round and his attitude does not change. He had a bad day but he could have been shooting 65 or 85, it didn’t matter. He praises your shots, he gets out of your way when he needs to. That was really helpful. I want to be like Brooks, trying not to care. He is a gentleman on the course.”
Casey’s own story is often overlooked. Having been world No 3 in 2009, he slipped outside the top 130 thanks to a chronic loss of form. Injury and a divorce took their toll. If the cliche was a slide into oblivion, the 43-year-old instead rebounded; to multiple victories on both sides of the Atlantic and the Ryder Cup from 2013 onwards. “People who have never really struggled with their game don’t understand,” he says. “Lee Westwood and I could have a great conversation, he is another who clawed it all back to a brilliant position.
“I saw something about Dustin Johnson and ‘struggles’ the other day. Struggles. The guy has won 23 times on tour. Struggles is when I stood on the course and had zero confidence, I was embarrassed, I didn’t want to be there. I totally lost my game. It’s done publicly as well, standing there on a course – Wentworth, wherever – and it’s horrible. Fighting to get my game back was nothing more than hard work and belief. If the major doesn’t come, there is plenty that I’m proud of.”
Casey is at a loss to explain why such a talented generation of Englishmen – Luke Donald, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter among them – have not returned more than a single major success between them. “You could argue Tiger snapped up a lot of those but still, it has been very slim pickings,” Casey says. “We haven’t really competed, have we? It isn’t like we have been knocking on the door. I don’t know why. If you just look at rankings, we should have picked off a few majors between us. Even Justin winning the US Open [in 2013] didn’t trigger anything.”
Still, and partly because of those earlier toils, Casey will not cry himself to sleep if one of the big four permanently eludes him. “It doesn’t eat at me,” he says. “I have kids, life is very different to six years ago. It doesn’t make the drive any less – my motivation is as high as it has ever been – but I don’t come home and have to try and leave golf at the door. I find pride in the fact I’m still playing high-level golf at 43 and believe I can until I’m 50. I still have opportunities to win majors and think I can.”
Casey was 15th the last time the US Open visited Winged Foot, in 2006. That tournament is best remembered for horrible 72nd-hole blunders by Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. Casey watched that all unfold from the clubhouse. Geoff Ogilvy’s victory was at five over par. “Tiger missing the cut that week was such a big moment,” Casey says. “He never missed the cut. Geoff never really got the credit for it, everyone remembers other people messing up.
“US Opens of that era were not enjoyable. If you got anything out of them, it was pride that you managed to negotiate four rounds while keeping your sanity. This one will be interesting because maybe it will be back to the early 2000s. Pebble Beach last year was a fantastic setup but some would argue that lacks the typical USGA [United States Golf Association] test, bringing people to their knees.”
Casey concedes the delivery of fair courses is perennially tricky. The point is subjective. He also understands attritional tests favour experienced players. “Maybe 15-20 years ago I would have bitched, now I don’t care,” he says. “I’ll be the one sitting back watching everyone else complain. I haven’t seen anybody lose a ball since we got back to playing but maybe Winged Foot will be the place if there aren’t many marshals out there. I read they have watered and fertilised the rough. I like the easy courses where everyone shoots 65 but I have a better chance when it is tough.”
He has been candid about his battles adapting to spectator-free environments. The US Open will take place without galleries; a scenario that seems destined to continue for a few months yet. “It is better at the bigger events, you can feel more energy there,” he says. “I didn’t quite realise how much I fed off everything, the loudness and craziness. I miss it, it is kind of soulless. Suddenly you ask why you do it.
“I like being able to stand there in front of X amount of people and be like: ‘Watch this. Look what I can do.’ Sometimes it goes wrong but you can have a laugh about that. It’s theatre and I miss that. I haven’t felt nervous on a 1st tee in months.”
One wonders about Casey’s sensation should he find himself in a position at Winged Foot like Mickelson or Montgomerie. That spectacle would be fascinating and, perhaps, just reward for a career that has quietly turned full circle.