Fit and healthy for the first time in three years and emotionally settled following a painful divorce, a hungry Paul Casey once again has his sights set on major championship and Ryder Cup success.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when Paul Casey was the World No.3 golfer. The most naturally gifted of the so-called “golden generation” of Englishmen that included Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, the former World Match Play champion was regarded as the man most likely to win major championships.
It hasn’t happened, though. Set back by a shoulder injury incurred while snow boarding in 2012, Casey lost a year of his career and struggled initially upon his return. Although now comfortably back among the world’s top-50 players, the former English Amateur champion fell low enough that he felt unable to fulfil the membership requirements on both sides of the Atlantic. As of right now, he is not a European Tour member and so is ineligible for a Ryder Cup in which he has twice represented Europe. However, still to reach his 40th birthday, a fully-fit Casey is confident enough to see himself as the leader of a new wave of British golfers – the likes of Danny Willett, Tommy Fleetwood, Eddie Pepperell and Russell Knox – that will likely challenge for major championships over the next decade and more. John Huggan caught up with an affable, honest and very open Casey at St Andrews during The Open.
You’ve made some obvious progress this year, but how close are you to where you were before your accident?
That’s a good question. But I’m not sure I can give you an honest answer. I don’t really want to measure myself against where I was before. I don’t want to say that I’m, say, 95 per cent of the player I was in 2009 or 2010. Because I’m older and hopefully better. Which is true. I do think I’m a better golfer now.
In what ways are you better?
I have a better understanding of my game and my body. I’m fitter now than I’ve ever been, although I’m not quite as strong. Maybe there isn’t quite as much clubhead speed. But if you factor in understanding, experience, time management, I’m at least as good as I was, even if I’ve lost a few yards off the tee. So I prefer to look at where I am potential-wise. I still think I have another five to 10 percent to eke out.
That is believable because you haven’t won yet at the highest level.
Exactly. I’ve had a couple of second-places this year. Which is very good. But it hasn’t been spectacular. Not by the standard I reached before I was injured. I started the year not in the majors or the World Golf Championships. I’ve come a long way, but it’s unnerving not knowing your schedule.
Is it fair to attribute your fall in the world rankings solely to your injury problems?
There was a divorce in there, too, which was obviously upsetting. Emotionally, it is difficult. It does occupy the mind. But in time you get over it. The injury was more influential. It affected my physicality so it affected the way I swung the club and the way I hit the ball. I had no control, which made me fearful, even though I tried to play through it.
What was the low point?
I don’t have one particular moment or shot, but I remember withdrawing from the Players Championship a couple of years ago. I was just so scared. I was a physical and mental wreck.
Were you panicking?
If panic is worry and stress, then I was. It was difficult because my coach, Peter Kostis, couldn’t give me what he wanted to give me because I wasn’t right physically or mentally. That put him in a tough spot. He was giving me a lot of emotional support, but as far as my swing was concerned he had to keep it simple. It’s only in the last year that we have really been able to get back to the level of information I really need. I actually had a go at him earlier this year. We were talking about footwork and I got a bit upset and asked him why he hadn’t given me that particular piece of information before. He told me I didn’t need it because I wouldn’t have been able to do it even if I had wanted to. It was a fair point, but he didn’t take it well and it was a couple of days before we made up. I realised I had crossed the line. But we have known each other a long time so we got over it.
What happened exactly with the snowboarding accident?
I was snowboarding in Colorado in late December. I was skating along with my right foot out of the board as we went to a lift. I caught an edge piece of ice and had to trail my right arm to stay upright. I didn’t fall, but my right arm was pulled out of its socket. It wasn’t immediately painful. Five minutes later, it was the most excruciating pain I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t move my arm so I knew it was bad. But I didn’t know I’d dislocated my shoulder. I took the lift down. They wanted to send a sled up for me, but I thought, ‘Sod that.’ When they put the arm back in, I went very quiet because it was so painful. When it got to the point where I was like a linesman raising his flag, it popped back into its socket. The pain went from a 10 to virtually nothing. I thought I could get away with taking a couple of days off, not tell Kostis and get back to work. But it didn’t turn out well. I saw three doctors, the last of whom was Doug Friedman, who works in baseball and American football.
How long did the recovery process take?
I never needed surgery, but it took a long time to rehab. I came back too early. I played Doral and shot something decent in the first round. But I got worse. I should have stopped then, but I put it down to being rusty and short of confidence. It wasn’t until later that summer that my physio, Dave Edwards, and I were throwing a ball around. I was hesitant to throw the ball. I couldn’t do it like I had before. If I couldn’t do that, how could I swing and release a golf club? Peter and I went out onto the course with some short clubs. I stood there and, one-handed, threw them down the range as if I was making a swing. It didn’t matter where the club went. The key was releasing it. I threw three or four and it felt great. The only problem was that I held onto one club too long. It flew over my shoulder, over the street and just missed three parked cars. So that was the end of that drill! But it was another six months before I didn’t feel the shoulder.
Did you ever question whether or not you could make it back to the Tour?
Fear drives everybody, I think. Fear of failure, mostly. I’ve stood on the 1st tee hoping not to shoot 80 or hit it OB. I’m past that now. But there was a time when I thought I might not be able to do again what I had always taken for granted.
How hard was it to watch tournament golf from the sidelines?
Not that much. I was absorbed in the process of getting back. It’s a selfish business and I was in my own little world. Golf is my passion. It’s my livelihood. But ultimately it doesn’t define me.
What did you miss most?
All of it. I missed making a birdie on the 17th in front of a big crowd. I missed Ivor Robson saying my name on the 1st tee. I missed pulling something out of my arse when I’m in the trees, the 3-iron round the corner, for example. Few people can do that and I’m one of the lucky few who can. I’m a very good ball-striker so struggling with my body and being fearful was hard. I look back at events like the 2006 World Match Play. I had the ball on a string that week; could have done anything with it. To go from there to not having a clue, to not wanting to get out of bed, to being petrified on the 1st tee was tough.
You are part of a generation of English players that was supposed to win majors. Are we right to be disappointed?
We got beaten up by Tiger. But I don’t disagree. Everyone won fewer majors because of Tiger. I’ve played with him multiple times in majors. It was amazing to see but frustrating to be a part of. Ernie and Phil suffered too. How many majors would they have won if Tiger hadn’t been around? That’s three unbelievable players we had to beat. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s different now. Unless you’ve been part of it, it’s too difficult to explain.
That’s a very deep response…
Nah, it’s not deep. It’s just me copping out of answering the question. It’s too tricky to try and explain in detail. All Tour players are slightly narcissistic and sociopathic so trying to get into our heads is all but impossible. I’ve seen Tiger do some amazing stuff. When I’m playing my best, I can hit almost any shot, on a level with anyone else on Tour. But I saw him do stuff I couldn’t quite believe.
What is your view on the modern game?
Distance has become so important. Although courses are not much longer than they were, say, five years ago, they are being set up where length is a prerequisite. The advantage is now disproportionate. Look at Doral this year. It was ridiculous. I was lacking the 10 yards you needed to be part of the mix there. It was JB Holmes, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson. It was outrageous. I got in the face of every bunker because I carry my drives 290 yards instead of 305 yards. They were down the fairway flicking it onto par 5s with 6-irons. There have been others like that, Chambers Bay for one.
You’ve seen the good and bad side of the Ryder Cup. You’ve played on winning teams and you were rejected by Monty in 2010. Does that still hurt?
Yes. What upsets me still is not that I wasn’t part of the team. The team was brilliant and they played great. But at the time, I was ranked 7th in the world and I had a very good Ryder Cup record. In 2010, I could have won the money-title on both Tours. I didn’t, but I was in with a chance. Yet, apparently, I wasn’t good enough to play in the Ryder Cup.
You were playing with Padraig Harrington when the team was announced, right?
Yes. I’m not sure I want to get into this. It’s difficult. I’m very proud of the fact that I am a Ryder Cup player. And that Europe has been so successful recently. When we had a not-so-great time at Valhalla in 2008, we closed the doors on Sunday evening and discussed it all. Everything that was said in that room has been kept among ourselves. We went down as a team and we vowed not to make the same mistakes again. The teams have been phenomenal since. I’m always wary of talking about how that all went down but it’s a great story. The last time I talked to Colin before the Ryder Cup was on the Saturday of the final qualifying event – one day before he had to make what I acknowledge was a very difficult selection. I got a text early Sunday morning. The next communication was when I was walking to the range in Abu Dhabi the following January. I stuck out my hand and congratulated him on winning the Ryder Cup. That has pretty much been it. This is a guy who was one of my heroes. So getting to play on the same team with him in 2004 was a thrill. But I’m a Ryder Cup player and always will be. That’s as much as I want to say until the time comes when I can speak out without damaging the team spirit. I’ve seen that before with Thomas Bjorn and Ian Woosnam. I don’t want to damage the European momentum.
What are the best and worst parts of it?
The worst is not winning a point when you should have. I’ve only ever lost two matches. One was the singles in 2004 to Tiger. The other was with Henrik Stenson. It turned out to be an awkward pairing. We use different balls and have different ways of playing. Which was no good in foursomes. Henrik wanted me to hit to places I wasn’t comfortable with, and vice versa. We just didn’t gel. It was a shame because we were both playing well. The best is any point you win. I’ve never cared how I won, either. The hole-in-one I made on the 14th at The K Club was nice, but ‘Howeller’ (David Howell) and I had that match won anyway. Zach Johnson had a cold putter that day, so it was like Christmas. But we played bloody good. I had a great time with ‘Howeller’ at Oakland Hills in 2004, too. We beat Jim Furyk and someone I can’t remember [Editor’s note: it was Chad Campbell] on the Saturday morning. ‘Howeller’ won ‘shot of the year’ for a chunked 6-iron on the 17th! A brilliant shot. I made the two-footer on the 18th to win. It was a better feeling than winning a Tour event.
Why do Europe keep winning?
For reasons like Valhalla. We close the door. We discuss it. We move on. And we learn from our mistakes. It’s interesting, though, that recently we’ve actually lost more sessions than we’ve won.
Celtic Manor was a great example. Europe won only one session.
Maybe we are just good at the unmeasurables, the intangibles, the things you can’t quite put your fingers on. I can say at Oakland Hills and The K Club we knew we had everything under control.
The Americans had an awful team at The K Club, though.
I can’t comment on that. But we had an amazing team. It wasn’t a case of ‘were we going to win?’ It was ‘by how much’. We all knew that. All we had to do was not get ahead of ourselves.
You’ll have to re-join the European Tour to play. When will you do that?
Let me ask you. In three years’ time, say, when we have amazing European-born players who are not members of the European Tour – and so are ineligible for the Ryder Cup – is it still Europe v USA?
It is disingenuous to bill the team as “Europe”. It’s the European members of the European Tour team.
Thank you. That’s the first time I’ve heard anyone agree with me on that. That’s what the team is right now. Martin Laird, Russell Knox, Carl Petterson, Freddie Jacobsen. None of them can play right now. It’s a dilemma and a conundrum.
So will you join?
I don’t know yet.
Why would you not?
If I’m not in the top 50.
But you are.
If it is something that puts too much pressure on the rest of your life, you have to ask yourself if it is worth it. As Luke [Donald] and others are finding out, you can’t do it if you’re outside the top 50. So I don’t know if or when I’ll re-join. It was a tough thing to give up my membership. I’ll think about it at the end of this year.
Can you see a day when this is going to be a big problem for the European Tour?
Without naming names, I’ve had Ryder Cup players say to me that they are envious of what I am doing. I’m talking serious players. They have to run around a lot more than me. So if it comes to pass that more and more guys do what I have done, then it becomes a massive problem. Hypothetically, what would happen if Rory didn’t take up membership of the European Tour? It might mean they’d need an ‘unconditional’ pick. And if they did that, Rory might just stay away. All hell breaks loose. It would be damaging.
Moving on, where would you like to be 12 months on, career-wise?
I’d like to have a Claret Jug and a Green Jacket. And I’d like to be at Hazeltine for the Ryder Cup (laughs).
Are your expectations different now?
Yes, I think they are. What I do on Tour doesn’t matter as much as it used to. My son doesn’t care about my scores. I understand that more now. I look back now and think ‘how selfish was I?’ I still am, of course. Until he turns up anyway.
Golfers are always the centre of their own universe. They all think they’re important.
I don’t think I’m important. Don’t worry about that. But I know what you mean. Kostis is good at being my ‘bullshit’ guy. He is very good at telling me when I’m off track and behaving badly. My parents live too far away to fill that role full-time. But Peter doesn’t let me get away with much. I’ve never enjoyed the lows of my career. But they have made me a tougher and wiser person. I now appreciate the good things when they happen. Everything has been put in perspective by my injury. I know how fortunate I am to do what I do. I work damn hard at it. But I know how lucky I am. Life is good right now.
How do you think the new generation of young British players like Russell Knox, Danny Willett, Tommy Fleetwood and Eddie Pepperell will fare?
They’re not as good as my group of contemporaries (laughs). They’ve still got to beat us but I think they have a chance to be very good. I really like Tommy’s game. The hair has to be cut, but the game is good. No, they are really good kids, good players, with great potential. But you never know. It all comes down to intangibles. Plus, knowing how good Justin, Luke, Ian, Lee and myself can play, it’s a hard thing to quantify. One thing is for sure, they have a lot of work to do because we’re still beating them. I’ll take my chances with them for another seven or eight years. That’s for damn sure.