Back on familiar ground, Casey aims for redemption

Paul Casey during the 2013 Desert Classic Golf tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Paul Casey during the 2013 Desert Classic Golf tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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— Four days make a tournament. Four years can’t dull a priceless memory.

“It’s just lovely. I like the golf course. Great memories,” said Paul Casey, meandering his way along the practice range at TPC Redstone, where in 2009 he won the Shell Houston Open to validate his stature in the world golf order.

Having ranked 41st at the end of 2008 in the Official Golf World Ranking, Casey soared to No. 6 on the strength of his playoff win over J.B. Holmes. He would get as high as third in late August of that year and only in his worst nightmares could Casey have envisioned things sliding the other way in painful fashion.

Unfortunately, those worst nightmares occurred in a series of health-related issues that contributed to Casey’s slide in the world rankings, currently resting at No. 136.

But with a morning frost long gone and sun offering much-needed warmth, hardly did Casey seem to be a man reeling from the anguish that golf can dish out. Smiling warmly and offering reflection, the 35-year-old Englishman felt comfortable in these Texas surroundings.

Sure, that million-dollar winner’s check has something to do with that, but as he played his Wednesday morning pro-am, the true meaning of his win shined through. “The nicest thing is, the fans, just saying, ‘Welcome back; good to see you; play like you did in 2009.’ That’s the bit I enjoy.”

Casey ingratiated himself with local fans when he donated $100,000 to local charities through the Houston Golf Association.

“And I would like to do the same again (this year),” he said. “I’d be very happy to do the same again.”

Yes, there was a smile on his face. But more than that, there was a confidence in his voice, and that is a good thing, because life has knocked Casey down a few times in the past two seasons. He is far from out, however.

“The last few months have been a lot of good,” he said. “A little frustration, but quite a few breakthroughs. I started to play some quite good golf at the back end of last year. I feel physically great right now.”

What highlighted the Casey dossier were items related directly to on-course efforts – 10 European Tour wins from 2001 to 2009, Ryder Cup berths in 2004, '06 and '08, annual earnings in the multimillions, that No. 3 world ranking, and, of course, the pride he felt in winning at TPC Redstone, because the challenge of playing two tours and winning on both is substantial.

“Everything was great. I was enjoying my golf,” Casey said.

Then, the series of sore spots. Sweet as it was, 2009 hit a snag late in the summer when Casey pulled a rib muscle. His left shoulder was an issue in the spring of 2010 and among the casualties was his title defense of the Shell Houston Open, Casey withdrawing minutes before his starting assignment alongside Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott. Though he won more money in 2010 than 2009 and went from 22nd to eighth on the money list, what halted that enthusiasm was his 2011 season. Most of the year it included a serious case of turf toe in his right foot, then ended with another shoulder injury – this one on the right side, courtesy of a snowboarding accident.

What is a matter of record is this: Casey failed to keep his PGA Tour card in 2011, finishing 136th on the money list, and it got even worse in 2012 (221st, with just nine tournaments). What buoyed his spirits was this: Even through all the stop-and-go play, Casey’s talent shined through with two European wins in 2011.

While Casey was able to toss that reinforcement into his memory bank, he still felt some help was needed to compensate for his physical ills. He started using a 73-gram shaft that was not “tipped” at his customary 1 3/4 inches. Worse, “I also got very analytical, trying to rush the process. I over-complicated, trying to do everything perfectly, and that’s not like me. I like to wing it a little bit.”

Casey made cuts at just two of nine starts on the PGA Tour a year ago, though he was substantially better in Europe, especially in the fall when he was T-5 in Perth, Australia, T-6 at the BMW Masters, T-10 in Singapore, and T-19 in Hong Kong. Things were starting to come together and they have continued in ’13, Casey making the cut in each of his four European starts.

Good health is at the heart of his solid play, but a recent adjustment in his equipment has him truly gushing. Casey said he went back to his 83-gram shaft on the driver, had it tipped at an inch-and-three-quarters, “back to my old specs,” he said.

“It’s only been a week, but all of a sudden the ball flight is together, the club is doing what I want it to do,” he said. “The light bulb finally has gone off, the final piece is in the puzzle. I had been bashing my head against the wall.

“It’s my fault, effectively. I wasn’t healthy (so) I needed some assistance (with equipment).”

Casey is entered into this year’s party at TPC Redstone as a past champion, startling proof as to how far he has fallen from four years ago when he lifted the trophy as the world’s sixth-ranked player or three years ago when he sat eighth on the PGA Tour money list. But the Englishman isn’t focused on such history; he’s thankful to be among friendly fans at a venue that offers great memories.

Casey feels grateful for the spot here, but insists he’s not “putting all my weight on me this week.”

Instead, he’ll pursue a European Tour schedule into Spain, China, and perhaps South Korea, “unless the North decides to get a little fidgety,” and he’s even embracing a challenge he hasn’t needed in his pro career – qualifiers for both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship.

And all of it is being done with a renewed commitment and a confidence that is abundant.

“I really feel that there’s no reason I can’t be in the top 10, or at least knocking on the door to the top 10 by the end of the year,” Casey said.

“That’s the way I’m looking at it. There’s a lot to play for and that’s why I’m very excited.”

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