ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Go ahead, pile the hopes of all of England on Paul Casey’s shoulders. The rest of the United Kingdom, too. He doesn’t mind.
A year after a rib muscle forced him to miss three months of the season, Casey is in contention to become the first Englishman to win the British Open since 1992. His bogey-free 67 Saturday afternoon matched the low round of the day, and pulled him within four strokes of Louis Oosthuizen.
“Sitting here right now, I’m ecstatic,” said Casey, who couldn’t stop grinning. “You know, even right now, occasionally I feel the muscles in the ribs. In no way do they affect my golf. But it’s a small reminder that quite often you take for granted a lot of things, and nothing is better than an Open Championship at the home of golf.
“So I’m loving it. I’m loving the fact I’m playing absolutely great golf, and I’m four shots behind Louis.”
While conditions at the Old Course were challenging on moving day, there were birdies to be had for those who played it right. Casey played the front nine at 5-under, and then parred out to earn a spot in the final pairing Sunday. Martin Kaymer is in third place after a 68, and Henrik Stenson matched Casey’s 67 to climb into a tie for fourth.
Former British Open champ Mark Calcavecchia also made a move – in the wrong direction.
Trying to become the third straight member of the senior set to steal the show at the British Open, the 50-year-old instead opened with three straight bogeys. He then had a quadruple-bogey nine – yes, a nine – after being assessed two penalties worth three shots over a lost ball.
Calcavecchia rallied with three straight birdies on the back nine, but he’s now at 2 under for the tournament, 13 strokes behind Oosthuizen.
“It was unfortunate for Calc there, and he had a tough few holes,” said Oosthuizen, his playing partner. “He started off rough and he came back nicely, made very nice birdies there in a run there on the back nine.”
While Americans win their national championship with regularity, the British Open is often a source of consternation for the British. For all the great young golfers they’ve produced the last two decades – Casey, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, to name a few – no Englishman has won the Open since Nick Faldo at Muirfield.
The stats aren’t much better when you throw it open to the rest of the U.K., with Scotland’s Paul Lawrie in 1999 the last Brit to hoist the claret jug.
But the British arrived at St. Andrews brimming with confidence, thanks to their recent run of success on both sides of the Atlantic. Golfers from Britain and Northern Ireland won four PGA Tour events in five weeks, including Graeme McDowell’s surprise victory at the U.S. Open, and seven players in the top 20 hail from the U.K.
That it’s Casey, not Lee Westwood or Rose, near the top of the leaderboard might be the only surprise.
Casey had climbed to No. 3 in the world last year before straining the rib muscle a week before Turnberry. He tried to let it heal with rest and treatment, but withdrew early in the first round at Firestone and then again at the PGA Championship. He would not play a full round again until the World Match Play Championship in October, where he lost all three of his matches.
Casey had a couple of top-10 finishes earlier this year, but it was more time off that really turned things around for him coming into St. Andrews. After Pebble Beach and the BMW International, he actually took a vacation. In the summer, the height of golf season.
He returned the first week of July at the charity J.P. McManus Invitational Pro-Am in Ireland.
“I will admit I had no clue where the golf ball was going to go at J.P., but I didn’t care because I was relaxed. Bit of a tan, nice and chilled out, and, you know, just enjoyed myself on the golf course,” Casey said. “And I feel fresh and feel ready to play good golf. I feel ready to work. I’ve got a good attitude. And I’m really looking forward to the rest of the year, which I wasn’t four or five weeks ago.
“And whatever happens tomorrow happens. But already I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Catching Oosthuizen might be tough considering how the South African is playing. He’s had four bogeys in the first three rounds, and just one – on the first hole – on Saturday. But Casey is eager to try.
Though he grew up playing links golf – and did it quite well, getting four victories without a loss in Britain and Ireland’s 1999 Walker Cup win – he got away from it after he moved to the United States to attend Arizona State. The U.S. game requires higher ball flight, and Casey found himself not trusting his instincts when he played in Britain.
He has just two top-20 finishes at the British Open; his best result was a tie for seventh at Royal Birkdale in 2008.
“It’s in there,” he said. “I know how to do it, and I love doing it.”
And if it brings him – and England – a British Open title, so much the better.
“I desperately want to be a major champion, and I think I have the ability and I think I’m working hard enough,” Casey said. “But that doesn’t guarantee anything, as we know. So we will see.”