ATLANTA – Fate can be cruel or fate can be liberating.
The endearing Englishman overcame a few early miscues on Saturday at steamy East Lake to maintain his spot atop the field at the finale. He’s 12 under par, two shots clear of Kevin Kisner and rookie Xander Schauffele and once again perched on the precipice between good and great.
Casey’s title drought now stretches some eight years, back to the 2009 Shell Houston Open when he seemed invincible and was bound for the top 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
But along the way there were injuries and a nasty divorce and too many near misses to count; and that he’s wrested himself out of the competitive badlands and to within 18 holes of the game’s ultimate double-header – a chance to win both the Tour Championship and the FedExCup – is something of a mixed blessing.
Sure, he’s happier, both on and off the golf course.
“It's pretty good,” Casey figured. “It would be nicer if I was at home with my daughter and my son and my wife, but I love doing what I do so yeah, it's great.”
That kind of inner peace may make it easier to endure professional adversity, but it does little to temper a player who was and remains a fierce competitor.
For Casey, it’s an $11.5 million question with only a single acceptable answer, but an answer that has eluded him for some time.
He nods knowingly when he hears the familiar statistics. Casey leads the Tour this year with a 68.77 scoring average on Day 1, but drifts as the weekend approaches and plummets all the way to 67th in final-round scoring (70.33).
“Yeah, too much pressure,” Casey said. “It's better to be in this position. But the scoring average is still the scoring average. Why is it wrong? I don't know.”
Casey is quick to point out that he closed with a 64 last year at East Lake on his way to a fourth-place finish, but he did begin the 2016 final round some five strokes off the lead, not exactly a pressure-packed scenario considering the circumstances.
The more relevant examples are also the ones that are still fresh. Casey began his playoff run this season at The Northern Trust with three solid rounds and was tied for third and three strokes back through 54 holes. On Sunday he hit 6 of 14 fairways and took 30 putts on his way to a closing 71.
A week later at the Dell Technologies Championship, he again began the last lap in third place, this time just a stroke back. On Sunday, he again needed 30 putts on his way to a final-round 70 to finish tied for fourth.
To put it another way, Sunday hasn’t exactly been funday for Casey.
When he was asked about his suspect Sunday performances earlier this week, Casey admitted he and his caddie Johnny “Long Sock” McLaren have discussed it, but he offered no real answers.
Following his round on Day 3, he offered a more detailed glimpse into what might be behind his final-round troubles.
“We've got to do more to get myself into a position going into Sunday because being two or three back is not good enough because it seems like everybody you're going up against, Hideki [Matsuyama], Dustin [Johnson], Jordan [Spieth], [Justin Thomas], they're two ahead and they crack on and shoot 65, 64, 63,” Casey said. “Unbeatable.”
Having a cushion will help, no doubt. Having a solid history at East Lake - he’s never finished outside the top 5 in his three previous starts at the finale - is a boost. Having two players with a combined two PGA Tour titles being your primary opponents could also factor into the outcome.
When Schauffele, who won The Greenbrier Classic, has had a stellar first year on Tour and moved into the hunt with a third-round 65, was asked where the Tour Championship ranked on his pre-season goals list, his answer was telling.
“Somewhere up in the clouds, to be honest,” he laughed. “That was definitely not what I was thinking about even a few months ago, so to be out here is surreal.”
While Kisner, who won his second Tour title earlier this year at Colonial, is considered one of the game’s most dogged competitors and is poised to be next week’s standout newcomer for the U.S. Presidents Cup team, his history at East Lake isn’t exactly stellar and he may be a tad distracted after taking a helicopter to Athens, Ga., on Saturday after his round to watch his beloved Georgia Bulldogs play Mississippi State.
The next closest players are five strokes back, although Justin Thomas, who struggled on Day 3 to an even-par 70, could make things interesting for the season-long race and is currently projected second on the points and is in a tie for fourth place at 7 under.
Since the dawn of the FedExCup playoffs, the Tour Championship has a history of serving up nuanced and varied storylines through to the final putt. But on Sunday it’s just a single tale that awaits, and that’s which side of fate looms for Casey.