Exclusive interview: Paul Casey on his return to the top level
When you have spent the best part of a decade ranked inside the world top 50 then it must come as something as a shock to find yourself without a tour card and teeing it up in the likes of the Puerto Rico Open and Open de Espana.
That was the predicament of Paul Casey at the start of the 2013 season as he contemplated life outside the elite for pretty much the first time in what has been a gilded career.
As ever with such things, the reasons were plural and nuanced but certainly a serious shoulder injury sustained while snowboarding in 2011 was the most significant.
Undoubtedly the collapse of his marriage was another significant factor as the three-time Ryder Cup was forced to come to terms with his fall from grace.
“Golf is always a humbling game, isn’t it,” says Casey. “I would say that it’s been maybe not a humbling experience but one that’s given me a different perspective. A new perspective.
“I very much enjoy every time I go out on the golf course. I mean, if you’re not playing great golf then it drives you nuts but I’m very much appreciative of being out there playing good golf again and it’s given me very much a renewed enthusiasm for the game.
“When you play great golf, you’re kind of cruising along and when you struggle then you really do struggle. So golf is humbling in general,” he said.
The 36-year-old turned professional in 2000 having played in the previous year’s Walker Cup and established himself in the all-important top 50 of the world rankings early in 2003.
It bears repeating just why this arbitrary measurement is so important in modern golf.
It is not the fault of the world ranking system – it simply has become the case that being inside the top 50 guarantees entry to all Majors and WGC events. This effectively means you can play in any event you want.
And once on the inside, given your privileged access to the most lucrative events, you have a huge advantage over the rest.
It’s self-perpetuating because even with modest results you can still pick up plenty of ranking points at a time when those outside the top 50 can’t get any at all. This is golf’s glass ceiling.
“It is difficult because you’re not in the bigger events, the ones that really carry the most ranking points,” explains Casey, who lives in Arizona and continues to be one of Nike Golf’s prize athletes.
“When you’re inside the top 50 then it’s easy to stay there. When you’re outside then it’s incredibly difficult to get back in.”
The likes of Casey, however, have to strike a balance between playing enough in the winter and early spring to earn places in the WGCs and more importantly the Masters Having been on both sides, and having seen the benefits of being in the top 50 and now being the other side, he is ideally qualified to comment on the fairness of the system.
“I think it is fair, in that if you look at the world rankings you wouldn’t change the top 10. I would like to see a system where you’re not penalised for playing a large number of events. So the whole divisor element is maybe slightly out of whack. If a guy wants to play 40 weeks a year then great, he shouldn’t be penalised for it.
“He should be based on how good is he on his 20 events every year, let’s just say, or something like that.
“Tiger would still be No 1 and the top 10 would probably still be the same. But I’ll throw names out there like a Jeev Milkha Singh or someone like that. He’s a great golfer but because he plays 45 weeks a year then his world ranking will probably never be as high as it probably should be.”
It all means that Casey, who was ranked No 3 in the world as recently as August 2009 and didn’t leave the top 10 from the April of that year until June 2011, is only part of the way through a comeback that has already lasted for over a year.
From the outside it feels like he played enough good golf in 2013, the highlight of which was his Irish Open win at a squally Carton House, to climb back into the elite but Casey has no complaints.
“I have but I’ve not played great golf, I’ve still left a lot of shots out there.
“It’s been good but if you look at the results they’ve not necessarily been that great. I’ve struggled a little bit putting together really great scores.
“Having said that, I’ve got very little world ranking points that are going to drop off next year, year and a half, so that’s good.
“Anything I add now is just going to go up. That’s a positive but I do need to turn it up a little bit.
“Good golf’s not good enough – you’ve got to play great golf to move up.”
The result is a schedule that, frustratingly, and for the second season in a row, is somewhat up in the air.
That’s the other key difference about being in the top 50 – it allows you to map your season out from the start. The likes of Casey, however, have to strike a balance between playing enough in the winter and early spring to earn places in the WGCs and more importantly the Masters, while making sure they are fresh enjoy to prosper should they succeed.
“Yes, it would be nice to say, yes I’m going to Augusta and I’m going to be in this and that and yes, it’s awkward.
“Last year there was a little bit of scrambling going on with the schedule and this year is a bit like that too.
“I know what’s going on at the beginning of the schedule and I know what’s going on at the end but what goes on in the middle – no idea.
“But there is a solution to that – play better golf.”