Paul Casey: On the Way Back to Greatness

Paul Casey has had two solid rounds (66, 66) at the 2014 Memorial Tournament at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. At 12-under, he has a three-shot lead over Bubba Watson and four over Chris Kirk who hasn’t missed a cut this year.

This comes at a good time for Casey because a dislocated shoulder in 2012 while snow boarding has turned his world upside down. Once at the pinnacle of the game, he fell to No. 233 in the FedExCup standing and has been reduced to playing in the Past Champion’s category which means very limited access to the Tour tournaments.

Fortunately, as a European Tour member he has another place to play and in his claw-back return, managed to win the 2013 Irish Open in June. He’s playing this week on a sponsor exemption; from where he is now, he can see the possibility of a good week to salvage his card for next year. A win would lock it up on the spot. 

Tough times frequently have silver linings in them. Having to race from San Francisco to my wife’s hospital bedside in Paris thirty years ago after she was hit by a car outside the Louvre (she fully recovered), spend three week there waiting until she was coherent enough to travel and then bringing her back on a stretcher (ever grateful to British Airways) taught me how strong I was. Casey’s detour from greatness has not been all bad either:

“I have a very good perspective on things.  I can’t think of a better word.  There might be one.  I know where everything fits now certainly in my life.  I don’t necessarily have it figured out.  But I know how things stack up in importance and good perspective.”

And as with my wife, recovery has been a long drawn out process, sometimes with your life flashing before your eyes:

“It happens in sort of baby steps, I think, which is the most frustrating thing.  It’s slowly crawling along and making progress, climbing back up the ladder, however you want to phrase it.”

“And, yeah, it’s very difficult when you’ve played to a certain level and then you genuinely — I genuinely had no clue how to play to that level at certain stages and you start to contemplate:  ‘Well, why am I doing this?  Is there much point continuing?  Do I really want to play this game professionally?'”

Resiliency is measured in just how much you think about such things and, of course, the conclusions you come to:

“And that’s not easy to sort of — luckily I didn’t think about that too long.  And I think I just put myself into — sort of dove into the challenge of [the steep, long road back], and that sort of got absorbed by the process.  And that’s the easiest way out of it, because if you sit back and think too much, then it becomes very consuming.  And so I felt like I was on the edge of being consumed sometimes.”

When you get as good as Casey was, you don’t think about how to play so much, you just go and do it…you just go play…at a very high level…and then you can’t:

“I certainly took for granted my ability to play golf.  I didn’t take anything else for granted.  I’m fully aware of how life works.  But the golf side of things, yeah, sure, you stand up and you just go play; this is easy.”

And the journey gives you perspective:

“Yeah, you know, golf — no question that golf is the vehicle that drives my life and it’s certainly the thing I love to do when I wake up in the morning.  Everything’s based around that and I make decisions based on if they’re going to enhance what I’ve got to try to do on the golf course.”

“But I know where they fit.  If I have to give something up in terms of sort of family and friends and love and all, then golf would be — I could easily walk away from it from that point of view.  And I’ve now got — for those who may or may not know, I’m going to be a dad in September.  And things like that, again, just change my perspective.”

“I see Pollyanna, my fiancee, and it’s like bogey doesn’t matter and I know it’s not — it’s going to matter even less in September, and that’s kind of cool.  And I didn’t have that a few years ago, but I have it now.”

So he shot a 9-hole 27 at the Byron Nelson in Dallas, he won the Irish Open last year and he’s sitting pretty this week. When will he know that he’s fully back?

“I don’t want to continue to look back, or I don’t look back at where I was and measure myself against how I used to play. And taking something like being 3 in the world as a measure, if I get back to 3, hey, then I’m back; I think you can’t do that.  You can’t control how the other guys play, how World Ranking points are distributed.”

“All I can do is start trying to rack up wins.  And I don’t think one victory or even a couple of victories you can then say, oh, I’m back.  I think hopefully we can have this discussion in five years’ time after I’ve played some great golf for five years and say, all right, now I’m coming back.”

“But I’m not sure it’s one thing.”

The return from such a fall is never an easy thing. Were there times when he wondered if he would ever be able to play at that level again?

“Oh, lots of times.  I don’t know.  Standing in the middle of the fairway and you can’t hit the green or you’re standing on the tee and you can’t hit the fairway, yes, it’s lots of times.”

“And I did it out here, that was the thing.  It’s not like I kind of just disappeared and just went off the grid for a while.  I was battling through — I was doing it out here.”

“And that was quite tough, trying to play tournament-level golf and I wasn’t able to.  You can look up the scores.  There were lots of moments out there.”

And now he contemplates the reality of the next 36 holes. Recognizing that he’s still engaged in a deeply introspective process, how will he manage the pressure of that?

“Yeah, it’s a bit like riding a bicycle.  I’ve done it [before] — I’m excited for tomorrow.  And my goals, I’ve got big ones; I’ve got small ones.  There’s a whole bunch I can focus on to deflect the pressure.”

“I’m looking forward to tomorrow.  I’m excited about it.  There’s a long way to go.  This is just 36 holes.  There’s a lot that can happen between now and Sunday afternoon.”

So as you watch Casey’s round unfold on Saturday, now you know that there’s a whole saga, an undercurrent, that has led to those three or four hours. And it makes it less about the golf we see and more about what we come to know about our collective humanity.

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