- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 16, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa.

Paul Casey wondered winkingly if he won some kind of prize for shooting a 66 in the second round of the U.S. Open. “Crystal?” he asked.

Crystal? Try a Saturday tee time, pal.

The reward for a 66 in second round of the Open — other than making all your peers look bad, that is — is the score itself. The score and the memory. A 66 offers no other guarantees. No trophy. No Masters invite. Not even an appearance on “Letterman.”

But the player can spend the rest of his life thinking back on that splendid day — the day he golfed his ball about as well as it can be golfed, the day he reduced ferocious Oakmont to the Greater Pittsburgh Pitch and Putt.

Four under par on one of the most punitive USGA setups since the invention of the pot bunker. You’re talking about some Serious Playing there. Especially since the next-lowest score this week is Nick Daugherty’s 68 Thursday morning — in much more favorable conditions. Don’t count on anybody going lower than 66 this weekend, not with greens and mouths becoming increasingly parched.

“The best round of golf I’ve ever played,” Casey said yesterday. “I’ve shot lower numbers, I’ve holed out shots, but there is no rest out there [on this course]. I’m ecstatic.”

Colin Montgomerie is said to have the same feelings about the 65 he put up in the first round of the ‘97 Open. Montgomerie, too, has had better scores, but a 65 at Congressional tends to take precedence over, say, a 62 at Druids Glen in the Irish Open.

And yet, Monty didn’t win — not that that’s unusual. In the last decade, only two players have posted the low score in an Open and gone on to victory, Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000 (65, first round) and Retief Goosen at Shinnecock in ‘04 (66, second round). Those are the odds Casey is bucking at the moment, his chances of being more than just an Oakmont footnote.

He’s a fine golfer, one of several young Brits making their presence felt here. Dougherty, the youngest of the litter, is 25; Justin Rose, just a shot out of the lead at 2 over, is 26; and Casey, a stroke behind Rose, is 29. It has been nearly 40 years since an Englishman has won the U.S. Open, so — as you can imagine — their play has been fairly big news back home.

“We’d all love to be the first to do it [since Tony Jacklin in 1970],” Rose said. “It doesn’t feel like a race, though, or anything like that. There’s just a whole lot of talent in England right now, a whole bunch who can win these tournaments. I think the odds are beginning to stack up.”

But back to Casey’s round for the ages. Like many rounds for the ages, it involved a certain amount of luck — a 45-foot birdie putt on his opening hole, No. 10, for starters. Had the ball not rolled in, he said, it “would have gone eight feet, 10 feet [past]. You need breaks like that. That boosted my confidence, and I made another birdie on 12. I got a couple of fortunate breaks. But the rest of it was good ball striking.”

Indeed, he missed only one fairway all day, which enabled to fire at more at pins. His aggressiveness, he admits, has gotten him in trouble on occasion — “I think I get a little flag-hungry sometimes,” he said. When he’s hitting the ball the way he was yesterday, though, “I can’t resist going for the flags” … even on a course booby-trapped by the USGA.

Casey’s biggest problem in majors so far has been getting started. He prepares like a maniac for these events, he and coach Peter Kostis, and he suspects he “might put too much pressure on himself” when he steps on the first tee. He began this Open, for instance, with 77. He began the Masters in April with a 79. He began the Open last year with another 77. Those aren’t holes he’s putting himself in, they’re shallow graves.

His ability to recover, however, has been remarkable. At Augusta, he finished 68-77-71 — even par, the lowest score over the last 54 holes. At Winged Foot, he finished 72-72-69. Only one player, countryman Luke Donald, did better. So he’s three-fourths there, so to speak, three-fourths of the way to a major championship. He just has to figure out the other 25 percent.

It’s strange, he said, “I’ve never thought my game is that suited to a U.S. Open. This is all about discipline and patience and putting, things I’m OK at, but …”

In Round 2 of “The Oakmont Horror,” Casey was everything an Open champ needs to be — for five magical hours. It’s the next 48 hours that are the tough part, though, as Montgomerie and the other one-day wonders can tell him.

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