Casey undergoes mighty transformation

Golf’s mighty Casey has struck clout.

With three victories on three different continents this season, England’s Paul Casey comes to Congressional for this week’s AT&T National shouldering the game’s most impressive 2009 resume.

Promising Paul has finally arrived, ditching the cocky kid with the inconsistent career for golf’s No. 3 ranking and the mirror of maturity.

“To be honest, it’s been a very rapid ascent in the world rankings this year,” said the 31-year-old Casey, who began the season ranked No. 41 before sandwiching a pair of marquee European Tour victories (Abu Dhabi and BMW PGA Championship) around his first PGA Tour triumph {Houston Open). “It’s been very good golf. And I am ecstatic with it. …But I am surprised I’m No. 3 in the world.”

Nobody else should be.

This isn’t the same Paul Casey who broke Tiger Woods’ Pac-10 Tournament scoring record as a senior at Arizona State in 2000 and then had the audacity to win a year later as a European Tour rookie (2001 Gleneagles Scottish PGA).

That incarnation of Casey played big, on the course and off. Sure, he rode the long ball to eight European Tour victories in his first eight seasons. But for such a massive talent, the next step was expected.

Casey wasn’t an elite player. He had never won in the Unites States, though he had split time between the PGA and European Tours since 2004 and lived in Scottsdale (Ariz.) since 1998. And he had never contended in a major, a host of solid finishes masking the reality that he had never produced a top-five result in golf’s glorious foursome. So after a winless 2008, Casey sat down with his longtime instructor, Peter Kostis. They cleared the air, set some goals and made some changes.

“I did a thorough evaluation of myself and my game. I was pretty hard on myself, and so was Peter,” Casey said. “He’s like my second dad. … I get treated as part of [his] family, and that’s our relationship. Because of that, I think he can often say things to me that I don’t want to hear that are the truth. Sometimes they’re not nice. But because of that he’s made me into a better player and a better person.”

The transformation has been stark:

The old Casey was something of a loose cannon, powerful but wild.

The new Casey often chooses his reliable 3-wood over his signature bazooka.

The new Casey can actually putt, which is a major bonus in a game where that accounts for half of one’s shots. After finishing 186th on the PGA Tour in putts per greens in regulation last season (1.837) and 145th the year before (1.801), Casey currently stands a respectable 33rd in the crucial category (1.750).

“Putting, I think, has been key this year,” said Casey after focusing a great deal of his offseason energy on his short game. “That’s always been my Achilles’ heel.”

And where the old Casey was occasionally edgy, the new Casey is modest and soft-spoken.

Following Europe’s Ryder Cup destruction of the U.S. in Detroit in 2004, he infamously explained Europe’s continued success in the event by remarking: “We properly hate them.”

A verbal indiscretion? Maybe, but the old Casey liked tweaking the competition, particularly Americans. The new Casey married one, making longtime girlfriend Jocelyn Hefner his bride just days before he began this season’s rampage at Abu Dhabi.

“I should have married earlier, I guess,” Casey joked. “I seem to have struck a nice balance between my life on and off the golf course. Golf is not the most important thing to me in life, and I understand that now. … I can let it go and be comfortable with whatever happens.”

That newfound perspective was needed at Bethpage, where Casey’s quest for a first major ended with a pair of 75s and a missed cut in the recent U.S. Open.

“If you would have told me I wouldn’t make a single birdie in 36 holes, I never would have believed it,” Casey stated on his Web site after joining Tiger Woods in the unfortunate end of the draw and using 64 putts on the bumpy greens at Bethpage.

The old Casey might have done a bit of sulking.

The new Casey simply started prepping for Congressional and an AT&T National where he’ll rank below only Tiger Woods on the celebrity meter.

“I’m not big on celebrity. I don’t like that word,” Casey said. “I’m an athlete. I’m a golfer. I’m happy with that word. And I’m happy to set an example with work ethic and hopefully how I behave on and off the golf course. But I’m a sportsman, an athlete, not a celebrity.”

Forget the modesty, golf has a new superstar. And with Phil Mickelson stepping into the shadows indefinitely, don’t be surprised if the amicable Brit supplants Lefty in the world rankings and concludes this season as golf’s best supporting actor.

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