For those who have watched the progress of England's Paul Casey, his triumph in the ANZ Championship in Sidney was a heart-warming spectacle. Not only did this great seaside links course bring out all that is great in the great game but the format of this very imaginative event brought out all that is best in Paul Casey.
The setting of the New South Wales Golf Club is magnificent. Bordering Botany Bay where Captain Cook brought the Endeavour to anchor in nearby Stingray harbour in 1770, this great links course has more shoreline in play than any of the links land courses of Great Britain, with the possible exception of Kingsbarns. The NSWGC was founded in 1928 and, as the TV pundits repeated ad nauseam, was designed by Alister MacKenzie. If there is any semblance left of MacKenzie's handiwork it would be astonishing for the course was requisitioned by the Aussie Navy in 1942 and completely demolished.
Given back to the members in 1946, they took the chance for the complete renovation to what is presented today. It detracts from the members' achievement to persist in calling it a MacKenzie course for it is totally different from its pre-war predecessor. At a bit under 7,000 yards it is not long by modern day standards but like all great links courses it places a premium on shot making.
It also helps if you can drive the ball over 300 yards very straight. Casey consistently did that for four consecutive days and held his nerve over putts that truly tested his mettle. His win is overdue for his world ranking place [89th] does not reflect his current play. That he has bounced back immediately after last weeks shattering disappointment speaks volumes for the lad's character. With the optimism of youth and the self-assurance honed in the hothouse of US Collegiate golf, Casey is aggressive and the ANZ event was tailor made for him.
This tournament is one of only two events in world golf to employ the modified Stableford scoring system designed to encourage attacking golf. In this system a birdie carries two points, an eagle five and that rare bird of fantasy, the albatross, eight points. With a par gaining no points and a bogey only minus one point, the onus is clearly on the player to attack the pin. With no reward for the conservative iron off the tee and the obvious advantage in having a lofting iron to the pin, this format encourages bold long play and rewards precise wedges to the target.
It is hardly surprising that Stuart Appleby foreswore the AT&T at Pebble Beach to play in this event. His accuracy off the tee and the crispness of his irons doubtless made for some optimism although the homeland setting itself must have been inspiring. Casey thwarted Appleby and he was the first to extol the young Englishman's virtues.
This is the third time that Casey has led a tournament going into the last round and it is clear that it will not be his last. He had his maiden Tour victory leading from the front at Gleneagles when he won the Scottish PGA Championship in 2001. There is the cynically held view that his first tournament win came too easily and too early - a view supported by his final round collapse last week in the Heineken Classic at Melbourne when he went into the last round in the lead and looking every inch the winner. But Casey will have learned that it is not enough to simply hold onto a lead by conserving it with someone like Ernie Els in the field. The ANZ event as well as his experience with Els will have taught him that his naturally aggressive game prevails. Casey's third round 63 gave him 21 points and a six point win on 39, ahead of Appleby, his most likely adversary after 54 holes. Pulling further ahead in the last round of a tournament is the only sure way of winning it. Appleby played some sterling golf in the last round but was made to look ordinary by Casey's aggressive consistency.
Els and Casey have put me well ahead of my bookie this early in the season but now I think it time to stop and take stock. The Johnnie Walker Classic is the next European Tour venue at the Lake Kerrinyup course at Perth in Western Australia. This is an altogether different place than the links lands of the last two weeks. The field will include Norman, Faldo, Woosnam and Retief Goosen as well as Sergio Garcia who is especially hungry. With very narrow fairways and a wretched lake this is a seasoned man course. Although I'm reluctant to pass by the young blades and even ignore the long odds on offer on the resurrected Faldo I suspect that Els and Garcia will be battling this one out with Goosen.
The great American public will, of course, know nothing of it for the Tiger comes out to play for the first time this year at the Buick Invitational and golfing America will stop to hold its breath. Ventilation is, however, inevitable and Sawgrass, coming soon to your screens, may well be blown away by the new bloods unless Tiger has been playing a double bluff.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SGU or ScottishGolf.
|| 11 - FEBRUARY 2003