HARTFORD, Conn. – Few players are more effervescent and a bigger supporter of the Travelers Championship than Paul Casey.
Casey has spoken highly of Connecticut’s biggest sporting event, TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, tournament director Nathan Grube and Travelers executive Andy Bessette for years. He also nearly won the tournament several times, including a playoff loss to Bubba Watson in 2015 and a tie for second in 2018 behind Watson.
But one of the best interviews in sports had been bummed out for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. He admitted struggling to adapt to what he described as the “soulless” playing environment, with his only Top-10 finish in 2020 being a tie for second in the PGA Championship behind Collin Morikawa.
Casey traveled last week to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates not having played on the European Tour since the end of 2019, but aided by a new driver and a new mindset, he shot a closing 2-under-par 70 Sunday for a 72-hole total of 17-under 271 and a four-stroke victory in the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club.
“It’s something very cool because it’s not been great,” said an emotional Casey, who moved from 27th to 16th in the Official World Golf Ranking with his 15th European Tour win but first since the European Open in September 2019. “I didn’t enjoy my golf in 2020. I mean, I played well one week but that was about it.
“Now I feel like I’ve regained my youth. I mean that sincerely. I’m so happy. But playing had been totally soulless. No emotion. A whole bunch of feelings. I’ve not enjoyed it. And I’ve realized how much I love doing what I do, but I love doing it in the environment with people watching and the crowd and the noise – it can be heckling, it can be cheering and seeing the emotion on people’s faces and some people are rooting for the guy standing next to you, and some people are rooting for you. It’s just everything.
“I’m incredibly happy at home. I’ve got a great wife, kids. And I understand where golf sits in my life. I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am. I’m at peace with whatever happens in terms of my golf career from here on. But I’ve worked incredibly hard that last few months. I’ve worked hard and played a lot of golf.”
Just having some people alongside the fairways made Casey feel more alive.
“From 2020 to now, here, I’m rejuvenated,” he said. “I feel totally different.”
After a 64 on Saturday, Casey had a one-shot lead over Robert MacIntyre and built a five-stroke advantage with seven holes to play after his Scottish playing partner made four consecutive bogeys starting at No. 7. Walking down the 18th hole with a three-stroke lead, Casey could enjoy one of his favorite shots in golf – the approach to the par-5 green with the backdrop of the Dubai skyline. He capped off his win with a two-putt birdie.
“I never looked at the leaderboard until I got on the green here,” he said behind the 18th green.
The win boosted Casey’s chances of making the European Ryder Cup team for a second consecutive time, after Paris in 2018, and team captain Padraig Harrington was standing at the back of the 18th green to congratulate him.
“There’s a long way to go. I’d love to be part of his team, in any capacity,” Casey said. “I’d obviously love to be on the golf course, first, because I think that’s where I’m most useful, and if I’m not on the golf course, I’d still love to be part of his (backroom) team.”
South Africa’s Brandon Stone finished second at 275, one ahead of MacIntyre, but they became also-rans after Casey’s strong finish following work with longtime coach Peter Kostis during the three-month pandemic break.
“When the PGA Tour shut down almost a year ago, Paul was playing some really good golf,” said Kostis, a former longtime CBS analyst. “But when things got going again, he wasn’t in a particularly good mood. He didn’t have time to practice. Then he tried to force things. So by the time he got to the Masters, he was glad to shut it down for the year. He needed a break, during which we did bunch of really good work.
“It had been a while since we had been able to spend a couple of months focusing on fundamentals. I got his clubhead speed up to 129 miles per hour and his ball speed to 193. And he saw some real progress. We spent a lot of time improving his turn, his pivot. He’s using his legs a lot better. But the biggest thing is we saw some physical improvement, which led to a completely different attitude. He’s energized. He’s in a good place mentally. He has confidence in what he is doing.”
Casey also has three wins on the PGA Tour and tied for eighth in his previous start in The American Express. He is almost certain to be in the 156-man field when the Travelers Championship is played June 24-27 at TPC River Highlands. The defending champion is Dustin Johnson, ranked No. 1 in the world and the 2020 PGA Tour Player of the Year. First prize in the $7.4 million event is $1.368.