Paul Casey waited nine years to lift his second title on United States soil and it is obvious that the Englishman does not intend handing it back. The defending champion shot a second-round 66 to put himself in the weekend hunt to retain the Valspar Championship.
There was some concern about Casey’s game when he missed the cut at last week’s Players Championship courtesy of a 78 and 74. But the 41-year-old has shrugged off that setback and returned to the form that brought two runner-up finishes and a third place in his five events leading up to the PGA Tour’s flagship event.
“I feel really good about it because last week was rubbish,” Casey, the world No 15, said. “For whatever reason I struggled a bit round Sawgrass and that frustrated me, annoyed me, ahead of coming here trying to defend my title, which I’d love to do because I’ve never defended a professional title.
“I’ve worked very hard on the game and slowed things down, quietened the transition at the top of the swing, and I like slopey greens. These are very difficult greens but that’s the way I like them and it’s why I play well at places like Augusta as well.”
There are less than three weeks to the Masters and this is just what Casey required. He played alongside Dustin Johnson and outscored him over the two rounds – six under to four under. “It was wonderful playing with the world No 1 the last two days to see the quality of his game, and the quality of mine was pretty good, too,” Casey said. “It’s clicked and it’s nice to turn it around after the missed cut last week and suddenly to be, not in control of this event, but near the top of the leaderboatd.”
As the afternoon wave went out, Casey was in a share for the lead with American Austin Cook. There were four birdies and an eagle on the par-five fifth (his 14th) that arrived by way of a 28-footer and although his morning heroics closed with a scruffy two-bunker bogey, that was not about to ruin his mood.
Casey has been looking forward to returning to the Copperhead layout. “This win here 12 months ago meant a lot to me, ” he said, reflecting on a dramatic Sunday in which he fended off the fast-finishing Tiger Woods. “This is a great course and somebody told me that nobody has ever successfully defended this tournament. How special would that be? But I’m aware of how difficult it is to win out here. The putting was key last year and that’s going to be the key this weekend.”
On the European Tour, Ernie Els continued his return to form with a second-round 70 to stand on six under at the Malaysia Open in Kuala Lumpur, two off the lead held by Belgian Thomas Pieters. The South African, who turns 50 in October, was outside the world’s top 640 six months ago but, with three top-20s, has climbed back up to 363rd.
Clearly the former world No 1 still has plenty of ground make up but at least that trademark smile is back. “The last four years have been a struggle, so I’m happy that I’m playing good golf again, Els said.