Given his career record worldwide, it is somewhat surprising that Paul Casey’s reputation in the U.S. is more about his talent than about his curriculum vitae as a golfer. Casey’s inability to close on Sunday is mentioned—or so it seems—far more often than his victories, which now number three on the PGA Tour after his second consecutive triumph outside of Tampa on Sunday, 13 on the European Tour and three others in Asia. The Englishman also has played on four European Ryder Cup teams, including last fall in France, where he went 1-1-1 and halved his singles match with three-time major champion Brooks Koepka.
Casey has made enough money for several lifetimes—being successful on two tours for almost 20 years will do that for you—and yet the can’t-close-on-Sundays reputation lingers. As recently as last month at Pebble Beach he took a three-shot lead into the final round only to be run down by Phil Mickelson. A second-place finish was worth a lot of money but brought up the Sunday thing again, even though the finish there was on Monday.
No one’s ever going to compare Casey to Tiger Woods when it comes to 54-hole leads, but on a difficult day on Innisbrook’s Copperhead course, the former hung on, making a tough par at the 18th hole to beat Louis Oosthuizen and Jason Kokrak by a shot and win the Valspar Championship once more. His one-over-par 72 was hardly pretty, but it was good enough. A year ago, Casey shot 65 the final day to charge from behind for his first tour win in nine years.
“It feels very different,” Casey said. “But not any less cool.”
While Casey was hoisting the trophy, Luke Donald was walking away with a smile on his face too, even though his final two-over-par 73 dropped him to a tie for ninth. It was Donald’s first top-10 finish since he a solo second at Harbour Town almost two years ago and the first cut he had made since he finished T-64 exactly a year ago at Innisbrook.
Donald had to stop playing last year after missing the cut at Hilton Head because of a herniated disc. His first official tournament back was the Sony Open in Hawaii in January—where he missed the cut. This was his second PGA Tour start of the year and gave him hope.
“I still think I can compete with the best players,” Donald said. “I know I don’t hit it as long as most of the young guys, but I never have and I’ve been able to play well in the past.”
Casey and Donald have much in common. They’re both English and both 41; Casey was born in July of 1977, Donald in December. Each is a four-time Ryder Cupper; Donald’s never played on a losing team, Casey’s teams are 3-1. Each has won the World Cup of Golf; they did it as partners in 2004. Both turned pro in 2001.
Donald, who went into Tampa ranked 919th in the world, has spent 56 weeks ranked No. 1. Casey has been ranked as high as No. 3. Perhaps because of that year-plus atop the World Ranking, Donald was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) in 2012. He also claimed the money title on the PGA Tour and the European Tour in 2011, winning $10 million combined that year.
What the two most share in common, however, is having very distinguished careers that lack a major championship. Donald has finished in the top 10 eight times in majors, his best finishes being a T-3 at the Masters in 2005 (seven shots out of the Tiger Woods-Chris DiMarco playoff) and a T-3 at the PGA in 2006 (six shots behind Woods). Casey has nine top-10s in majors, his best finish a T-3 at the 2010 Open Championship, eight shots behind Oosthuizen.
If either could somehow add a major to his resume, he would be a candidate for the World Golf Hall of Fame. The bar has been set recently at one major victory and 15 wins overall—Fred Couples. Casey now has 16 wins between Europe and the U.S; Donald has 12, but also has the imprimatur of that No. 1 ranking and his remarkable 2011 season.
Both played college golf in the U.S.; Casey at Arizona State; Donald at Northwestern. Both married Americans, although Casey’s marriage ended in divorce. He has since re-married, this time to someone from Great Britain. Donald still has a home in Chicago; Casey has one in Arizona.
In 2012, on the night before the Ryder Cup singles, the European captains met to discuss their lineup for the next day. The team trailed 10-6 at Medinah, but had finished Saturday with two wins to get that close and had the momentum—most of it coming from Ian Poulter’s five late birdies to steal the final match of the day. The sentiment in the room was to have Poulter lead off, send the team’s most emotional player into the cauldron of Medinah first. But Paul McGinley, one of the vice-captains disagreed.
“I said, ‘If we send Poults out first, it will get the crowd all wound up,’ ” McGinley recalled a few years later. “But if we send Luke out first, the crowd here likes him too much to get into a frenzy. It will calm things a little. Plus, he’ll go out and play well in the heat.’”
Captain Jose Maria Olazabal agreed. Donald led off and beat Bubba Watson, 2 and 1, setting the tone for the day and starting the European rally. As it turned out, Donald hasn’t played in a Ryder Cup since. Two years later, McGinley chose Lee Westwood over Donald for the final captain’s pick, even though he was close friends with Donald. In 2018, Donald was a vice-captain for Thomas Bjorn and is likely to be a European captain in the future.
That probably won’t happen for Casey. He played in three straight Ryder Cups from 2004 through 2008, but didn’t play again for 10 years, in part because he missed making the team, in part because he resigned from the European Tour prior to 2016 after not wanting to travel to Europe from Arizona as often as was required. He re-joined the tour for 2018 and was one a captain’s pick of Bjorn’s.
The two men have very different personalities: Casey is an extrovert; Donald an introvert. A 20-minute interview with Casey might require two questions. Say hello, ask him how it’s going and let him talk. Donald is equally pleasant and polite, but a good deal quieter.
They are at very different junctures in their career at the moment. Casey’s victory left him thinking there might still be big things ahead for him as he heads into his middle-40s. He began the final round Sunday with a one-shot lead on Dustin Johnson. Everyone waited for Johnson to blow past Casey and the field, but the move never came. Johnson shot 74, failing to make a birdie all day. After that, it was left to Casey to hold off Oosthuizen and Kokrak.
“I had a lot of confidence,” Casey said after it was over on Sunday. “My victory here last year put me in a frame of mind, a comfort that I felt many years ago in my career, in, pick a year when I was winning consistently in Europe.
“People forget, I haven’t been a prolific winner, but I’ve won 17 times around the world. I’d like it to be more. It’s not bad. I’d like it to be more, obviously. I know how to win, plain and simple. I think I had forgotten and last year’s win kind of broke the seal.”
The victory moved Casey to No. 11 in the Official World Golf Rankings. Donald jumped from No. 919 to No. 548 with his finish—a long way from where he once was, but a first step in a journey that might look like it is 1,000 miles long right now.
Both have been very good players. Casey is just shy of stardom at the moment; Donald’s been to that plateau—except in the majors.
Both will turn 42 before the year is over and both sincerely hope that the best is yet to come.