ERIN, Wis. – When a broadcaster gushed about Paul Casey during a post-round interview on Friday, the Englishman couldn't resist displaying his dry, self-deprecating sense of humor.
"Sensible and mature are two words that are rarely used when discussing me," he said, breaking into a grin.
Casey is nothing if not honest. Since turning pro in 2000, he has been something of an enigma. He can be both charming and childish, a rare talent and an underachiever. He is Sergio Garcia-lite: less self-pity, fewer high-profile implosions and close calls, yet seemingly on the verge of delivering on his vast potential. On Friday, Casey showed newfound maturity when a triple-bogey 8 on the 14th hole – his fifth after starting on the back nine – appeared to derail his round.
"I'm proud of the way I fought back," he said.
The snowman melted away with five birdies in a row beginning at the 17th through the third en route to a 1-under 71. That's good enough for a 36-hole aggregate of 7-under 137 and a share of the 36-hole lead at Erin Hills with Brian Harman (70), Tommy Fleetwood (70) and Brooks Koepka (70). At age 39, Casey would be the oldest U.S. Open champion since a 42-year-old Payne Stewart won at Pinehurst in 1999. Could Casey's time be now?
No one doubts that Casey has the talent, but despite 13 career victories on the European Tour, he should be more prolific. He has won just once on the PGA Tour, at the 2009 Shell Houston Open, and his last worldwide victory is the 2014 KLM Open. When asked what has held him back from winning a major, he smiled and said, "Well, there was a long time in the Tiger Era when it was slim pickings."
Fair enough. He finished in a distant share of third at the 2010 British Open, but he still remembers two putts that could have flipped the script in his favor.
"It's such a fine line," he said.
After a 66 on Thursday, Casey enjoyed a rollercoaster second round. It could've unraveled at the 14th after a good drive and a 3-iron layup landed in the right rough where the fescue had been cut. Instead of the knee-length variety, it was only ankle high, and Casey said he misjudged it and caught a flyer from 106 yards. His first whack out of the thick stuff barely advanced the ball a foot. On the next one, he hit it too hard, over the green, and he chipped on to 10 feet and missed.
"Pretty easy 8," he said.
Casey has been around the block enough to know that it is rare to escape a U.S. Open without a hiccup. Walking off the green, Casey swiveled his head and asked his unusually silent caddie John McLaren, “Are you all right?”
“Oh, fine; I’m good," McLaren said. "Are you all right?”
At first blush, it didn't appear that way as Casey bogeyed the next hole. But then he kicked it into high gear. He didn't even realize that he had made five birdies in a row until someone told him.
Maybe there is something to Casey being more mature and sensible.
"I don't think I've ever handled a big number as well as I did today," he said.
His instructor, Peter Kostis, echoed that sentiment, sending a text after the round to Casey, saying he was prouder of the way he bounced back Fridaythan his stellar 66 the day before.
Should we dare to believe that this weekend will be any different for Casey? Perhaps. For starters, he is healthy and happy. In one interview after another, he kept saying that he's in a good place. Fatherhood has brought a new joy to his life. The sunnier side of Casey registers in his expression, too. For that, he also credited his relationship with his wife, Pollyanna Woodward, a former television presenter. Look at what happened two months ago in Augusta with Garcia, who was winless in his first 73 majors, after he found his happy place.
With no one among the top 18 on the Open leaderboard having won a major title, this could be the seventh consecutive major championship with a first-time major winner. Casey would be the first U.S. Open champion older than 32 since a 37-year-old Angel Cabrera won in 2007 at Oakmont. But that is yet to come. He was still reveling in his good finish on Friday.
“Not every day you enjoy a round of golf with an 8 on the card,” Casey said, “but I’m a pretty happy man.”
Sounds like a sensible man, too.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak