When Paul Casey won the 2001 Scottish PGA Championship, less than a year after turning professional and shortly after finishing a banner career at Arizona State, the three-time Pac-10 champion was slated for instant stardom.
But the 2001 European Tour rookie of the year wasn't quite ready. Casey plodded through a winless 2002 and dropped more than 20 spots down the European Tour's Order of Merit.
Last season the floodgates opened and Casey lived up to his early promise with two wins on the European Tour, which helped his world ranking catapult from 92nd to 23rd.
"It's a matter of learning the ropes," said Casey, who will play at this week's FBR Open under a sponsor's exemption. "In 2002, I probably didn't feel comfortable. When you go back to venues two or three times, you know the hotels, the towns and you can just concentrate on playing golf."
That he did. Casey won the ANZ Championship in Sydney and the Benson and Hedges International Open at the De Vere Belfry by four shots. On the PGA Tour, he posted his highest finish ever with a tie for eighth at the WCG-American Express Championship.
Casey also made his first cut in five major tournament starts with a tie for 66th at the PGA Championship.
This season, Casey's goals are clear — make the European Ryder Cup team and improve his record in the majors. He'll play in about 30 events worldwide, 10 to 12 in the states, including the World Golf Championships Match Play, the Bay Hill Invitational, the Players Championship and his first Masters in April. Ideally, Casey will earn enough money in his limited PGA schedule to finish in the top 125 on the money list and earn a fully exempt card for 2004.
"It's easy to come to events and be overwhelmed by the crowd or the scale," Casey said. "For more experienced guys, it's easier just to concentrate on golf.. . . I think I know now."
Casey is a solid ball striker who averaged 305 yards off the tee, sixth on the European Tour, and was 11th in greens in regulation at 13 per round. In the offseason, Casey spent his time in Scottsdale, fine-tuning his swing with Peter Kostis at Grayhawk Golf Club. His last start in Phoenix was in 2002, when he finished tied for 54th.