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Casey's Masters apprenticeship thorough

Englishman has quizzed past winners on how to play course

Friday, April 01, 2011

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There are two methods in Paul Casey's accelerated learning program toward a Masters degree -- earn it and learn it.

Paul Casey, with caddie Christian Donald, acknowledges the crowd at last year's Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Casey says he believes the Masters offers him his best opportunity to win a major title. (Corey Perrine/Staff)

Casey has six starts in the Masters Tournament, and his personal experience is enhanced by the wealth of knowledge he gleans from the guys who know Augusta National Golf Club the best.

"When I first got there in '04, Peter Kostis told me I've got to play a lot of practice rounds with past champions who know the place," said the 33-year-old Englishman. "I've played practice rounds with Bernhard Langer, Ray Floyd, Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller, trying to pick their brains and watching where they put the golf ball.

''Guys are always willing to offer their opinion on how to play a hole, especially the older guys. They've done it all and they want to share."

Tooling around the grounds with former winners has intensified Casey's comfort level in front of the massive galleries at the Masters. It's hard to get uptight and intimidated when Zoeller is entertaining the patrons with his inimitable humor and charisma.

"He'll pull somebody out of the crowd on 12 and get them to hit a shot," Casey said. "Only Fuzzy can get away with that. That's just great and puts me at ease. It's fun, you can have a smile and the patrons get to know me a little bit."

Getting to know Augusta a little bit has been Casey's career mission. In 2004, he contended into the final round and finished tied for sixth in his first Masters appearance. He tied for 10th, 11th and 20th from 2007-09 before missing the cut last year after failing for the first time to visit the club for an early practice round.

Casey (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

"Last year was strange," he said. "I played a lot of really good golf and a lot of consistent stuff but there wasn't anything spectacular. Just solid golf. I had some moments in there where I struggled with the ball-striking, and Augusta would be one of those. I just seemed to be off on the weeks that I needed it most.

''Last year was still that rebuilding after the injury (he missed part of 2009 with a torn rib muscle) and I don't think I was really as prepared as I wanted to be going into a lot of events. I'm trying to correct that."

Casey posted the first top-five major finish of his career at the 2010 British Open, tying for third while playing in the final pairing at St. Andrews with runaway winner Louis Oosthuizen.

But it always has been Augusta where Casey believes his best opportunity to win a major lies. With his high-trajectory drives and a 3-wood he can crank out 270 yards in a right-to-left shape, Casey is on a short list with countrymen Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter as players most likely to restore European glory at the Masters.

"Augusta suits my game," he said. "I just love that golf course. That's not the case in the U.S. Open, but at Augusta I feel like I have the edge over other guys in terms of my ball flight."

While he missed the weekend last year when the Masters erupted into an old-fashioned shootout, Casey believes he can thrive in that atmosphere better than he did as a rookie.

"I grew up watching the fireworks on the weekend and I got a taste of that in 2004," he said. "I had a chance to win in the penultimate group with Langer on Sunday.

"That was the (Phil) Mickelson-(Ernie) Els year and there were fireworks everywhere. Everyone was making birdies -- except me, of course."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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