It was billed as youth versus experience. Scotland versus the “auld enemy,” England. Left-hander versus right-hander. With one round to play, just about everything was in place for tartan warrior Robert Macintyre and his older opponent, Sassenach Paul Casey, to provide a classic and hopefully thrilling head-to-head climax to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
But it didn’t happen. Not really. Just about the only hint of drama came at the short 15th, where the 43-year-old Casey missed the green left, found a horrible lie and ended up having to make a 15-foot putt for bogey that reduced his long-established advantage from five shots to four.
Elsewhere, courtesy of some intelligent, if occasionally wayward, play by Casey, and a flurry of missed putts from the 24-year-old MacIntyre around the turn, the destination of the title was, for the last 12 holes or so, never really in doubt. By the end, the Englishman’s overnight one-shot advantage had grown. Casey’s closing 70 gave him a 17-under 271 total and a comfortable four-stroke victory over eventual runner-up Brandon Stone of South Africa. MacIntyre ended up third, another shot behind the now 15-time European Tour winner.
Casey was openly emotional in the immediate aftermath of a victory that will provide a boost to his prospects of making a fourth Ryder Cup appearance and, if the games happen, an Olympic debut in British colors. But his first thoughts were for those around him and, well, life in general in these uniquely trying times.
“I feel like I’ve regained my youth,” Casey said, fighting back tears. “I’m incredibly happy at home. I’ve got a great wife, kids. And I understand where golf sits in my life. I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am. I’m at peace with whatever happens in terms of my golf career from here on. But I’ve worked incredibly hard the last few months. I’ve worked hard and played a lot of golf.”
There was also a wee glimpse forward to the Masters, an event where Casey has five times finished in the top 10. While realistic about his prospects of donning a green jacket if the likes of Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Bryson DeChambeau perform at or near the top their games, Casey is already looking forward to what will be his 15th visit to Augusta National.
“I need a bit of help from those guys, don’t I,” he said with a smile. “Let’s be honest, if we go my best golf against them, I’m going to get beaten. But I’ve got a good chance.”
Such positivity is surely at least partly the result of much work behind the scenes during the two-month gap between Casey’s T-38 finish in the Masters last November and his return to competitive action at last week at the PGA Tour’s American Express, where he finished in a promising tie for eighth.
“When the PGA Tour shut down almost a year ago Paul was playing some really good golf,” said Casey’s long-time swing coach, Peter Kostis. “But when things got going again he wasn’t in a particularly good mood. He didn’t have time to practice. Then he tried to force things. So by the time he got to the Masters he was glad to shut it down for the year. He needed a break, during which we did bunch of really good work.
“It had been a while since we had been able to spend a couple of months focusing on fundamentals,” Kostis said. “I got his clubhead speed up to 129 miles per hour and his ball speed to 193. And he saw some real progress. We spent a lot of time improving his turn, his pivot. He’s using his legs a lot better. But the biggest thing is we saw some physical improvement, which led to a completely different attitude. He’s energized. He’s in a good place mentally. He has confidence in what he is doing.”
Casey’s sometimes erratic putting came under the microscope, too.
“We changed Paul’s posture and how far he stands from the ball,” Kostis said. “That helped get rid of his tendency to take the club back ‘hooded’ and hit pulls. That remains a work in progress, but he’s much more comfortable with it. Overall, he’s refreshed. He’s rejuvenated. He is seeing good results. Which is why he is in such a good place. He’s excited about golf again. Last year, he wasn’t having any fun.”
Which was pretty much how MacIntyre felt about his closing round of 74.
The young Scot was tied with Casey standing on the seventh tee, but spent the next four holes committing a catalogue of errors. A failure to get up-and-down cost him a shot on the par 3. A missed 18-inch putt on the eighth led to a second bogey. Only by making a 20-footer for a 5 at the par-4 ninth—where his approach found the water left of the putting surface—did he prevent losing two more shots to par. And three-putts from no more than four feet on the par-5 10th left him four shots behind his playing partner.
For MacIntyre, it was all but over. But, upon reflection, he will surely see his attempt to win what would have been the biggest title of his still fledgling career as a worthwhile experience. With his solo third, he will rise into the top 50 of the World Ranking for the first time, a spot that will carry him into the upcoming WGCs, the Players and, should he maintain his new-found status until March 25, the Masters.
Still, none of that was doing much to cheer up MacIntyre in the short-term.
“I fought until the end,” he said. “Paul was brilliant. He stuck to his own game. He played great. He controlled himself. I’ve just got to look up to that and see what I can get to. I got the start I was looking for and I thought, ‘Here we go, we’re onto one.’ But sometimes things don’t go for you. And today was one of those days.
“I’m not sure I can stand here right now and say I learned anything from today. I need to go away and think about it. I feel like I gave one away today. Now, I just have to keep giving myself these chances. If I do I’ll bundle myself over the line at some point.”
Final score: Experience/England/Right-hander 1, Youth/Scotland/Left-hander 0.