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Thursday, 02 August 2007

Paul Casey retired to bed after the first round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational reassured by the knowledge that he held a share of the lead and had forced his coach, Peter Kostis, to dig deep into his wallet!

The 30 year old Englishman struck the side bet with Kostis prior to teeing off at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, and was rewarded with a free meal courtesy of his coach, who felt that his pupil was looking somewhat jaded and needed an extra incentive.

As Casey warmed up on the range, the bet was struck – if Casey shot 67 or better, Kostis bought dinner at a venue chosen by the golfer. If he shot level par or worse, the situation was reversed.

After six holes, it was Kostis – working in his other role as a television commentator – who looked favourite to be fed and watered free of charge. Casey was two over par coming to the 16th (his seventh) where Kostis was located in the TV tower.

A wedge to four feet resulted in a birdie four, followed quickly by three more. A final birdie at the eighth lifted Casey to a three under par 67 and his free dinner was in the bag – much to the Ryder Cup man’s obvious delight.

“I get to pick the venue so I hope he’s got plenty cash with him” grinned Casey, who leads the way alongside American Hunter Mahan and South African Rory Sabbatini. “I think I was tired last week in Germany after The Open Championship and Peter noticed it on the range. He just tried to get me going a little bit, so it was a case of getting dinner bought for me, or buying it myself.”

The subtle ploy worked wonders as Casey, who shot a third round 64 on his way to finishing tied for fourth 12 months ago.

Armed a new version of the old putter which helped secure three wins on The European Tour International Schedule last year, was brought out of cold storage along with a new driver and three wood courtesy of his club manufacturers.

“I think all these clubs will be staying in the bag. I don’t know why I took the putter out in the first place” added Casey. “This putter is wonderful on fast greens so I grabbed it from the truck yesterday. The course is impeccable, and if you pick a line and strike the ball properly you’re going to have a hard time missing putts.”

European Tour players enjoyed a rewarding time in the baking heat, with another Englishman, Lee Westwood, muscling his way into the frame in a share of fourth place along with five other players, including defending champion and five-time winner, Tiger Woods, after rounds of 68.

Justin Rose maintained England’s prominent showing by sharing tenth place after an opening 69 while 2003 champion Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland and South Africa’s Ernie Els are tied for 14th on level par 70.

Westwood, who has employed Colin Montgomerie’s former caddie, Alastair McLean, for the next two weeks in the United States, was delighted with his driving accuracy on a course which can penalise the errant shot off the tee.

“I was very pleased with my driving. You have to keep it in play round this course” said Westwood, who revealed that his new relationship with McLean hadn’t begun auspiciously. He explained: “We were between clubs at the first and second, so that wasn’t ideal! Seriously, though, he is a very experienced caddie and it’s important over the next two weeks to have someone who knows what it’s all about.”

Rose, fresh from a week’s relaxation on a beach in the British Virgin Islands, where he attended the wedding of US PGA Tour player, Heath Slocum, managed to shake the rust from his game straight away with his round of 69.

Despite a niggling wrist injury, Rose was happy with his score. He said: “I didn’t feel my game was in great shape when I got here. I felt a bit under-prepared and a rushed so that was a good round in the circumstances. You have to keep stealing shots from this course and that’s what I did.”

Clarke became the first – and so far only – European player to record two WGC victories four years ago, but admitted after his 70 that he had never seen the course play as tough. He commented: “The rough is thicker than in the year that I won. I short-sided myself a few times and you can’t afford to do that.

“Considering I was three over after eight holes, even par isn’t a bad start. I had four good birdies and made a few more chances, so it was disappointing to bogey my final hole.”

Open Champion Padraig Harrington also dropped a shot at the last on his way to a respectable two over par 72, his first competitive round since that historic  moment at Carnoustie when he captured the Claret Jug.

“I need to get my head back in the right place after everything that’s gone on in the last ten days” said the Dubliner. “It’s all been a bit of a blur. It’s gone quickly but it’s been great. My abiding memory is of the actual putt dropping to win…as it travelled the last six inches towards the middle of the hole. There was no doubt it was going in but there was still a sense of disbelief. I don’t think a putt hit at perfect pace and direction has ever been doubted so much!”

Harrington, who has ordered 1000 No.18 green flags with the Open logo, jokingly talked about his first tee shot as Open Champion – and the crushing disappointment he felt as he stepped up to hit the ball.

He said: “I was really, really looking forward to the guy on the tee announcing ‘The Open Champion’ and he didn’t do it! They used to have a guy here who went into a lot of theatrics announcing the names and they sacked him because he did it too much. I wish he was here today!”

In the event, he had to make do with ‘Padraig Harrington, Ireland’. He needn’t have worried. Everyone grouped around the tee knew this was the player with a first Major title to his name – including the group of four people following him, each carrying 20 Carnoustie flags requiring his signature “for their grandchildren, naturally” added the new Champion.

There was a rollercoaster day in store for Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie, whose last ten holes included three birdies, one eagle, four bogeys and two pars. He couldn’t resist joking: “You read my card and it’s like someone’s telephone number! I made three twos on the back nine including a holed seven iron from 156 yards. We’ll try and hit more fairways tomorrow.”

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