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Paul Casey leads strong British showing in first round at Birkdale

SOUTHPORT, England - There cannot have been many golfers at Royal Birkdale happier with their lot than Paul Casey after the first round of The Open.

Never mind that there were a few names above the Briton's on the leaderboard, he was justly satisfied with a 4-under 66, and that was not all. As he prepared to reach the middle-age landmark birthday of 40 on Friday, there seemed little in his life that wasn't spot on.

Paul Casey shares a joke with caddie Johnnie McLaren on his way to a 4-under 66 in the first round at Royal Birkdale. Warren Little/R&A/R&A via Getty Images
"I'm loving being back in England," the Arizona resident said. "The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale may be my favourite links course of any on the rotation. It's so fair, so beautifully designed, bunkering perfect, conditions great. Yeah, so many cool things about it, just the whole week so far has been perfect.

"I've always loved this week because my birthday has been on or around it. I love going to work on my birthday -- I genuinely do. It's just cool. What can I say, walking down 18 is a great experience. And apparently life begins at 40, so maybe it's a good omen for me."

Casey's life on and off the course is settled and it shows. He's more comfortable than he was at other points in his career when opening up about his life and he clearly feels comfortable in his skin.

Sure, he can be regarded as one of the best players never to win a major, but the run of seven consecutive majors with a first-time winner should give enough encouragement that his time can still come.

"When Johnnie McLaren came on the bag, it was kind of a five-year bag to try and win one of these, win a major," Casey said.

"The Open has never been the one I've seem to have fared the best at. I seem to have struggled apart from St. Andrews when Louis [Oosthuizen] won [in 2010; Casey finished in a tie for third]. But I feel really good about this week. Don't know why. Maybe I'm more in love with links golf than I was before.

"Not putting that much pressure on myself, but very much wanting to win it. The odds are in my favour -- seven first-time winners. So, yeah, it would be a hell of a party."

A birthday party, that is, the key celebrations for which are being postponed until Casey has finished at Birkdale. Then he is planning another holiday from golf, something he has just enjoyed and feels has benefitted his play.

"It's nice to show that the break does me good," keen cyclist Casey said, having just spent a week on a bike in the Italian hills. "I felt like I had to do something today because, one: you've got already a very strong leaderboard, and, two: everybody says everybody is going to get wet tomorrow.

"It's like, make hay while the sun is shining. I'm not a massive fan of playing in the rain. I'm not sure any of the guys are. It's important to capitalize on good conditions."

Casey's first day at the 146th Open was a very different experience to that of his last visit to Royal Birkdale in 2008 when he got caught in "the worst conditions I may have ever played in", shot a 78 and was left playing catch-up.

The conditions were not as bad this time around, but the early starters didn't have it easy, so it must have been pleasing from the home fans' perspective for there to be so many upbeat stories from the British contingent.

The leaderboard was encouraging, with Englishmen Ian Poulter and Richard Bland, Welshman Stuart Manley, and Scottish pair Martin Laird and Richie Ramsey all within three shots of the American leaders.

And there were some nice tales among the local boys, too. Andrew Johnston, who shot a 1-under 69, became perhaps the first player to be introduced on the first tee at a major by his nickname - Beef.

"I didn't know it was coming until I got on the tee," said Johnston. "He [David Lancaster, the official starter] said, 'I am going to call you Beef.' That was pretty cool. 'I better hit a good tee shot now'."

The crowd favourite would be happy if such introductions became a trend at other tournaments, and Manley would probably enjoy repeats of this first round, too: he was making his debut at a major, aged 38, and was an early clubhouse leader having battled the weather to a 2-under 68. The golfing journeyman was a talented footballer and had trials with Manchester United in his youth, but never regretted his decision to play golf.

The biggest disappointment for British hopes came closest to home. Local player Tommy Fleetwood, who was considered among the favourites coming into the tournament, carded a 6-over 76 but paid testament to the support he received. "They [the spectators] are absolutely brilliant," he said. "They did their part, I just couldn't quite do mine."

Source: http://www.espn.com/golf/theopen17/story/_/id/20116296/golf-open-championship-paul-casey-leads-strong-british-showing-first-round-royal-birkdale

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