Rivals becoming partners
The rivalry is natural, but so is the bond between David Howell and Paul Casey.
Especially this week at the Ryder Cup.
Howell is a late-bloomer from England whose stock rose when he beat Tiger Woods at the HSBC Champions event in China last fall, and captured the BMW Championship at Wentworth -- Europe's version of The Players Championship in May.
Casey has long been regarded as one of England's most promising players, and he is coming off the biggest victory of his career last week at Wentworth in the World Match Play Championship, which sent him past Howell and to No. 1 in the Order of Merit.
"We're very comfortable in each other's company," Howell said Wednesday. "We're vying for the top of the Order of Merit money list at the moment. We're good friends and I think we've enjoyed playing together. The Ryder Cup experience is something we'll always have in our memory banks."
They were Ryder Cup rookies at Oakland Hills two years ago, which Europe won 18 1/2 -9 1/2 , its largest margin in history.
It is difficult to pick out a single match that turned the tide, especially since the Ryder Cup was such a rout, but Howell and Casey might have dealt the harshest blow to the American team.
Europe built a 6 1/2 -1 1/2 lead after the first day, and the United States was poised to rally Saturday morning. Sure enough, the Americans were ahead in all the fourball matches, poised to cut into the lead. Then, Chad Campbell knocked in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole for a 1-up lead over Casey and Howell, the English rookies playing their first Ryder Cup match.
The response was swift and pivotal.
Howell hit 6-iron to 8 feet on the tough par-3 17th for a birdie, a shot that later was voted the best of 2004 on the European Tour. Casey followed by making a nervy 6-foot par putt to win the 18th, giving Europe a 1-up victory and stopping U.S. momentum.
"We were fortunate of having that experience of winning a point together," Howell said.
The partnership continued last year at the Seve Trophy -- Ryder Cup-styled matches between Great Britain & Ireland and continental Europe -- and won three out of four matches.
European captain Ian Woosnam might put them together again, although Howell and Luke Donald of England are a possibility, having won the 2004 World Cup. One thing appeared certain, however -- Howell and Casey likely won't spend as much time on the bench. That crucial fourball victory was their only team match, and both lost their singles matches -- Casey to Tiger Woods, Howell to Jim Furyk.
"I'm eager to play as much as possible, and I'm at Ian's disposal," Casey said. "If that means one or two matches, fine. If that means all five, brilliant. But I'm very keen to play as many as I can."
Given their success at Oakland Hills, and their individual play over the last year, Howell and Casey could be on their way to a stellar team that has marked European success over the last 20 years, such as Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, or Woosnam and Nick Faldo.
Their personalities are nothing alike.
Howell is humble with a deliciously dry sense of humor, at ease with making fun of himself or needling stars such as Faldo or Colin Montgomerie. Casey is brash and confident, in speech and in a style of play that produces birdies by the bushels at times.
Casey caught plenty of heat last year at the World Cup two years ago for saying in an interview with a British newspaper that he learned to "properly hate" the Americans during the Ryder Cup, and that U.S. fans can be "bloody annoying," and that the vast majority of Americans don't know what's going on in the world.
Some of it was taken out of context, but it affected him the following year.
"I made a mistake last time around," he said Tuesday. "I regret what happened, and some of the reporting was out of my control. But there are 24 friends here. If we look at the bigger picture, this is just a game."
The only two rookies for Europe this time around are two Swedes, Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson.
Inexperience comes from the Americans this time, with four players who will be making their Ryder Cup debut on Friday -- Vaughn Taylor, J.J. Henry, Brett Wetterich and Zach Johnson. It was not clear which of them will play on opening day, if any. Not was it clear how often they would play, a situation Howell and Casey remember well.
What can they expect in their first match?
"It's a different feeling than any other time in your career," Howell said. "That's why the Ryder Cup is so great. You experience different emotions than you do normally. The best thing we did two years ago was watch everybody tee off that first morning. I think only one person hit the fairway, and that certainly calmed us down. We couldn't do any worse."
Now, much more is expected of them.
Donald, Howell and Casey are a trio of Englishman who are starting to leave their mark in golf, all of them in the top 20 in the world. Two of them likely will be partners this week at the Ryder Cup, where memories have been nothing but positive.
They have played in only one Ryder Cup. And they don't know what it's like to lose.