Casey's Blooming as Rose Just Wilts; Cool Paul Puts Himself in the Hunt but Justin Finds It's All Too Much

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Byline: PETER HIGGS

AN ENGLISHMAN could win the US Masters here in Georgia today - but not the one we expected. On the day that second round leader Justin Rose crashed spectacularly out of contention, British hopes were given an unexpected lift by Paul Casey.

The 26-year-old from Surrey is not as well-known as Rose, whose exploits as a 17-year-old at the 1998 Open Championship thrust him into the national spotlight, where he has returned at various stages of his five-year professional career.

Yet Casey, the 2001 European Tour Rookie of the Year, has quietly risen through the ranks to become England's No1 player at 28th in the world and shown himself to be a potential star of the future through his prodigious long-hitting and calm competitiveness.

After starting yesterday in 14th, six shots off the lead, the former US college star returned a round of 68 to move into third place on his own, two shots behind the leaders, Americans Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, who are on six under par.

And Casey, who had four birdies in his front nine of 32, was close to an even better score when he missed an eight footer for birdie on the 17th and then struck a magnificent bunker shot to three feet at the final hole - only to miss the birdie putt.

His playing partner, Mark O'Meara, was so impressed he predicted Casey could today become the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win on his debut at Augusta National.

'Paul is a very solid player,' said O'Meara. 'And I see no reason why he cannot come back on Sunday and finish this thing off. They say that a first-timer can't win here but Paul is smart and knows what he's doing. It can be tough for young players, as we've seen from Justin Rose. But Paul has shown that he manages himself very well and for that reason there's nothing to say he can't come close.' Casey, who qualified to play here by climbing into the world's top 50 in the last 12 months, has adopted a cautious attitude, while trying to ensure that he enjoys his initial experience of the revered shrine to Bobby Jones. Before the event began, he insisted that, although he wanted to play well straightaway, he did not expect to and thought he would take a few years to learn the course.

And that's the approach he will take into the final day. 'I'm just trying to have fun and learn from the experience,' he said. 'I started shakily but made a couple of birdies early on and that gave me confidence.

I wasn't on the back foot at any stage. The last round is going to be amazing, but I'll just try to enjoy it and see what happens.' Although Casey is making his debut in the Masters, he is at home in the US, having spent four years at Arizona State University, where he broke the scoring record of Mickelson, who, apart from being a mentor, has also become a close friend.

Casey is a former English Amateur champion and, during his college days, also broke a record held by Tiger Woods in winning the PAC-10 Championship (for a group of universities in the western states) with a 23-under-par total.

Casey has brought some friends over from England to enjoy the Augusta experience with him and has found the secret of relaxing by playing table-tennis every evening. …