Ian Woosnam: One year to go and warrior Woosie lays down gauntlet

Europe's new Ryder Cup captain has issued a strong warning to any self-styled automatic choices. James Corrigan joins him in Jersey
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The Independent Online

"It's too soon to get excited or worried yet," he says, the froth conveniently building to disguise whether the lips are indeed quivering or not. "Come back and see me in six months' time."

But then, responding to a question positively widget-like in whipping up the effervescence, the ring-pull on Woosnam's underlying tension is suddenly yanked back. "I want you to quote me on this," he says, doing everything but swallowing the tape recorder whirring before him. "I want all the players to make an effort to qualify. If they haven't made the effort, then I don't see why I should pick them. I want them to realise that it won't be a case of 'just because I'm a great player I'm gonna get in that team'."

Who this warning was meant for is knowingly veiled behind those dreaded vicissitudes of time and the qualifying system, but any "would-be automatic captain's pick" would be well advised to heed it, as Woosnam doesn't do privilege. In fact, he has spent most of his life waging his own private war against it, railing at what he has perceived as the injustice that he had to rise the hard way, yet isn't always applauded for doing so. It's what makes the call to the K-Club so special.

"Yes, that's right. Being appointed in front of Nick Faldo, that's been brilliant for me. I didn't have an amateur career or anything like that. I did have international honours, but not like the [Sandy] Lyles and the Faldos and those guys. I've had to work for it, and it's been nice when you get it. Sometimes you don't always get the recognition you deserve."

Indeed, that might have been the motto of Woosnam and the rest of the famous European quintet who fronted up to the Americans with so much personal ambition staked under the flag of their continent. Seve Ballesteros might have been the inspiration, Lyle the talent, Bernhard Langer and Faldo the preparation, but the wee Welshman was always the fight. It's an attribute he is obviously proud of, inherited as it was from a father who "drummed into me at an early age that the only way to be the best at anything was to work much harder than anyone else, to be harder than anyone else".

To emphasise his point, a memory stirs of Harry the farmer dragging his two boys into the fighting booths while holidaying at Pwllheli. "There was this well-known Welsh champion in the ring and when they asked for people off the floor to have a go, dad, of course, jumped in there. Then - wallop! The champion was spark out. Dad always wanted to be a boxer, and he would have been a good one too, but my grandparents said, 'No chance, you farm'."

Luckily for Europe and, more so, Wales - who boast a World Cup and their only major thanks to this son of the borders - in contrast to, or perhaps because of, his own experiences, Harry decided to encourage his son's dreams, so much so that in 1975 he sold his cherished dairy cattle and switched to arable farming to support Ian's burgeoning career.

Giving up beef has never proven so good for anyone, as the young professional was to highlight by rewarding his father's faith right up until he died three years ago. Talking to Woosnam now you can sense the sadness he feels that his mentor is not around to share in what could yet reprise his finest hour. "It could be as big as my Masters win, this," he says.

If it proves otherwise - and Woosnam doesn't seem wholly comfortable with the unfamiliar tag of favourites - it won't be for the lack of spirit. He is certain of that. "I've battled all my life and I'll be a sort of battling sort of captain, I guess. I'm not saying I'll hand out bollockings or anything, but I'm sure the little tiger will come out in me. I hope that it will come out in everybody."

The "everybody" is the moot word here, as so much has already been said and written about who will, or more to the point, who won't be, at his disposal as Europe try to retain the trophy they won so emphatically at Oakland Hills two years ago. From once bemoaning the fact that so many of his prospective charges are competing in America, Woosnam has recently taken on board the argument of the European Tour's chief executive, George O'Grady, that it's not all as gloomy as it once seemed. "Yeah, George was saying that we have 13 Europeans in the top 50 now, more than we've ever had before. That's brilliant. If you look at it that way, I'm a little less worried."

Nevertheless, the Welshman is still not expecting all of this established guard to be in his sentry next year. Somewhat surprisingly, Woosnam is quick to stress how he is yearning for some fresh blood to keep the European body as fresh as it has always appeared. "We have a lot of young lads: [Henrik] Stenson is playing well, thingy- bob [Nick] Dougherty is playing well. They want to make the team and be a presence in golf. That's the way to go. No doubt about it.

"The young guys aren't scared of the Americans one bit. They known damn well they can beat them. They're hungry, they want to prove themselves and this is a good stage to do that."

It is a stage that Woosnam will have them ready to strut on, if his best intentions come to fruition. Watching the US reclaim the Solheim Cup last weekend, Woosnam was struck by the team ethic Nancy Lopez's unit showed. "That's where the Europeans have always been strong. Maybe Nancy's looked into that, and I'd expect Tom [Lehman, the American captain] to do likewise. He's got to, because on paper his is the stronger team. That's why we've got to stay a few steps ahead with our togetherness. We'll be fetching them in to sample the atmosphere of everybody together."

A beer might even be taken in the process, as Woosnam is known to like one. In his element in relaxed company, he seems the perfect skipper, one who can turn serious when he needs to and has never found it anything like insurmountable to say exactly what he's thinking.

As evidence, a representative of Hi-Tec, the shoe company whose CDT range he swears by, tells of the relationship they enjoy with their player. "The great thing about him is that he doesn't talk crap," he said. "We know that if we brought a journalist like yourself to meet him here and Woosie didn't rate our shoes he'd tell you straight, no qualms at all. That's kept us on our toes, always trying to get things right for him."

The boot, so to speak, is on the other foot now as Woosnam reveals how busy he has been with his duties. "It was a good job I was announced as captain 18 months before, as if you only had a year you would have to crowd everything in a little bit. Doing the clothing, which colours we're going to wear, which waterproofs, setting up the golf course, the hotel, the suits, the shoes, the lot."

When all that's finished it should be September 2006, and it will be time for what he's been picked for: the selections. And although he expresses his by-now stock answer - "Let's see who's playing like what" - it is impossible not to feel his frustration that he does not have a role at this week's Seve Trophy, the match between Jose Maria Olazabal's Continent of Europe and Colin Montgomerie's Great Britain and Ireland.

"It would have been nice to be involved, but I didn't bother talking to Monty about it. That's the way they've decided to do it and I'll be watching on TV. No dramas. I can still see how the pairings are doing and all that. But at the end of the day, what can I do? I can only put out the pairings and sure make they're happy. You know how these things go. It can turn around. I can be a hero or I can be crap. Not that much to worry about, really."

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 2 March 1958 in Oswestry.

Family: Married Glendryth in 1983. Son Daniel (20), daughters Rebecca (17) and Ami (14).

Career highlights: Turned pro in 1976. First victory in 1982 Swiss Open. Has won 44 titles around the world, including one major, the 1991 Masters. Won European Tour Order of Merit in 1987 and 1990. Played in nine Ryder Cups and is captain for 2006. In 1987 became the first golfer to win £1m in a calendar year. In 1990-91 was No 1 in the world for 51 weeks.

Hobbies: Fishing, snooker. Became president of the World Snooker Association in November 1999.

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