Famous five on the 40th fairway

MASTERY AT AUGUSTA: The rise and fall of Europe's Evergreen Jackets Over the next 12 months, the most celebrated names in European golf all enter middle age. Andy Farrell asks where the next generation is

A week today, on the eve of his favourite tournament, the US Masters, Severiano Ballesteros celebrates his 40th birthday. No championship better illustrates the rise of European golf over the last 20 years. Ballesteros became the first from this continent to don a Green Jacket in 1980. He did so again in 1983, and would be followed by Bernhard Langer (twice), Nick Faldo (three times), and Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal (once each).

With the exception of Olazabal, all the others will also reach 40 within in the next 12 months: Faldo in July, Langer in August, Lyle in February next year and Woosnam a month later.

In all, the five have won 16 major championships. "The frequency with which majors have arrived with a European tag since Seve won the Open in July '79 has been nothing less than sensational," Ken Schofield, the executive director of the European Tour, said.

How long can that run continue? Golf may be kinder than other sports in offering an extended career - and a pension in the form of the Seniors tour - but experience has to bow to age at some time.

Ballesteros, though retaining a huge influence as Ryder Cup captain, and Lyle may have reached that point already. Langer and Woosnam can compete when their bodies allow, but only Faldo, next week's defending champion, is as strong as ever.

The fear is that the spate of 40th birthday parties over the next 11 months could also mark the end of an era for European golf. The next generation of European golfers does include two outstanding players, but there are question marks over both Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie.

Olazabal is making a comeback after a prolonged absence with arthritis and is barely able to contemplate playing more than two tournaments in succession. Montgomerie has come as close as you can to winning both the US Open and the US PGA, but the fact is that he has yet to win a major.

And apart from those two, who else is destined for major honours? Many names have been mentioned in hope, but few in expectation - which makes the arrival of the fab five at the same time all those years ago even more remarkable.

From April 1957 to March 1958, in alphabetical order, were born Ballesteros, who went on to learn the game with a three-iron on the beach at Santander; Faldo, who vacated the swimming pools and velodromes of Welwyn Garden City for its golf course after watching Jack Nicklaus at the Masters on television; Langer, the son of a Russian prisoner of war who became a caddie at the age of seven; Lyle, all but born with a golf club in his hands, the son of a club professional; and Woosnam, the Welshman whose strength came from carting around bales of hay on an Oswestry farm as a youngster.

Ken Brown, a member of the winning Ryder Cup teams of the 1980s alongside the big five and now a Sky TV commentator, knows from personal experience the difference between the quintet and their contemporaries.

"It comes down to personal talent and how determined a player is to become a great golfer," he said. "It was amazing that they all came at the same time, but they were all special competitors in their own right.

"Sandy had an enormous natural talent. Faldo had a lot of talent and was prepared to work like hell. Seve was a winner - he always wanted to win. Woosie was a battler: it took him a long time to establish himself on the tour, but he had a lot of guts to go with his ability. And Langer would just not give up - a brilliant tactician.

"For the British players, Tony Jacklin winning the Open in 1969 had a big effect, but it was Seve who pulled everyone along. He was the leader because he was runner-up in the Open in '76, then he won in America, won the Open and the Masters. He drew the others along in his slipstream. He was a young fellow who had a certain brilliance about his game, but he was not infallible by any stretch of the imagination"

Of course, the five fed off each other. Just as Braid, Taylor and Vardon did; and Hagen, Sarazen and Bobby Jones; Nelson, Snead and Hogan; Nicklaus, Palmer and Player; and Miller, Watson and Trevino.

The European Tour of the early 1980s was a time for seeking glory. A charismatic Australian, Greg Norman, and, to a lesser extent, the Zimbabwean Nick Price, arrived and every week on tour the rivalries between the most competitive players of their generation were extended further. Langer, Ballesteros, Norman, Faldo, Woosnam and Price have all been listed the best player in the world since the rankings started in 1986. Fred Couples, for 16 weeks, is the only other man to have been ranked No 1.

However, the European Tour of today is a different place. There is more than pounds 30m in prize money and live television coverage every week. The general standard is far higher, which only makes it more difficult to elevate yourself above the rest. Being a touring pro has become an honourable profession. Peter Mitchell, the winner in Madeira on Sunday, is a good example of a highly talented golfer making a good living for himself.

However, Brown, who won twice in America, wonders whether the young players are too prepared to stay at home. "I may be wrong, but I think that if you are going to become a top-class international player, you still have to come and prove yourself in America," he said.

"In Europe now, the facilities have improved, the prize-money has improved so you can make a handy living, but you don't win a Masters that way. The Thomas Bjorns, the Lee Westwoods, the Peter Bakers should be making that extra effort. I don't hold it against anybody if they don't, but I just feel sorry for anybody who doesn't want to give 100 per cent and see how far it will go."

Jesper Parnevik is one who has made the move to the States and prospered for it, though at the possible cost of a Ryder Cup place as long as the qualification rules remain centred largely on European Tour performances.

One reason Woosnam is thinking of joining him in America is to satisfy his sponsors. With the arrival of the 21-year-old phenomenon, Tiger Woods, the US Tour is again the happening place in golf. The US Tour Commissioner, Tim Finchem, said: "By every measuring stick - attendance, television ratings, media interest and others - Tiger's presence has provided a boost to the Tour and interest in the game."

Schofield remains philosophical. "It does go in cycles," he said. "Stars do not emerge off a conveyor belt even if you have the most sophisticated college system. We may be seeing that in British tennis, where we have a guy who might be a possible major champion. There have been moments in the last 20 years when we despaired whether that would ever happen.

"In cricket, we have lost the Bothams, Gowers, Gattings and Goochs, but we forget that, although in a team game, they did a lot of losing, particularly when the West Indies were world champions. The thing about our five players is that when they were at their best, they were the best, full stop. I don't think anyone can give them a bigger accolade."

Sandy Lyle

Born: 9.2.58

Turned pro: 1977

The rise: Won the Qualifying School in 1977 and topped the money list two years later. Never out of the top five on the Order of Merit for next six years. Became the first home player to win the Open for 16 years at Sandwich in '85. Enjoyed particular success in America, winning five times between '86 and '88, including the Masters (left) when his seven- iron out of the fairway bunker at the last left him with a priceless putt.

The fall... Unthinkable then that he would never again represent Europe in the Ryder Cup. Winless since '92 with lack of form in all areas from driving to putting.

Severiano Ballesteros

Born: 9.4.57 Turned pro: 1974

The rise... Second to Johnny Miller at Birkdale aged 19 in 1976, became Open champion three years later at Lytham. The "Car Park Champ" they called him. Erratic off the tee, blessed with genius in his recovery shots and on and around the greens. Always emotional, he won the Masters in '80 and '83 (above), plus the Open twice more in '84 and '88.

The fall... Did he burn too bright, too young? Back problems have exaggerated a failure to remodel his swing as he got older. Has not made a cut this year. What puzzles is how such a gifted player cannot find a safe shot to hit the fairway regularly.

Ian Woosnam

Born: 2.3.58 Turned pro: 1976

The rise: Went to the Q school three times before retaining his place on tour in '79. Last of the quintet to gain his maiden tour win, waiting until 1982. Won seven times around the world in '87 and five times in '90. The following year became the No 1 in the world and a fortnight later won at Augusta (above), beating Jose Maria Olazabal by a shot.

The fall... Admitted to becoming too technical after his major breakthrough and rediscovered his natural rhythm with Bill Ferguson to win four times last year. Back problems are his greatest worry and he had to withdraw from the Players' Championship last week.

Bernhard Langer

Born: 27.8.57 Turned pro: 1972

The rise: Consistent and unwavering, to his golf on the course and to his family and his faith off it. Mental strength never better illustrated than in winning the week after missing the putt which cost Europe the Ryder Cup at Kiawah in '91. Should have won an Open, but will settle for two Masters titles in '85 and '93 (left). Could not have done more to promote the game in Germany, where he has won nine times.

The fall... Downfall has always been his putting. Last year suffered the yips for the fourth time, breaking his run of winning on tour for 16 consecutive years. Confidence returning after turning to a broomhandle putter.

Nick Faldo

Born: 18.7.57 Turned pro: 1976

The rise... Announced himself by winning the PGA Championship three times in four years from '78. Always the perfectionist, spent '85 and '86 working with David Leadbetter on a new swing. From parring all 18 holes in the final round at Muirfield in '87, to overturning Greg Norman's six-shot lead at Augusta last year (left), his six major wins (the Open in '87, '90, & '92; the Masters in '89, '90, & '96) have been characterised by a determination to outlast everyone else. "Has laid a claim to be regarded as Europe's golfer of the century," says Ken Schofield.

The fall... Hasn't happened yet, but finding it ever more difficult to keep pace on the greens.

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