Generation gap the test for Europe

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The Independent Online
Scanning the scoreboard at Wentworth you wonder where the next great European golf personality is coming from; plenty of young players capable of winning on their day but no obvious successor to champions who will reach middle-age in the not-so-distant future.

This year the European Tour already has six first-time winners. Try Sven Struver of Germany, Paul Lawrie and Raymond Russell of Scotland, Diego Borrego of Spain, Peter Hedblom of Sweden and an Irish aspirant to golfing fame, Padraig Harrington. All have passed the pounds 300,000 mark in prize money and Lawrie may have a point to make today when he goes off just one shot off the leaders in the Volvo PGA Championship, but a good question is will any of them come through as a headliner? Will they attract galleries that are not made up merely of family, friends and loyal compatriots?

Looking at the up and comers you have to wonder is there a Severiano Ballesteros, a Nick Faldo, a Bernhard Langer or an Ian Woosnam out there?

Over the past 17 years, Faldo, Ballesteros, Langer, Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and Jose Maria Olazabal between them have won 17 major titles. All are Masters champions. Last year's memorable Ryder Cup victory on American soil underlined a remarkable period for European golf but it was achieved by men who are mostly closing on their 40th year.

For some time the best young players have come and gone like swallows. Up there one season, gone the nest, the experience ephemeral.

According to people who are constantly in touch with the European tour, this can probably be traced to improved standards and technological developments. If the ball does not end up in the intended location, it now travels a damn sight farther. Bunker play is now such a polished art generally that a ball in sand is considered to be no more than a minor experience.

A fairly obvious conclusion is that it has become more difficult to be a consistent winner. These days contenders are coming from all directions. As we have seen this season, every week can bring a different winner, another guy well on his way to eliminating financial imperatives.

Trouble is that every sport needs heroes to inspire future generations. Some years ago, Paul Way looked like coming into that exalted category. In 1983, at just 20, he partnered Ballesteros in two Ryder Cup wins and beat Curtis Strange in the singles. When he secured the PGA championship in 1985, people spoke of Way as the game's next superstar.

Soon afterwards, Way's career went into reverse and coming into this tournament he had disappeared from the Sony world rankings, hundreds were ahead of him. Yesterday, Way reminded us of what might have been. A 69 including an eagle at the 18th put him at five under par and in contention.

The PGA Tour recently made a great deal of the fact that Roger Chapman, who has not got a victory to his name, is the 30th player to surpass pounds 1m in career earnings. No slight is intended, and doubtless Chapman retains plenty of ambition, but that so much can be made without finishing in first place may be part of the problem I am going on about.

Some years ago, when he was long into retirement, I remember one of the greatest golfers in history, Ben Hogan saying that he could never afford to rest on his laurels. "There just wasn't enough prize money to make you complacent," he said. "If I won a major championship I had to be out there next week trying for at least a top-six finish. It was the only way you could make a good living from the game."

Times have changed, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, but when you look at scoreboards today there are still plenty of the older guys up there. Last year, for example, Sam Torrance who will shortly be 43, finished second to Colin Montgomerie in the Volvo ranking. Mark McNulty, 43, and Costantino Rocco, 40, are leading the field at Wentworth.

Unlike most sports professional golf is not the prerogative of youth but what the game needs is an injection of fresh faced exuberance.