Golf: Captain's break with the past

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FIRST, THE good news. The European team captained by Mark James that will defend the Ryder Cup at Brookline next month contains the Masters champion in Jose Maria Olazabal, the Open champion in Paul Lawrie, the game's newest and youngest star in Sergio Garcia, two of the most consistent winners in world golf in Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood and a victor on the US Tour this season in Jesper Parnevik. In fact, this team has more winners and more titles so far this season than the American dream team that will oppose them and will be desperate to get the Cup back for the first time in six years.

Europeans won two of the majors, two Americans won the others. These statistics usually mean nothing. In both 1995 and 1997 - years of European Ryder Cup wins - no European won a major. The Americans always parade an impressive number of the highest world-ranked players, but the Europeans usually gel better as a team.

They will have to do so again, as any thoughts of American dissension over the payment issue continuing into the match itself can be forgotten. The one comparison that screams out is the number of rookies: one for the States in the form of the world No 2, David Duval, who has experience of the Presidents Cup, although that seems to be where he got the idea that its older cousin was an exhibition; and seven for Europe.

This will be the least experienced European team for more than two decades. The transition had to happen some time. The quintet of gloriously gifted players upon whom the European Tour and Europe's Ryder Cup victories were built are all now 41 or 42. Sandy Lyle went years ago, but it will be strange not to have any of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam or Bernhard Langer around.

Langer was the one who could have continued the link had he been named as a wild card alongside Parnevik, one of only four world top-20 players in Europe. "To go over there without Jesper would be inconceivable," James said. So too, it seemed, to be without the reliable German who has played in every Ryder Cup since 1981. No one has been partnered with more people in the event but he has come out on the winning side more often than not.

Instead, James went for Andrew Coltart, a seventh rookie, but the only one who had not played himself into the top 10 qualifying positions. James, who might have needed an armoured car rather than a courtesy car to Munich airport on Sunday night, revealed a lot when he said: "People said Sergio making the team [at the USPGA] made my job easier but it actually made it very hard." The only conclusion is that James saw no dilemma in Garcia, Parnevik and Langer all not qualifying and he had settled on the first two as his picks.

It is one thing not to do the thing the opposition expects you to do, but it is another not to do what your own team expects. Parnevik was left speechless when he heard Langer was not the other selection. "I played for the first time two years ago," the Swede said, "and it is very difficult. You don't really know what's going on. You have no idea what to expect and you are nervous the whole week. It is a very tough debut to make."

James said the decision between the Scot, Langer and Robert Karlsson, who finished 11th on the rankings after the BMW International, was made on recent form. Yet there was no overwhelming case to be made for any wild card on form, only one for experience. Perhaps James felt more comfortable with a clean break from the past, however ruthless.

"It doesn't matter who was there before," James said. "It's the standard of the players we have this time and we have a number of players who have shown they can come through and perform at the highest level. Look at Paul Lawrie and Jean Van de Velde at the Open, brilliant performances under the most severe pressure. Look at the way Andrew Coltart has played this week and Padraig Harrington as well. He had a bad start but came through to deliver the goods. If he has a four-footer, I won't be sweating. He'll be knocking it in."

Colin Montgomerie, who played with Harrington over the weekend in Munich, concurred about the Irishman. "He is a good putter and that makes you a difficult opponent in matchplay. Nothing deflates an opponent quicker than someone holing a few putts."

Monty was the only player, other than his assistants Sam Torrance and Ken Brown, that James consulted. Only on Friday, Montgomerie had spoken out at how hard it was being a rookie in the Ryder Cup and that having six on the team was a lot. Told there was about to be a seventh, he would have championed his countryman.

However much Coltart's selection appears another manifestation of James' occasionally perverse nature to do the unexpected, the 29-year-old is a determined character who has won the Australian PGA twice and the Qatar Masters in 1998. From now on there is only the team to think about, something the more individually-minded Americans, who put great store in who have qualified and who are the picks, usually forget. Coltart has risen to the occasion for Scotland in the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews but doing so at the Ryder Cup is like moving from the high jump to pole-vaulting, without the pole.

One man, or rather kid, who James is hoping can manage that leap is, of course, Garcia. "He is a new superstar and he is going to be brilliant to have on the team," the captain said. "He's going to be around for a long, long time and he replaces the odd superstar who has not made this team. He will be a huge asset to us."

Faldo is no longer that asset, as he finally acknowledged. "I have not played well enough this season," he said. "I was not even close to getting in." It was the manner in which the news was delivered that upset Faldo. His conversation with James on Friday night consisted solely of the captain saying: "Even if you win here, I am unlikely to pick you." As Europe's top player for so long, James should perhaps have found a more diplomatic way of breaking the inevitable. "It was that line which was the killer," Faldo said. "That knocked me over. Now at least I have a game plan."

Faldo will complete his minimum 15 events in the States and revert to playing most of his golf there next season. "I tried to do both this year and it didn't work out. I've got to start getting some consistency back and pick up some world ranking points," added the man rated 192nd in the world.