Golf: Easy Ryder James takes up the reins

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The Independent Online
WHEN IT was put to Mark James a few days ago that he was the only man in the running for the Ryder Cup captaincy, he replied that it showed "how well things have been kept under wraps". The appointment of the 44- year-old tour veteran for the match at the Country Club of Brookline in Boston next September has been such an open secret that Ben Crenshaw, who will lead the Americans, already knew.

"Ben had been slipped the word and phoned me at five to six this morning to say `well done'," revealed James at his official unveiling on the eve of the BMW International in Munich. The pair are good friends and their selection as the two figureheads should lead the Ryder Cup further away from its nadir of xenophobia at Kiawah Island in 1991. "With the pair of us as captains, I can't see any controversial happenings," James added.

The first mission for James in his new role will be to attend a "year to go" press briefing at Brookline next month. So far his knowledge of the course, where Curtis Strange beat Nick Faldo in an 18-hole play-off for the US Open in 1988, is limited. "I know it is close to Boston," he said. His trademark dry sense of humour speckled the press conference. "I know I said three years ago that you would have to be mental to do the job, but now I feel I have the experience to handle it," James said. "But perhaps afterwards, I'll think I was right in the first place."

He added: "I have always enjoyed my relationship with the press," failing to keep a smile from his lips. "I have had great fun with the press over the years." It has not always been mutual and if he ever reads out his pairings at the rate he has at times rattled off the details of his birdies and bogeys in a round of golf, it will defeat modern digital recording equipment, let alone shorthand.

But maturity has settled on James's shoulders in time for the captaincy to follow suit. Born in Lancashire, James has long tended his garden in Ilkley on the other side of the Pennines. With 18 tour wins, he has risen to the chairmanship of the Tournament Committee and put behind him the misdemeanours of the second of his seven Ryder Cup appearances in 1979. At The Greenbrier, history records that he and Ken Brown were accused of missing team meetings and not wearing the team uniform. James was fined pounds 1,500 and Brown pounds 1,000. "That all happened 20 years ago," James said. "Oceans of water has passed under the bridge since then. I think it was more a question of attitude than misdemeanours.

"Things that did not happen have passed into folklore. Brian Barnes was supposed to have asked Ken and myself outside to sort it out but that never happened. It is not something I want to rake up after such a long time."

Ironically, James, who will have no official vice-captain, named Brown, nowadays a commentator for Sky TV, as one of his lieutenants, alongside Sam Torrance, should the Scot not qualify for the team. When Torrance won the French Open in June, he insisted he wanted to play next year but will start as favourite for the captaincy in 2001 back at The Belfry, where he secured the winning point in 1985.

That is fine with James. "It has virtually been decided that it will be a one-time appointment from now on," he said. "There are a lot of people who want to do the job." But not on this occasion. "I have had nothing but a positive reaction from the other players. One of my strengths is my relationship with other players. It was a question of whether I wanted to do the job and the bottom line was that I thought it would nice to have a go."

His first test will not come until exactly a year's time when James will return to Munich to announce his two wild cards to add to the 10 automatic qualifiers. As chairman of the committee who voted to retain the system so heavily criticised last time - not least by his predecessor Seve Ballesteros - James knows what he has let himself in for. "There are going to be people who are disappointed but it is something I am not afraid of handling," he said. "This is going to be a tough team to get into. We have the best of the last generation and the best of the new generation already coming through."

One other matter of a Ryder Cup nature was on the agenda in Munich, with the signing of the agreement to stage the 2005 match in Ireland. Ken Schofield, the PGA European Tour executive director, said the committee had talked to five clubs but no announcement would be made until after the Americans decide the 2003 venue next year. The Irish candidates were not named, but the favourite is the K Club, with Mount Juliet, Druids Glen and Portmarnock also certain to be shortlisted.