Golf: James on the strain gang

THE INTERVIEW: MARK JAMES; Europe's Ryder Cup captain is already formulating his game plan for Brookline.
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The Independent Online
WITH MARK JAMES, it is a question of hats. Figuratively, he wears far more of them than just the slightly ill-fitting baseball cap bearing the brief name of an equipment manufacturer in large letters on the peak. Similarly, there is far more to him than the often dour-seeming character hiding beneath it.

Avid gardener, obsessed sci-fi fan, successful player, diplomatic administrator and, he hopes, Ryder Cup-retaining captain. There is plenty to talk about, it is just that James is keener to talk about certain things than others. Speculation of a hypothetical nature is among the latter. "Any new questions?" he said walking into his press conference at Wentworth last Monday. "Any new answers?" came the reply from his persistent interrogators.

Wentworth is a good place to start. By finishing second in the Volvo PGA Championship, he earned the first six-figure cheque of his 24-year career. It followed, on one hand, three missed cuts in a row and, on the other, some hard work with his long-time coach, Gavin Christie. "It was great to be in there," said James the player. "Coming second in a tournament like that is almost like winning a tournament."

To James the chairman of the Tournament Committee, the fact that his cheque for pounds 144,000 was some pounds 60,000 greater than he had ever won before shows what a big tournament the PGA has become. The four years for which James has held his position have seen huge changes on the European tour. There have been the co-sanctioned tournaments in the Southern Hemisphere, the new World Championship events, increased purses and improvements in venues and course conditions.

His committee do not take the business decisions, but provide a vital link between the executive and the players. "Chairing the committee does not take up much of my time, so it is not exactly back-breaking work," James said. "But now I think the players think they have more say in the decision-making process. Of course, that may or may not be a good thing from the point of view of the people who run the Tour, but I think it is good that players know what's going on and feel involved and that they are being listened to."

It was James's ability to get on with the myriad of characters who make up the Tour that made him a strong candidate to lead Europe against the Americans at Brookline in September. But first there came James the Ryder Cup player. Although there is more European representation at the American majors - typically, James thinks there should be more - it is still the case that the Ryder Cup represents the highest stage for more Europeans than Americans. James was the classic example.

"If you are not going to win majors, the next way you are regarded is by playing in the Ryder Cup. For most of my career, that has been my aim. I certainly wasn't going to win the US Open because I have never been good at putting through hoops and around windmills. They trick the majors up, the US Open especially, the US PGA is not so bad. If you are not a reasonable putter it is actually pointless going to the Masters, except to have a look. Tournaments with greens at 13.5 on the stimpmeter and 15-foot putts with 10 feet of borrow - that, to my mind, is stupid."

James readily admits he is not the man for a Langer-style putt to win the Ryder Cup. "But if someone has a four or five-iron to the green, maybe I could step in." James played in seven teams but won only once, at Oak Hill in 1995. After losing a foursome with Howard Clark on the first morning, both men returned to win their singles and set Europe on course for a come-from-behind win. James beat Jeff Maggert 4 and 3.

"It is difficult not playing, sitting around, playing a few holes, practising, going out to support the other players. Then we both went out and won our singles and that was an achievement. Nerves kept hitting me through the singles match. It is like being in contention right from the start of the round.

"The Ryder Cup is difficult because you can be in the situation of playing under pressure when you are not actually playing well. You don't get that normally. It can be terrible. I played in 1993 and I'd lost form completely by the time the Ryder Cup had come round. That's why, over the years, people tend to pick players who are reliable as wild cards because you know exactly what you are getting. Even if they are having an off day, they will carry on and play reasonably under pressure."

So is that a clue the vastly experience Nick Faldo will get a call up? Perhaps not. With Jesper Parnevik possibly needing a pick and the enticing prospect of Sergio Garcia playing with Jose Maria Olazabal, James could have a tough decision to chew over with his assistants, Sam Torrance and Ken Brown. Although James says the role of the Ryder Cup captain has less influence than, say, an England football manager on the outcome - "I need to create the right environment to make the players feel comfortable, make sure I pick some sensible wild cards and put the players out in the right pairings" - he concedes such decisions can hold the key to the match.

"You look at the Curtis Strange pick in '95 for the Americans. It can seem as if it can lose the match. It is very difficult because anyone can pick someone who suddenly goes off form. There are a lot of players being thrown around for wild cards at the moment, but these things tend to focus down to just a few players. I can see a situation where I have to pick two out of three possibles. It will be a shame if I have to leave out someone who I would want in the team, but that's life.

"The pairings, all you can do is make the right decision at the time. The problem is that an hour later, it can be the wrong decision. I could not believe in '91 that Bernard [Gallacher] was criticised for not playing Paul Broadhurst until the second afternoon, and then he wins two points. But Paul was hitting it sideways in practice. I thought Bernard made some great pairing decisions. He always had his finger on the pulse and then everyone says he got it wrong. I thought he captained it perfectly in '91. Sometimes you just lose. He made the right decisions at the right time. It is easy to say it is wrong an hour later."

Telling players they are not playing will not be a problem. "You just tell them and when they do finally pop in they will be fine." What he wants, though, is to have as many players available as possible to play five times in the three days. "With the advent of more younger players getting in the team you can ask more of the form players to play five times. No question as the average age of the team creeps up, there are players who are not physically fit enough to play five rounds.

"It is a problem for the captain if he has players who don't want to play every match. You want players going into it desperate to play every match. But that is physically and mentally exhausting. Always after the Ryder Cup I was very, very tired. I never thought of playing the week afterwards.

"It is like playing two tournaments in one week. You have three practice rounds. We will arrive on the Monday morning and no doubt some players will play then. It is a phenomenal amount of golf to play in seven days. Some people could play nine rounds, as well as going to the social occasions, the cocktail parties, the media requests, photo shoots, opening and closing ceremonies, and generally being under pressure."

Does that sound like a man who wants to play for an eighth time? His rise to seventh in the Ryder Cup standings has not had him thinking of giving up the captaincy. "Not at the moment no, absolutely not. I suppose, if I were to qualify for the team, I'd have to sit down and think about it, because the bottom line is that if one of our top-10 qualifications doesn't play, it is a weaker team."

But for most of the rest of June, James will be tending to the garden. The one thing he will not be doing is adding tournaments to chase points. "My schedule is written in stone," he confirmed. James the stonewaller. With that he was off and, like a famous opening batsman of his adopted Yorkshire, retook his guard against a new journalist attack. "I am enjoying this," he said. "The only problem is that I haven't been able to read a sci-fi book for two weeks."

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