Golf: James plays the waiting game

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The Independent Online
AT THE presentation ceremony for the Volvo PGA Championship on Monday afternoon, Colin Montgomerie, the victor, paused while congratulating his nearest challengers. "Mark has a dilemma now," he said of the runner- up, Mark James, Europe's Ryder Cup captain. "He is up to seventh in the Ryder Cup points. I think he should play and Jane can captain the team."

True to type, James's poker face betrayed no clues. At each of James's seven appearances in the biennial transatlantic match, his wife Jane has been one of the most prominent cheerleaders among the wives and partners of the European team. Already this year she has been busy helping with a lot of the off-course arrangements, such as picking the team uniforms.

Mark has stuck to talking up the match in the endless stream of press conferences and interviews. To this the 45-year-old Mancunian, who has long since decamped across the Pennines to Ilkley, has brought his own particular deadpan approach, playing down anything that might reveal his thoughts on the tricky subject of team selection.

His recent run of three missed cuts in a row suggested James may have been distracted by his new duties. But, in fact, he had been working hard with his longtime coach, Gavin Christie, and the results could be seen in a last round of 66 which gave him second place at Wentworth, albeit five behind an unstoppable Montgomerie.

The cheque he received for pounds 144,500 was the biggest of his career and, following a third place in the Dubai Classic and a second in the Madeira Open, he is now comfortably in the top 10 who qualify automatically for the match at Brookline, in Boston, in September. "Never say `never'," is James's motto. "I might win four tournaments and the Open," he suggested. He has also said: "If I get close I'll just take six weeks off."

What is certain is that James will not try to be a playing captain but the suspicion is that he would have to really be playing outstanding golf to give up the captaincy.

"I guess one way or another, I'll be there," he said. "I don't really mind whether I play or captain. I'm looking forward to captaining the side. I'm excited about that and it's something I'm enjoying, but then playing in a way is enjoyable as well.

"At the moment it is a bit too early to say anything but I guess if this were to go on much longer I would have to sit down with the powers that be and think about what might happen. Really, that's all I can say. It's better not to, isn't it? Then nobody can come to me in a few months time and say, `you said this, you plonker'."

No one is more aware of the erratic nature of the game than James. "My most consistent feature is my inconsistency," he says. Anyway, he has the perfect solution. He will not play for three weeks after this weekend's English Open. "I've got other commitments," he said. "There are vegetables to be picked."

Montgomerie stated prior to the Benson and Hedges International that he wanted to win two of the next three events. Now he has. "I just wanted to build up my own confidence and seeing it in print helped. I didn't honestly think it was going to happen but it is always nice to win in Britain. It is also nice when someone like Ernie Els says you are the man to beat."

Els has also suggested that Montgomerie, on this form, can win a major. His next chance is the US Open at Pinehurst in a fortnight. "The game is played in the six inches between your ears and I have great confidence and self-belief right now. I need to take that confidence and self-belief to Pinehurst."

The US Open is often an exception, but on many of Montgomerie's trips to America those qualities that he holds to overflowing at home seem to be refused entry at US customs. His six weeks in the States in March and April were a prime example. He was a pale shadow of his European No 1 status.

Mentally, Montgomerie appears to be as Nick Faldo is technically. Both are tremendously strong in those particular departments but, if just short of 100 per cent, the overall performance is markedly reduced. Els has his own observations. "Monty is a first-class competitor," he said. "There is no one in his class over here. What he has done in Europe will never be equalled.

"Why has he not won in America? There he is obviously not so confident and the players are more cocky. There are 30 Colin Montgomeries to beat every week, not four or five as in Europe. You really have to play to your absolute best."

Montgomerie pointed to the fact that when he shot a final round 65 to win the European Grand Prix at Slaley Hall, he arrived at Congressional for the 1997 US Open and scored exactly the same in the opening round. "Same player, same score, much tougher golf course," he said.

But a 76 followed the next day and the Scot went on to lose by one to Els. "That 76 should have been no worse than a 71," he said. Your bad rounds have to be no more than par. I have managed three good rounds in the States, now I have to make it four good rounds."