Golf: Rising stars complement Monty on revitalised tour

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The courses may not always have been up to scratch but the players were. The European tour came to a soggy end at the weekend with Colin Montgomerie again the No1 but, says Andy Farrell, hopes for the future have not been dampened.

Ken Schofield has known better wet, rainy Sundays in Spain than the one two days ago. Valderrama and the Ryder Cup this was not.

Schofield's early morning flight was diverted to Tangiers because of storms in Andalucia. He arrived at Montecastillo to find a flooded golf course and just in time to cut the season-ending championship, the Volvo Masters, to 54 holes, amid an atmosphere of extreme reluctance among the players for any other alternative.

Then there was ample time for a study of what exactly it is that makes the departure lounge at Gibraltar airport the most depressing in the world before finally heading back to Wentworth in the early hours of Monday.

It would have been a fitting end to this year's European tour but for the fact that Lee Westwood had just clinched the biggest title of his career and the news from Colin Montgomerie yesterday. In ruling out a move full-time to the US tour, the European No 1 for five years running said it was "inconceivable that I should choose to leave at this crucial stage" in the tour's development.

Montgomerie will play more in America next year, in an attempt to find the right formula for winning a major championship, but his base will still be on the European tour. Schofield, naturally, was delighted. "Colin's record speaks for itself," he said.

"The playing standards he has consistently set are the very highest in international golf. In welcoming and strongly supporting Colin's intended 1998 European and international playing schedule, the challenge to all tour members will again be to reach and match his standard."

Though he only won twice and did not beat his own money record, Montgomerie had to work hard for his fifth title. He may have won three times in 1996, but he only had eight top-10 finishes compared with 11 this year. His total of 177 under par and stroke average of 69.37 were both personal bests.

"Standards are improving all the time in Europe," Montgomerie said. "There is a big challenge to win here. We have some very, very good young players. I'm sure the European tour will go from strength to strength. Three years ago when Nick Faldo left we were looking for good young players and there weren't any. Now there is Westwood, Clarke, Bjorn, Garrido and Harrington."

Westwood's victory took him from sixth last year to third in the money list, behind Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer. He was one of only 16 players to make the cut in all four major championships, a list that included only two other Europeans, Montgomerie and Jesper Parnevik. Still only 24, he made an impressive Ryder Cup debut at Valderrama.

"Lee may be the top of the tree," Montgomerie said. "I've always rated him. He is a great asset for the European tour. He is a confident lad and has got a very bright future." Westwood learnt a lot from playing with Nick Faldo in the Ryder Cup, but also from being in opposition to Montgomerie.

"I've played with him that often this year, that I realised I needed to improve my putting," Westwood said. "I worked really hard on my putting in the second half of the year, as well as the rest of my short game. Although he hits so many fairways and greens, Monty's short game does not get enough credit."

Padraig Harrington was probably the most frustrated player at Montecastillo. The Irishman was lying second to Westwood and a win would have given a chance at an invitation to the US Masters. But he added an eighth-place finish on the money list to his 11th spot last year, while the 1996 Rookie of the Year, Thomas Bjorn, was 15th despite missing large portions of the season with injuries.

A mass exodus to the US tour, once a possibility, now looks unlikely. Westwood and Darren Clarke, the Open runner-up who like Montgomerie has decided not to take up his US tour card, will play more in America on invitations, as Per-Ulrik Johansson would like to do instead of going to the US Qualifying School to get a card and desert Europe totally.

Apart from the youngsters, the best news of the season was the re-emergence of the broom-handled Langer and the return of Jose Maria Olazabal. He played his best golf of the year early on when he was just glad to have got over his foot injuries, but after two weeks rest he was challenging in third place at Montecastillo.

The downside was the cracks that appeared in the tour, or rather, the greens. Crans-sur-Sierre was appallingly sub-standard and came a year after the fiasco at Collingtree Park. But what also concerned the players was that two important events - the BMW International at Eichenreid which decided the Ryder Cup team, and the Volvo Masters at Montecastillo - were played on courses not challenging enough for tournaments of that status.

"There are lessons to be learned," Montgomerie said. With the game about to go global from 1999 with the introduction of the World Golf Championships, Schofield knows the European tour must absorb those lessons.

Comments