Golf: The value of Valderrama

Andy Farrell predicts a bright future for the rookies who found fame in Spain; Ryder Cup success could mark a sea change for European golf - or will it prove to be a freak wave?
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The Independent Online
Didn't they do well, as Brucie would have said. With 5 of their 12 players new to the event, Europe could not have won the Ryder Cup without important input from their rookies. But it was more than that. They were quite simply outstanding. "One of the keys of the week is that we saw the generation gap bridged," said Ken Schofield, executive director of the European tour.

Lee Westwood, as is his wont, put it more cheekily. "I'd like to thank all the really old guys, that are over 40, in the team for helping all the rookies through and giving them advice," said the 24-year-old from Worksop. "I just hope that there are facilities to cater for wheelchairs at the next Ryder Cup."

It was not just the way they performed. The American newcomers like Jim Furyk and Justin Leonard also played well, but it was the rookies on the Europeanteam who became absorbed into the special atmosphere of the match and were inspired to do things perhaps even they did not know were within them.

"The rookies on the team were fantastic," said their skipper and chief inspirer, Seve Ballesteros. "Finally, they realise now what the Ryder Cup means. They understand the importance of the Ryder Cup and that you go into the Ryder Cup to compete, not to participate."

It is an extraordinary conundrum of professional golf that players can spend more time participating than competing. Jesper Parnevik, who delivered the big things Ballesteros expected when he picked him as a wild card, and Darren Clarke have come close enough to winning major championships to realise what the difference is. "It was a lot tougher and a lot more exciting than I thought it would be," Parnevik said.

Westwood, Thomas Bjorn and Ignacio Garrido seem to realise it instinctively, too. Parachute any one of them into the last nine holes of a major championship - particularly the least heralded of the threesome, Garrido, with a short game that rates with those of Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal and his mental strength - and they would hold their own after their performances at Valderrama.

So is this the sea change that European golf has been searching for? Countless One-Cup Wonders have gone before. Since Olazabal made his debut 10 years ago, only Colin Montgomerie, who has played each time since 1991 and utilised that experience to gain the winning point so assuredly, and Per-Ulrik Johansson, who has appeared in the last two Cups, have played in the match after their debuts.

The list of those thought to have established themselves in the team on the strength of a fine first appearance, and yet have not been seen again, includes Ronan Rafferty, Steven Richardson, Paul Broadhurst, Peter Baker, Joakim Haeggman and Philip Walton, who secured the winning point only two years ago at Oak Hill. Nor have they, like Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam or Olazabal, used the experience to go on to major championship success. Predicting major success for this year's youngsters may be premature, but surely we have found replacements for such veteran Ryder Cuppers as Sam Torrance, Mark James and Howard Clark, who formed the backbone of the team through the late 1980s and early 1990s, right up to the 1995 match. "As far as I can see," said Woosnam, "it's going to be a great 10 years for the young guys who have come up."

"There has been a lot of talk about Tiger Woods this year and the other young Americans," said Langer, "but we have some great young players, too." Faldo agreed: "The American tour is far, far bigger in the dollar stakes but we've got a lot of character in this team."

It takes that character to play on the European tour, and to qualify for the team has got harder. The year-long qualification took in tournaments in Australia and South Africa, where the Europeans are up against canny local pros on courses they know, as well as Morocco and far-flung places in Europe. And we know all too well that conditions, both climatically and underfoot, could be anything.

While the US tour is more akin with playing in the perfect conditions of the Dubai Classic every week, on the European tour what you see is what you get. Phil Mickelson and Tom Lehman found that out at Motzener See while playing in the German Masters in frigid temperatures and howling gales last week. "From all the travelling they have to do, the young Europeans coming through have a lot more toughness," said Andrew Chandler, a former tour pro.

Chandler is now manager to Clarke and Westwood, both of whom will play more in America next year, although not full-time. Part of the plan will be to play in America the week before a major over there, or take the week off so as to allow enough time to adapt. "Arriving at Monday tea- time for the US PGA this year did not allow either of them time to be ready by Thursday morning," Chandler said.

Each will save a couple of invitations for later in the year in case they want to chase a US tour card then, although the grand scheme is to be firmly established in the top 50 in the world before the new World Championship Series events start in 1999.

This season still has unfinished business, however, with Clarke second on the money list and Westwood eighth. "Darren is so fired up to prove Seve wrong and that he should have played more at Valderrama," Chandler added. "Lee just carries on. He never changes. But they both feel they have more winning to do in Europe."

Garrido, fifth on the money list, should be in all the majors next year, although he requires the blessing of Augusta National for an invitation to the US Masters. Bjorn needs to climb from 21st into the top 20 to play in the Open and the top 15 to make the US Open. The Dane has talked previously of going to America, and the way his putting stroke improved on Valderrama's greens, it might be a wise move at some point.

The honour of being the first Scandinavian to win on the US tour was quietly claimed last week, however, by Gabriel Hjertstedt. Away from the Ryder Cup, the Swede, who was ranked 226th on the money list, was in danger of losing his card there until being inspired by watching the events at Valderrama. That must make Seve the leader whose captaincy reaches the parts others cannot reach.

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