argues that after a few false dawns the future is now genuinely bright
NICK FALDO was not at Wentworth last week but hardly anyone noticed given such a dramatic Volvo PGA Championship. Faldo, in fact, was playing in the week's second most important event, the Colonial tournament. A last round of 66 at least helped the newly inducted Hall of Famer to recover a smidgeon of confidence after what has been a fairly miserable time.
But Faldo's non-appearance at one of his favourite venues, for a tournament he has won a record four times, went largely non-reported. Likewise, other former regulars, Jesper Parnevik, Frank Nobilo and Vijay Singh, failed to return for what is described as the "flagship event" of the European Tour.
There was a time when these facts would have been the prize exhibits at a "European Tour in crisis" hearing, but it was difficult to find anyone at Wentworth too bothered about the absence of the quartet when the world No 1, Ernie Els, was locking horns with the European No 1 Colin Montgomerie.
When Montgomerie described the PGA Championship as the sixth biggest in the world - behind the four majors and the US Players' Championship - he was almost right. It should be the sixth best tournament in the world. However, the statistics which monitor the strength of fields have thePGA well down the list and the Bay Hill Invitational in sixth. The reason is that none of the Americans who were eligible to play - everyone in the world's top 50 was invited - did so. American golfers, it seems, have trouble booking a trans-Atlantic ticket unless the month is July or someone else is playing.
Yet the words that come to mind most are those of Barry Davies, commentating when Great Britain took the lead over Germany in the 1984 Olympic hockey final. "You have to ask 'where were the Germans'," he said. "But, frankly, who cares?" Though most of the young European players of the last decade have only ever achieved similarly fleeting success, the best news to come out of Wentworth was that it looks as if that is about to change.
Two closing rounds of 66 by Patrik Sjoland confirmed the talent he showed in winning the Italian Open earlier in the month; Thomas Bjorn, who has already won twice this year, just missed out on what could have been a five-way play-off; and Gary Orr's putt at the last - the most important of the day until another Scot holed one moments later - gained him a share of second and a place in the Open.
While the European Tour is far from a bed of roses, blooms are at least appearing thick and fast. While trying to acknowledge the improved standards on this side of the Atlantic, a visitor from Sports Illustrated magazine still brought out an old cliche. "The No 50 guy on the money list in the States, whoever he is," he wrote, "could kick the arse of his opposite number in Europe." Steve Jones, US Open winner though he may be, would perhaps not be so confident, given that his opponent would be Bernhard Langer.
Last September, in the aftermath of Europe's thrilling Ryder Cup win, the question was posed whether the young stars of the team would grow in stature or fade away like others before such as Peter Baker and Joakim Haeggman. Eight months on, as many thought at the time, the former seems to be the case.
Bjorn feels there has been a signifcant change on the tour. "When they [Baker and Haegmann] were playing in the Ryder Cup," Bjorn said, "the top five players in the team were untouchable in terms of talent. The next week, the Langers, Seves and Woosnams were still expected to dominate. Now they are a bit older and people like myself, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke feel we can live in their company."
In the cases of Bjorn and Clarke, there is an element of showing Seve Ballesteros that they should have played more at Valderrama. But there is no doubt that the stunning form of Westwood has sparked others. "It is like when I started," said Woosnam, who was born within a year of Ballesteros, Langer, Faldo and Sandy Lyle. "You want to beat those guys and it is only a matter of time before you do. There are a lot of young players coming through and that fetches the others along."
Clarke admitted as much after his victory in the Benson and Hedges International. "Lee doing so well of late has given me an extra spur," he said. "I want to follow fast on his heels."
"It's here for all to see that a younger generation has arrived," said Westwood. "There are a lot of good young players who, basically, just don't want to be beaten. A lot of young players are winning and it is good for the game. Darren is the old man of the group at nearly 30."
The worry is that his new generation will decamp to the US tour and its megabucks. "I wouldn't want to see that," said Woosnam. "The European Tour needs support. It's possible to play both tours."
And there seems little chance of Westwood moving full-time. "It is hard enough to get him out of Worksop," said his manager Andrew Chandler.
Westwood's response? "Four weeks in America is enough," he said. Why? "That's a difficult question to answer without dropping myself in it with a lot of people - like the whole population of America."Reuse content