Dougherty can spearhead era of the new boys

European golf tour promises to be a tussle of the youngsters tackling the old guard
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The Independent Online

For obvious reasons, this is not a normal Ryder Cup year. There will be no qualifying since the teams are set from last September's postponed match. Had the usual procedures applied, there might have been an intriguing race for places at The Belfry this autumn.

Such is the array of talent that has recently stepped out of the amateur game, some of the newcomers could have given the established stars an uncomfortable time in the qualifying. Instead, the likes of Paul Casey, the 2001 rookie of the year, Luke Donald and Nick Dougherty will have to wait until 2004 for a chance to represent their continent.

There remains the promise, however, that throughout the 2002 European Tour the youngsters – and some of the veterans if Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer continue their form from last season – will spice up the competition for the familiar hands.

All three generations should be represented in another team competition, the Seve Trophy, which will be played for the second time at Druids Glen in Ireland in April. Ballesteros, himself, inspired his team of Continentals to victory over Great Britain and Ireland in the inaugural match at Sunningdale two years ago. This year's match will offer those who narrowly missed out on a place at The Belfry the perfect platform to show what the Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance may be missing.

Apparently being squeezed on all sides, the response of Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke will be in intriguing. Of the trio, Clarke had the best season last year but, as ever, appears to have more to offer. Montgomerie, two years after winning a record seventh order of merit, has put his marital problems behind him, is getting fit and has declared that he will be practising seriously for the first time in his career.

Westwood took over from Monty as Europe's No 1 but slumped badly last year to 52nd on the money list. The 28-year-old took a lot of time off in the first half of the year but ended it working hard with new coach Bob Torrance and will begin the new campaign at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth at the end of the month, when a number of the big names will be on parade.

Tomorrow the Tour resumes – there were two events in Asia on the 2002 order of merit won by Jose Maria Olazabal and Jarmo Sandelin – at the Bell's South African Open in Durban. Retief Goosen, last year's money list winner, and Ernie Els top the bill but Dougherty and Jamie Donaldson, who won twice on the Challenge Tour last year, will be among the youngsters on show.

At 19, Dougherty eased through the European Qualifying School as his Walker Cup partner Donald did at the US equivalent. After four years at college in the States, Donald has gone straight on to the PGA Tour and gets underway in Hawaii this week.

Dougherty gave up the chance to go to a US university to turn professional but could not be better prepared. He is coached by Pete Cowen, has a fitness and mental advisor who is a former marital arts champion, and is mentored by none other than Nick Faldo.

"Maturity is a big strength for Nick," Faldo said. "He is a good competitor and loves to win. He has got the talent and I've a feeling he might have the will."

In all, the Tour features 45 tournaments spread across 21 countries. Padraig Harrington will not finish as runner-up in all those events but he will be trying to improve on last season's ratio of one win to seven seconds. The Irishman, who has gained in consistency over the last few years, will now be looking to be a contender in the majors.

But if there is a European who will dominate on the world stage this year it will be Sergio Garcia. Already off to a brilliant start by winning the Mercedes Championship last Sunday, he needs to perform in the majors and World Golf Championship events to have any chance of a transatlantic money list double.

This year's major venues will not be so familiar with the Open returning to Muirfield after a gap of 10 years and 11 years having elapsed since Hazeltine, scene of the USPGA, last hosted a major. The US Open will be played for the first time at Bethpage in New York, while even Augusta will be unfamiliar following the massive revamp of the course for this year's Masters.

No European has won a major since Paul Lawrie triumphed at Carnoustie in 1999. Lawrie was honoured by the Queen for his achievement, as had all the other British winners of the Open apart from Max Faulkner, who won at Royal Portrush in 1951. That glaring omission was finally corrected in the latest New Year's Honours, when Faulkner was awarded an OBE at the age of 85.

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