Euro stars ready to take that major step forward

Langer backs his glorious golfers to convert international success into individual prestige
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The Independent Online

It was a scene reminiscent of The Last Supper as Bernhard Langer gathered with his dozen disciples after the dénouement at Oakland Hills, albeit one which would have been painted more accurately by Bacchus than by Leonardo da Vinci.

It was a scene reminiscent of The Last Supper as Bernhard Langer gathered with his dozen disciples after the dénouement at Oakland Hills, albeit one which would have been painted more accurately by Bacchus than by Leonardo da Vinci. Three days of Ryder Cup play during which the character of Langer's men had been a revelation were followed by one evening of revelry, from those "fun, funky Europeans", as one American newspaper had described them.

Yet, at that post-Ryder press conference there was one specific moment when the laughter momentarily ceased. It came when the Europe captain was asked whether any of his team could "kick on" and "make sure there's a couple of European major winners on the team at Ireland's K Club in two years' time"?

Langer could have sidestepped the enquiry, and offered platitudes, suggesting that Cup success cannot be simply translated into individual honours; that his team were all about profundity of talent rather than the super-stardom epitomised by Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, and Sandy Lyle, who had illuminated teams of the Eighties and Nineties.

Instead he issued a challenge. Langer didn't have to name individuals, because those concerned knew that eyes within the media audience had picked them out like lasers, men like Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, and Padraig Harrington, the tournament's leading scorers who had collectively amassed 13 of Europe's 18 1/2 points and had made a significant impact on the progress of the three days; all characters replete with potential and none older than 33.

"I believe very strongly that we have major winners in this group of golfers," declared Langer. "This is a very young group and they can all win majors. We play 50 weeks in a year, and there's only four majors, so you've got to be on top of your game that particular week, but I believe it's just a matter of time."

Hal Sutton's "Dream Team" may have skulked away, having been "spanked", as the US media expressed it, yet the fact remains that when golf returns to its more familiar format of strokeplay and the culture of the individual, it will not be merely Tiger Woods, with his eight majors, but another four members of the US team who boast the ultimate decoration.

Despite it having been a productive year of tournament wins for European players, Harrington's immediate pre-Ryder Cup success in the German Masters bringing the European team's aggregate to 11, there was not a major winner among them. For all the German's faith, it is a daunting "ask" of his men to secure one of only four majors a year - and three in the United States, at that - despite the renewed confidence surging through their veins. Yet, Westwood, for one, has already demonstrated, after the Belfry in 2002, that a triumphant Ryder Cup can help fill the sails of a career in the doldrums. Can last weekend have the mainsail billowing?

Two years earlier, the 31-year-old had been world No 4, and had earned £2m. His horizons were boundless. Then decline, to below 250 in the rankings, which corresponded with the time he took off for the birth of his first son. "I had a long break and when I came back I lost my timing," he recalled. "I didn't play very well and it didn't take very long for my confidence to go. It's hard to get it back."

But with a renewed resolve, and the aid of guru David Leadbetter's expertise, he did; the first evidence of his upturn in fortunes observed at the Ryder Cup at the Belfry. Which begs the question: can it be the same this time, particularly given his contribution as the man who made such a symbolic impact?

It was Westwood who, on the 18th, ensured that Europe retained the Cup at Oakland Hills with a four-footer to claim victory against Kenny Perry. He revealed later that he had no idea what a momentous shot that was.

The question is whether this can galvanise the man from Worksop to the zenith of golf's achievements. "I know my game is good enough to win a major," he said. "It's just getting in there and giving myself the opportunity." Garcia harbours similar sentiments. Always strong off the tee, the Spaniard's short game proved remarkable over the three days, to Phil Mickelson's chagrin in Sunday's singles match, which the Spaniard won 3 and 2 having been two holes adrift. Perversely, on the PGA Tour, Garcia's putting statistics have not been auspicious. He admitted: "I've been working on my short game. I feel that things are starting to come round. I'm hitting a lot better putts."

Garcia had plenty to say, during the tournament and afterwards. At one stage, the mischievous Frenchman Thomas Levet was compelled to declare: "Sergio, you're like my wife. You talk too much." It was fascinating to observe the Spaniard attain the heights he did while still managing to play to the gallery, this character who shares some attributes of his compatriot Ballesteros, though rarely his arrogance.

The American crowds adored him, even as they attempted to manage the emotions of defeat. Of course, in more onerous circumstances to come, the responses may be different from this mercurial figure who has too often been a dark star. But for the moment, he appears to have resigned from membership of the brat-pack. That can only enhance a career in which achievement has fallen slightly short of prodigious promise.

Colin Montgomerie, his defeat of David Toms in his singles match having secured victory for Europe at the climax of an inspirational weekend for the Scot, assumed an impressive, elder-statesman tone afterwards. "I think anybody who gets four and a half points is bloody good. We have a couple here [Garcia and Westwood] that have achieved that feat and there's not many Europeans have done that."

Montgomerie added, referring specifically to the 24-year-old Garcia: "But to be the youngest on the team and to have that effervescent personality that he does, adds a great deal to our team, and he's a very reliable character. Even when Sergio went 2-0 down early on, we knew the game wasn't over and he proved it yet again. So, that's what he means to us."

Garcia and Harrington are, in Westwood's view, members of a team of "12 world-class players". After a surreal three days, Westwood and his team-mates have to exhibit that quality as individuals. The battle for international and team pride has been won. Now is time for Europe's players to capitalise on the moment to enhance their own prestige.