Europeans seek gold in forest as Ryder Cup race starts in earnest

Just as in life, so on the European Tour; globetrotting around the world is fun, but being back home is better. The first British tournament of the season, always eagerly anticipated, is, appropriately enough, the British Masters starting on Thursday at the Forest of Arden.

The course is close to the village of Meriden, which is meant to be the centre of England. Whether the United Kingdom is to be at the heart of Europe is an on-going political debate. That Britain remains an important part of the European Tour is not in doubt, despite the huge advances in the game on the Continent, from where Bernhard Langer has become only their second Ryder Cup captain.

Although the Tour has been in mainland Europe for the last month, after the now-traditional co-sanctioned events in the southern hemisphere summer, the British Masters marks the season making a significant change of gear.

The Benson and Hedges International held the honour for many years and was a favourite with all the players. With the demise of that tournament due to the ban on cigarette sponsorship, Andrew Chandler, the agent who promotes the British Masters, jumped at the chance of taking their slot along with coverage on the BBC.

With satellite television all pervasive, beaming pictures of drives and putts from Bangkok to Qatar, the plight of terrestrial viewers can be overlooked - a long winter's drought only broken with the magic of the Masters at Augusta. The green-jacketed Phil Mickelson will not be going for the transatlantic double this week but, in the absence of the world No 8, Padraig Harrington, Chandler's star clients, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and Paul McGinley head the field.

The slimmed-down Clarke, like other Europeans, including Justin Rose, has spent a large amount of the season to date in America but seven of the 10 players currently holding automatic Ryder Cup qualifying spots will be present, including three potential English rookies, Paul Casey, the winner of the last B and H this time last year, Ian Poulter and Brian Davis. Nick Faldo and Jose Maria Olazabal, who both still dream of a Ryder Cup wild card, appear, but whether Colin Montgomerie will make it to the first tee was in doubt following the revelation of the break-up of his marriage last week.

The prize fund of £1.6m is the largest at a regular Tour event so far this season but there will be even more riches on offer later this month at the Deutsche Bank Open in Germany and the Volvo PGA at Wentworth, where both Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, the world No 2 and No 3, will play.

With so much still to play for, including three major championships, an assessment of the current Ryder Cup standings is premature. The biggest move so far this year has been made by the 40-year-old, pony-tailed Miguel Angel Jimenez, who has won twice, but Faldo complained that there has not been enough buzz about the Ryder Cup this year.

It is not for the lack of effort from the players and no doubt the hype will be cranked up soon. But the new qualifying system may not help. In an attempt to give the best players the best chance of filling the automatic spots, rather than relying on wild cards, two tables are being used rather than one. One is based on the world rankings, one on the Order of Merit. But both have modifications.

Five players qualify from the World Points List, which tallies the world ranking points collected in any tournament around the world over a 12-month qualifying period dating back to September. The next five players come from the traditional money-list from the European Tour collated over the same period.

With the overlap between the tables, it is possible that 10th place on the money-list table will qualify as before, but the idea was to give credit for performances outside the European Tour.

Langer was meant to have more flexibility than his predecessor, Sam Torrance, but that remains to be seen. Had he been obliged to make his selections today - and it is fortunate that he does not - he could have gone for Thomas Bjorn, Garcia, Montgomerie or Rose. Then there are the US-based Alex Cejka and Jesper Parnevik, although both have to commit to playing 11 events in Europe this season to be eligible, while the young Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell did himself no harm by winning the Italian Open yesterday.

In the United States their captain, Hal Sutton, was ecstatic at Mickelson winning the Masters and he knows from corporate outings how much interest there is in the match in Detroit in September. But, interestingly, he feels the need to make his players aware of the fact. "Every day I get reminded that I'm Ryder Cup captain," he said. "I want to make the awareness among the guys that the Ryder Cup is important. I know it's five months out, but I want them to think about it. I want them to think about how important it should be in their lives.

"I think that will make a difference in the long run, not getting caught up when we get to Oakland Hills and saying, 'What are we doing this week?' We're not going to get caught like that." The inference is that past American teams have - but, like all his predecessors, it is not something Langer will have to worry about.

RYDER CUP STANDINGS AND QUALIFICATION

EUROPE

The leading five players on the World Points List as of Monday 23 August will qualify. The leading five players, not otherwise qualified, from the European Points List as of Sunday 29 August will also qualify. The European captain, Bernhard Langer, will then choose two other players.

WORLD POINTS LIST

(World ranking points won between 4 Sept 2003 and 23 Aug 2004)

1 *P Harrington (Irl) 147.61pts
2 *M A Jiminez (Sp) 124.86
3 *D Clarke (NIrl) 124.07
4 *F Jacobson (Swe) 110.84
5 *L Westwood (Eng) 86.64
6 P Casey (Eng) 80.12
7 B Davis (Eng) 79.44
8 I Poulter (Eng) 77.56
9 T Bjorn (Den) 76.92
10 S Garcia (Sp) 75.11
11 R Jacquelin (Fr) 69.63
12 B Langer (Ger) 63.30
13 L Donald (Eng) 54.09
14 C Montgomerie (Sco) 54.05
15 M Lafeber (Neth) 53.82
16 D Howell (Eng) 52.41
17 P McGinley (Irl) 51.10
18 T Levet (Fr) 48.84
19 J Haeggman (Swe) 47.82
20 J Parnevik (Swe ) 44.68

EUROPEAN POINTS LIST

(Based on euros won on European Tour between 4 Sept 2003 and 23 Aug 2004)

1 M A Jiminez (Sp) 1,036,846.23pts
2 F Jacobson (Swe) 904,729.53
3 L Westwood (Eng) 896,778.81
4 D Clarke (NIrl) 840,559.12
5 *B Davis (Eng) 815,425.01
6 *I Poulter (Eng) 763,310.62
7 P Harrington (Irl) 751,388.44
8 *R Jacquelin (Fr) 687,344.43
9 *Paul Casey (Eng) 655,045.25
10 *C Rodiles (Sp) 583,006.64
11 M Lafeber (Neth) 519314.70
12 S Garcia (Sp) 505147.60
13 D Howell (Eng) 496395.76
14 P McGinley (Irl) 461108.15
15 J Haeggman (Swe) 436919.15
16 C Montgomerie (Scot) 410114.06
17 T Levet (Fr) 340439.58
18 C Cevaer (Fr) 334548.08
19 G McDowell (NIrl) 312415.58
20 D Park (Wal) 311888.61

*In qualifying position. Not inc HP Classic

UNITED STATES

The top 10 players in the points list qualify. Points are earned over a three-year period beginning with the first official tournament in 2002 year and ending with the 2004 USPGA Championship on 12-15 August. Points are earned when a player finishes in the top 10 of a tournament. Points are doubled for major championships, and weighted to be five times as important in the final season of qualifying. The captain, Hal Sutton, will choose two players.

1 T Woods 1,511.67pts
2 P Mickelson 1,285.25
3 D Love III 979.11
4 J Furyk 789.48
5 K Perry 699.11
6 C Campbell 590.00
7 D Toms 545.13
8 J Kelly 498.63
9 C Riley 446.79
10 J Kaye 446.75
11 J Haas 430.92
12 S Verplank 426.25
13 C DiMarco 422.05
14 F Funk 411.96
15 S Hoch 345.88
16 S Cink 341.85
17 K Triplett 334.25
18 J Daly 311.25
19 B Faxon 308.75
20 B Tway 292.73

THREE RYDER CUP HEROES WHO MIGHT MISS OUT

COLIN MONTGOMERIE

A tower of strength in the last two Ryder Cups, the Scot has vast experience from six matches in all, which could prove vital this time with a number of rookies looking set to qualify. But personal problems have compounded the 40-year-old's on-course troubles and Montgomerie needs to stay in the world's top-50 just to qualify to play in the Open at his home course, Troon. May need to rely on a Ryder Cup wild card from his old partner, Bernhard Langer.

SERGIO GARCIA

The precocious 24-year-old from the last two Ryder Cups fell on leaner times in 2003, but this year the Spaniard has shown signs that his swing has improved and his putting is beginning to return. Ballesteros's natural successor scored a brilliant 66 on the last day of an otherwise slightly sulky Masters to finish fourth, but pleaded with the media: "Don't say I'm back."

THOMAS BJORN

The 33-year-old is the highest-placed European on the world rankings not currently holding a qualifying position. The Dane went agonisingly close to winning the Open at Sandwich last year and missed out to Miguel Angel Jimenez at the Johnnie Walker in January. Has played in two Ryder Cups, including The Belfry victory, but has to pace himself over a season to protect a persistent neck injury.

THREE RYDER CUP ROOKIES WHO MIGHT MAKE IT

BRIAN DAVIS

The 29-year-old has improved significantly in the last year to become a serious contender for a Ryder Cup place. Davis finished ninth on the 2003 Order of Merit and this ultra-dependable performer enjoyed a first taste of team competition in the Seve Trophy. He won his second tour title in Australia in February which earned Davis his debut Masters berth at Augusta. A week later the birth of his first child followed.

RAPHAEL JACQUELIN

The consistent Frenchman has a reputation for low-scoring which he justified when breaking three course records in two months last summer. Jacquelin seemed to be on the leaderboard every week in the early part of the season but has yet to claim his maiden title. The 29-year-old, who reaches his 30s on Saturday, teamed up with Alex Cejka for a perfect four wins out of four in the Seve Trophy last November.

CARLOS RODILES

The 29-year-old is currently holding the last automatic qualifying spot but, like Jacquelin, will have to win his maiden title to maintain his position. Rodiles only lost in a play-off to Fredrik Jacobson at the Volvo Masters, but has been hampered by a persistent rib muscle injury for much of the year. From Malaga, like Miguel Angel Jimenez, Rodiles shares the magical short game of all the Spanish stars.

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