It has been a tumultuous season on the European Tour, and that's only for Colin Montgomerie. Monty started it by crashing out of the world's top 50, on the brink of a divorce that became inescapably public. He has ended it by holing the winning putt at the Ryder Cup and dating a Spanish supermodel. Anything is possible in a crazy world.
A wider perspective throws up equally contrasting viewpoints. For the first time ever, however briefly at the start of the season, there was no European in the top 10 of the world rankings. For the fifth season running, no European won a major championship. For the fourth year in a row, the Order of Merit was won by a South African, Ernie Els for the second time, following Retief Goosen's two titles.
And yet in Spain today the season is ending on a wholly optimistic note. The prime reason, although not the only one, is the overwhelming Ryder Cup victory at Oakland Hills by Europe's major-less wonders. The rout was masterminded by Bernhard Langer, but the German was frank enough to suggest that Europe could have picked from a pool of perhaps 18 players and still have come back with the Cup.
It is not a new theme that European golf is undergoing a transition, but the evidence is mounting that the process is nearing completion. Only once, in 1993, have 13 European golfers been in the top 50 in the world at the end of the year. Today there are the same number, and Ian Poulter could make it 14 as early as tomorrow following today's finish of the Volvo Masters at Valderrama.
Back in 1993, there were five major winners on the list, but they had only another three major wins ahead of them. Today's band of 13 have got where they are without earning any of the game's grandest titles - yet - but, with the possible exception of the 40-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez, time is on their side.
"They always forget to say, 'The best player yet to win a major who is 24 years old'," said Sergio Garcia, the world No 10. "I'm not worried. If I'm lucky and injuries behave, I'm going to have so many chances to win majors. I'm sure it will happen."
As for the Order of Merit, that has changed to the extent that majors and world championship events are now included. Players such as Greg Norman and Nick Price came to Europe and then went on to the States. Els and Goosen can now live in London, remain members of the European Tour and still play all the big events.
"Not to take anything away from Ernie or Retief's achievements over the last few years, but the Order of Merit is different now, and not just because I'm not winning it," said Montgomerie. "We in Europe are moving to a more international Tour now and the last few winners of the Order of Merit are proving it. What is super is to be here at the finale of the European Tour and all 12 of the Ryder Cup team are here."
On Wednesday at Valderrama there was the players' end-of-season meeting, which was chaired by Montgomerie because the players' chairman, Jamie Spence, did not qualify for the Volvo Masters, which is only for the top 60 on the Order of Merit. "It went very well," Montgomerie said. "European golf is in good shape. There has been a good mood since September. We should build on the Ryder Cup and we are doing so.
"When there was no European in the top 10 of the world, that was just a blip. That's not going to happen again. It's like when there was only one Englishman in the top 100. Now there's loads [seven, in fact], but these things do change. It's been a fabulous year for European golf, of course it has."
For Montgomerie, it has been a turbulent year, but he has found sanctuary on the golf course. "My fellow competitors have been super," he said. "They have given me great support, as everyone has, including the lads and ladies in the press.
"The key to European golf is the cama-raderie. It is a competitive place, as it should be, but it is also like a very big family. The man who has to take the credit for that is Ken Schofield. He has lived and breathed his job and the players should be thankful that he has put in so much."
At the end of the year, Schofield steps down as executive director of the European Tour after 30 years. George O'Grady, his deputy for most of that time, will take over. It was Schofield, along with Langer, who persuaded Luke Donald to commit to playing in Europe.
Donald, after two-and-a-half seasons in the States, won twice in a month but denied it was any easier to win in Europe than in America. Instead, the experience had helped improve his game, he felt. Ironically, while there are generally more world ranking points on offer in the States, it was his wins over here that propelled Donald into the world's top 50, which will make it easier for him to play on both sides of the Atlantic, as he intends to do again next year.
Next season's European schedule is already published, but many of the leading players will head to America's west coast early in the season. More often than not they will find soggy courses and indifferent greens, but it is more convenient than a long-distance flight every Sunday night now the globetrotting section of the European Tour's International Schedule only stops in one country at a time rather than having a run of events in South Africa or Australia, for example.
But once the Tour hits mainland Europe next summer it could be an exciting time. Then the Ryder Cup qualifying will start again in September for the K Club in 2006. First we need some captains, with Langer again and the 57-year-old Larry Nelson front-runners.
As for 2004, there was no more happy a moment than when a Frenchman, Jean-François Remesy, won the French Open. Four Frenchmen won on Tour, including Thomas Levet at Loch Lomond, and seven are already exempt for next year. "Quelle surprise," as they might say, and did. But then anything is possible on the European Tour.
Two who arrived in 2004
Started the year continuing his apprenticeship on the US Tour, ended it as a Ryder Cup star. Only committed to playing in Europe late on, but did enough to earn a wild card from Bernhard Langer. Won twice and overtook Paul Casey as England's highest-ranked player in the world. "Coming back to Europe turned a good year into an excellent year," said the 26-year-old with typical understatement.
Miguel Angel Jimenez
The Spaniard was always a steady player, but turning 40 seems to have been the maturing of him as he proceeded to win four times on Tour and regain his Ryder Cup spot. Can only be described as "muy contento". Has made his golf as simple and relaxed as his life. Give him a cigar and a glass of rioja and the bad shots are forgotten, not that there have been many this year.
Two who will in 2005
The young Englishman endured a real rollercoaster of a year. Played some fine golf, led the Masters for two days and had some other high finishes in the United States. But there were also the disasters, like the 81 he suffered in the third round at Augusta, and then missing out on a place in The Open. Has been grinding away in the States of late, which could pay off next season.
Won in Australia at the start of the year to prompt hopes of earning a Ryder Cup place, but then suffered from the strain of chasing a place. Arrival of son Oliver in April meant a change of routine but also brought perspective. "Missing the Ryder Cup was a big disappointment," he said. "I've made mistakes and realised them too late, but I'm looking forward to next year."Reuse content