Quest for European master who can rise above rank and file

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The Independent Online

Padraig Harrington has gone blond. Europe's leading player, according to the world rankings, emerged from his winter's hibernation this week with yet another new hairdo following the crew cut and spiky versions of the last two seasons. A week ago, Harrington dropped out of the world's top 10, again according to the official rankings, which does not help the impression that in European golf at the moment it is a case of hair today, gone tomorrow.

What is undeniable is that there is a talented new group of players making themselves known who have style as well as, with particular reference to Ian Poulter, a stylist. But while the future may be bright, even possibly bright orange, it still came as a shock a couple of Monday mornings ago when it was revealed that no European occupied a place in the top 10 of the world rankings for the first time EVER.

Of course, eternity is a long time, but "ever" in this instance dates back to April 1986, when the rankings were introduced. The rankings were the brainchild, as much else, of the late Mark McCormack of the International Management Group, but the interesting point is that they were developed in London.

In the United States, when anyone wondered who the best players in the world were, all they did was look at the US money list. By the mid-Eighties, with Europe having won the Ryder Cup for the first time since the team from this side of the Atlantic went continental, it was not necessarily the case.

When the first ranking was announced, the top three were Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Sandy Lyle. As well as Langer, Seve, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo have all been world No 1s. But since Faldo was dethroned almost exactly 10 years ago, there have only been pretenders to the crown.

Harrington's recent demotion to 11th in the world was largely the result of the Irishman taking his usual extended break while the season has already been in full swing, particularly in the States, for almost two months. Looking past Harrington, the news is more cheery: Darren Clarke is 12th, Thomas Bjorn 18th and Fredrik Jacobson, the Swede who won three times last season, 19th.

But despite the Ryder Cup residing over here, what the ranking is now telling us, echo-like, is what we know already - that no European has won a major for almost five years, not since Paul Lawrie had the claret jug in his hands at Carnoustie in 1999. Jose Maria Olazabal had already won the Masters that year, and the irrepressible Sergio Garcia almost beat Tiger Woods at the USPGA, which would have given Europe three major wins in a season for the first time.

But Garcia lost by a stroke at Medinah and the opportunities for a European to win a major have been few and far between since then. Thomas Levet lost in a play-off to Ernie Els at the Open in 2002, when Harrington finished a shot behind, while Bjorn sunk in the quicksand of Royal St George's at last summer's Open to lose by a shot to Ben Curtis.

Which is when it began really to hurt. While Tiger was winning seven out of 11 majors from the 1999 USPGA to the 2002 US Open, it was like trying to break into Fort Knox. Then you can add victories for genuine colossi like Els and Vijay Singh but when those of a more regular mortality, such as Mike Weir and Jim Furyk, are succeeded by complete unknowns Curtis and Shaun Micheel, it is all getting a bit desperate.

Harrington, who established himself in the top echelon in 2002 and stayed there last year despite not quite being at his best, has been working as hard as ever on his game during the winter. But the Dubliner realises it is time to perform. "I've been tinkering away at my game for 15 years," he said. "That's my nature but there isn't anything new at this stage, it is a case of putting it together.

"I am 32 years of age. Golfers peak between 30 and 40 so I should be in my prime and at some stage I have to get to the situation where I am happy with what I have got and am actually playing rather than developing my swing for the next season. I do question whether I will be able to do it. But I do realise that I have got to start playing at some stage."

You can look at the standard of courses played on, whether players spend more or less time in the States, and even at how the new technology is taking old-fashioned shot-making out of the game.

But it may be as simple as someone needing to get the ball rolling again, as Seve did for Langer and Faldo and the rest a quarter of a century ago.

Garcia, still only 24, might be the one to provide the spark, while Peter McEvoy, the former Walker Cup-winning captain, is on record as saying the next European major winner will be Luke Donald, who lost to John Daly in a play-off at the Buick Invitational last week.

"It's something I'm aware of," Clarke said of the lack of European major-winners. "We had an unbelievable batch of players coming through with Nick, Seve, Sandy, Bernhard and Woosie all at the same time. There have been a few of us who have had opportunities and not quite been able to do it.

"If you look at the numbers, we used to have five or six guys whereas recently there have only been two or three giving themselves a chance. I'm not defending it, obviously you would imagine that it would have happened by now."

The wait goes on.

Falling from the summit Europeans who have dropped out of the top 10 in the last 10 years

Nick Faldo

Current ranking: 77

The last European to be the world No 1, in January 1994. Stayed in the top 10 until May 1997 but only fleeting appearances in top 50 since 1998. Hoping to make the Ryder Cup but chances were hurt by not qualifying for world championship events. Now older than when Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 but never write off the determined grafter.

Bernhard Langer

Current ranking: 87

The ranking's very first world No 1 and a perennial top-tenner from 1991 through to the summer of 1996. Back up to 13th during a renaissance in 2001 that earned the German a 10th Ryder Cup appearance in the last match at The Belfry. Effectively signalled end of top-flight ambitions by taking on the captaincy for this year's match in Detroit.

Ian Woosnam

Current ranking: 208

Was on top of the world after winning the Masters in 1991, having been a regular in the top 10 since 1987. But he slipped into double figures halfway through 1994 and has not been in the top 50 since 1999. His only win in recent times came at the World Match Play at Wentworth in 2001 but that was an unofficial event.

Jose Maria Olazabal

Current Ranking: 125

Reached No 2 in the world during 1991 and was an established top 10 player from 1989 through to 1995. But after missing the 1996 season due to a foot injury he has not been able to recapture his consistent best despite winning the Masters in 1999. Slipped out of the top 50 last year and is currently struggling for form in the US.

Colin Montgomerie

Current ranking: 55

Entered the top 10 in 1994 and stayed there throughout his reign as European No1. Left the top 10 in 2001 as he struggled with a back problem and made only brief returns in the next two seasons. Dropped out the top 50 last week, which threatened his exemption for the Open and world championship events later in the year.

Lee Westwood

Current ranking: 62

Spent three years in the top 10 between 1998 and 2001 to reach as high as fourth during 2000, when he took over from Montgomerie as the Order of Merit winner. Collapse in form followed and he was 215th in the world when he returned to winning ways at the BMW International last August. Comeback was confirmed with victory at the Dunhill Links.

Sergio Garcia

Current ranking: 36

Another to make it as high as fourth in the world. Spent one week in the top 10 in 2000, then returned during 2001 and all of 2003. But slipped down the rankings as he remodelled his swing last season. Won the Million Dollar at Sun City last December but that was an unofficial event. Remains one of Europe's most credible major contenders.

Darren Clarke

Current ranking: 12

Made sporadic appearances in the top 10 between 2000 and 2002 but having dropped out of the top 20 at the end of 2002, decided to make a number of changes. Has worked on swing, mental game and fitness, and a slimline version appeared for 2004. Pushing Harrington as Europe's top player and poised to return to the top 10 with a big victory.

Jesper Parnevik

Current ranking: 107

The Swede, who has twice come close at the Open, spent much of 2000 in the top 10 but then went into the doldrums following a hip injury. Played in the 2002 Ryder Cup despite being at a loss with his game but his early appearances in 2004 show his form is coming back to his best. Sweden still awaits first major-winner.

Thomas Bjorn

Current ranking: 18

A top-10 player for only one week in 2001 but a career of neck and shoulder injuries have made consistency an elusive quality for the Dane. Yet he showed what he could achieve by beating Tiger head-to-head in Dubai in 2001 and might have been Open champion last year but for a bunker by the 16th green that he twice failed to escape.

Padraig Harrington

Current ranking: 11

The latest European to make the top 10, arriving in 2001 after winning the Volvo Masters, returning in 2002 and then staying there throughout 2003, only to become the latest to depart the top 10 last week. In the Langer and Faldo mould for work ethic and determination. Best chance of a major was the 2002 Open when he was a stroke out of the play-off.

European major wins in the last 25 years

1979 S Ballesteros (Open)

1980 Ballesteros (Masters)

1983 Ballesteros (Masters)

1984 Ballesteros (Open)

1985 B Langer (Masters), A Lyle (Open)

1987 N Faldo (Open)

1988 Lyle (Masters), Ballesteros (Open)

1989 Faldo (Masters)

1990 Faldo (Masters, Open)

1991 I Woosnam (Masters)

1992 Faldo (Open)

1993 Langer (Masters)

1994 J M Olazabal (Masters)

1996 Faldo (Masters)

1999 Olazabal (Masters), P Lawrie (Open)

A history of world No 1's

Bernhard Langer

Headed the list when the ranking was introduced in April 1986 but only stayed there for three weeks.

Seve Ballesteros

Took over from Langer and was No 1 for a total of 61 weeks in five stints over three years. Topped the list for all but one week from November 1988 to August 1989.

Greg Norman

Top spot for a record 331 weeks in 11 spells from September 1986 to January 1998. Longest stint topping the list was 96 weeks from June 1996 to April 1997.

Nick Faldo

First became the No 1 in September 1990 and returned to the top spot three more times for a total of 98 weeks. Spent 82 weeks as No 1 after winning the 1992 Open.

Ian Woosnam

Reigned for 50 weeks from just before his Masters victory in 1991 until March 1992.

Fred Couples

Became the second successive Masters winner who had just previously become the world No 1 but lasted only 16 weeks in the top spot.

Nick Price

Confirmed as the best in the world after winning the USPGA in 1994 to follow his Open triumph a month earlier. Reigned for 43 weeks until June 1995.

Tom Lehman

The 1996 Open champion took over from Norman for one week in April 1997.

Tiger Woods

Became the world No 1 for one week in June 1997 following his first major win at the Masters. Five more spells at the top before starting his current record run of 236 consecutive weeks in August 1999 after winning the USPGA. Has topped the ranking for a total of 307 weeks. Should beat Norman's record in September.

Ernie Els

Made it to No1 for only one week after winning the 1997 US Open but had two more spells during 1998 for a total of nine weeks.

David Duval

Only player to depose Woods since June 1998. Took top spot for 14 weeks after winning the Players Championship in March 1999, adding another week in August that year.