Ryder Cup Countdown: Westwood class can ride the storm

Europe's fabled spirit unaffected by Bjorn outburst as Woosnam backs Belfry factor
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The Independent Online

Sometimes it feels as if the time to get worried would be if there was no Ryder Cup row going on. European teams have thrived on the sort of turmoil of the last week for over two decades, so the only conclusion is that everything is bubbling up nicely for the K Club.

As undignified as Thomas Bjorn's hissy fit was, after being overlooked by captain Ian Woosnam for a wild-card selection, it tells you everything you need to know about European golf and the Ryder Cup. Bjorn is only the latest of a long line of former players and captains, discarded stars and even team members who have voiced their opinion publicly and unreservedly. They cannot help themselves. They care too much.

It goes against the Americans' perception of Europe's fabled team spirit, that they are all great pals and everything is lovey-dovey. It may be far from the case, but overwhelming everything else is a shared passion for the event and the team ethic. This was formed by the inspiration of Tony Jacklin's off-course captaincy and Seve Ballesteros's on-course leadership, and has been handed down the generations.

It is the secret ingredient that has led to Europe winning seven of the past 10 matches and four of the past five, including four years ago at The Belfry and then by a record nine-point margin in Detroit last time. And it is in this context that Woosnam can claim Bjorn's outburst can benefit the team on Friday week.

Bjorn, devastated to be ousted in favour of Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, labelled Woosnam's captaincy "pathetic" before coming to his senses 24 hours later and apologising. The commendable swiftness with which he was fined £10,000 may have lessened the bitterness, and Woosie is determined to proceed on a positive footing.

"This will make us stronger," he said at the K Club last week. "It will make Lee more determined and Darren more determined." While there is the whiff of an old boys' act forming a façade, the selection of Clarke and Westwood conforms to classic wild-card customs.

One of the picks went to a player who would have qualified but for outside issues preventing him playing, the other to someone with a superb record. Clarke joined a practice session at the K Club last week with Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington, Paul Casey and Jose Maria Olazabal, and will play at the Madrid Open this week. Following the death of his wife, Heather, last month following a long battle against cancer, no one can quite know what to expect from Clarke, but having picked him, Woosnam does not have to play him all five times. Two outings in the fourballs with Westwood may be his lot before the singles, but his presence will surely inspire team-mates and gallery alike.

Westwood has had a strange season. He set out to play more in the States, but the death of a beloved grandmother and the fact he became the point man for news of the Clarkes took their toll. At the BMW International he played through a severe bout of tonsillitis, but health and form appear to have stabilised at this weekend's Singapore Open. He will rest this week before making an early visit to the K Club.

Two points helped secure his selection. He has won twice at the K Club; ancient history according to Bjorn, but one of those important intangibles that Jacklin looked for in making his extra selections. Over four matches, Westwood has a 56 per cent rating. Take out two players from a former era in Abe Mitchell and Percy Alliss, and only Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, plus team-mates Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie and Olazabal, are ahead of him.

He has formed fine partnerships with both Clarke and Garcia, and in the last match both Westwood and the young Spaniard top-scored with 4.5 points each. But his three-point haul from the 2002 match at The Belfry may be more significant. That year he was not playing well, and the week before had not even qualified for the AmEx World Championship in Ireland, where virtually all the other Ryder players were competing.

Instead, Westwood went off to The Belfry for a practice round with Sam Torrance, Europe's captain. At one point, as they shared a buggy, Torrance pointed out to Westwood the old faithful of form being temporary and class being permanent.

Woosnam may want to draw from the same well, but Westwood's ability to rise to the occasion should not be in doubt. With competition for places in this European team having been stronger than ever, making it to the K Club will bring its own relief. "It would be naïve to think that the US are not a strong team, as anyone who qualifies to play for them is a world-class player," Westwood said.

"However, I would have to say that this European team are one of the strongest that I have seen. We've a good mix of experience and rookies and people who have played at the K Club before. We have confidence within the team and have as good a chance as any to win the Ryder Cup."

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