Howard's way forward

Peter Corrigan reports on rare home optimism ahead of next weekend's Walker Cup
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AMERICA'S finest amateur golfers will find next weekend that their path to the walk-over that has so often been their pleasure in 73 years of Walker Cup matches is barred by a Great Britain and Ireland team confident that there's a rare triumph to be had on what they hope will be the windy Welsh coastline at Royal Porthcawl.

This confidence is founded on faith in a team spirit that has been helped in its blending by a number of characters of whom none is more appealing than Barclay Howard, a 42-year-old Scot who is the oldest player in the team and whose golfing career has been rescued from what he calls "an alcoholic haze".

Had you penetrated that haze five years ago to predict to him that he would be playing in the Walker Cup you might have got an answer typical of his boisterous past; particularly since at the time he was under a 12-month ban from his club, Cochrane Castle, near Glasgow, for what he remembers as a "wee misdemeanour" and had given up the game completely. Reinstated after 10 months, he was encouraged in his efforts to forsake the drink and regain his golf by Dean Robertson, the former Walker Cup player who is now a professional.

Howard had been in the Great Britain and Ireland team 10 years previously but dropped out of top-level golf because "the alcohol was taking effect". He knocked the ball around Cochrane Castle and never became worse than scratch but it took Robertson's encouragement to get him back to his "fighting" handicap of plus-3 and into the Walker Cup squad. The fact that he was made redundant by Rolls Royce two years ago and is still unemployed has not hampered the time he has been able to devote to earning his place in a team that is pumped up with expectation.

"Some of us might not have pretty swings but we're all winners and in the sessions we've had at Porthcawl the spirit has been terrific. The Americans are facing the Tiger Division," Howard said.

America's golf prodigy Tiger Woods may not welcome the annexation of his name but he has already lost the preliminary skirmish of this week's battle. The 19-year-old wonder boy crossed the Atlantic for a recce in July and was comprehensively upstaged in the Scottish Open at Carnoustie and The Open at St Andrews by the giant young Scot Gordon Sherry. Last Sunday, Woods reaffirmed his pre-eminence among his countrymen by winning the US Amateur Championship for the second consecutive year but he will find that Sherry has shaved enough awesomeness from his reputation to inspire the home team.

Vengeance for a humiliating defeat that has festered for two years will not be the least of the motivation behind the team that is playing on Welsh soil for the first time. The team has scant resemblance to that destroyed 19-5 by the Americans at the Interlachen course in Minnesota in 1993 but they still carry the curse of a record that was wretched even before that trouncing - only three victories (at St Andrews in 1938 and '71 and in Georgia in 1989) to the Americans' 30 and one tie.

Operating against the weight of that history is the impressive reaction to the fate suffered by the young and inexperienced 1993 team. Under their chairman of selectors, George Macgregor, the R & A introduced a squad system that has resulted in a better balanced and more focused set of players. The system was flexible enough to allow a bricklayer's labourer, Gordon Rankin of Cumbernauld, who was not in the original party, to force his way in. As part of the Scottish side who won this year's European Team Championship, the 29-year-old Rankin is one of four Scots in the 10-man team.

No Welshman made the team, but the non-playing captain is the former Welsh international Clive Brown, whose task it will be to select the four foursomes pairings and eight singles to do battle on Saturday and Sunday. "The great strength of this team is that they've all had their eyes on this match for some time and have earned their places on performance. If they all play their best on the day, they will take some beating," he said.