James confident of a trek to glory

FACE TO FACE; Ian Stafford talks to the golfer who boldly goes into the Ryder Cup this weekend believing Europe will triumph
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The Independent Online
Golf, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Ryder Cup player Mark James, a two-year mission to boldly go where few golfers have gone before.

Hidden beneath the grim-faced expression of a man looking as if he four putts on every green is a Star Trek fanatic. Half an hour after finishing another useful day's work at the British Masters, Mark James is devouring a late lunch, and happily talking about the Ryder Cup and, more importantly, his favourite sci-fi show.

"I'm actually a member of the Star Trek fan club," reveals the man who would prefer to face a menacing Klingon than Fred Couples. "A friend of mine bought me the club's subscription last year for my 40th birthday present. I was playing in Germany the other week at the same time as a Star Trek convention was taking place nearby. I really wanted to go, but my golf commitments prevented me."

As he is telling this story he fumbles in his pocket. What could he be looking for? A phaser, perhaps? No, he pulls out his wallet, and displays his Bank of Scotland cash card, which has the Starship Enterprise pictured all over the plastic. "When I heard the bank was producing these Enterprise cards I just knew I had to have one."

Hmmm. Sounds pretty passionate to me, Mark? "Well, I don't go down the pub dressed in my Lieutenant Uhuru outfit every night if that's what you mean," he says. "But I do watch the programme as often as I can." And your favourite characters? "I prefer the new series to the old one with Spock and company. I like First Officer Riker personally, because he gets all the action."

There is clearly, then, a lot more to Mark James than first impressions suggest. Not known as an extrovert while playing his trade, off the course the man is seen by some as an eccentric who does not mince his words - he called the former Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin "pathetic" over the weekend.

Ironically, it was at the British Masters last year that James took everyone by surprise by condemning Nick Faldo for criticising the European Tour. A year on, and with Faldo and James as uneasy Ryder Cup bedfellows, has their public spat been forgotten?

"I wouldn't have thought so," James answers. "It just angered me so much that he should have a go at the European courses and conditions, when he wasn't in a position to be well informed. What makes it worse is that Faldo's schedule is dominated by money. He simply goes where the money goes. I can't speak for Faldo, but I'm the sort of person who can have a blazing row with someone and then put it behind me. We've said a couple of hellos this year at tournaments, and it looks like we've agreed to disagree on this subject."

Get James talking about the present Ryder Cup system and, again, he is quite prepared to say his piece. "I find it incredible that the last seven tournaments from last year should count towards a Ryder Cup placing," he argues. "As far as I'm concerned, you've got to be playing well when you go into the Ryder Cup, not a year before. The system's designed to let the so-called better players get into the team more easily.

"I can tell you from experience that if you enter the Ryder Cup playing badly it's impossible to then play well, particularly with the enormous pressure you face. Of course, you can go into it playing well and still end up as a disaster.

"I know a lot of the boys in the team are annoyed by the negative press we've had. It may not be as full of big names as before, but everyone's earned their place. It was a shame that Ian Woosnam, for example, failed to make the team initially, but the bottom line was that he had played very poorly, and it was therefore difficult to justify his inclusion at the expense of players like Philip Walton or Per-Ulrik Johansson."

A hint, perhaps, of a little disunity in the European Ryder Cup team then which, after all, is made up of golfers who need to be single-minded in order to achieve in their sport. "Not really," James counters. "I think we're all pulling for each other because we're desperate to win the Cup back."

OK then, Mark, let's put it another way. Given the choice, would you rather score nil points next week, but be in the winning team, or score maximum points but end up a loser? There is a slight pause following this question while he works out the best way to put it. "I would genuinely score nothing if I knew we would win. I think the majority of the side would agree with me. But it's fair to say that there are certain individuals in the team who would think otherwise."

James speaks this way, partly because it is in his make up, and also because he enters his seventh Ryder Cup full of confidence. The days when he was fined for juvenile behaviour during the 1979 Cup have been totally erased by the seasoned high money-earner and chairman, no less, of the Tournament Players' Committee. After all James, together with Faldo and Howard Clark, began playing Ryder Cup golf back in 1977, before the likes of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, or anyone else in this year's team.

"Just thinking about the Ryder Cup fills me with trepidation, even after all this time," he admits. "Forget about the majors, my goal this year has been to qualify for the European team. It has given me some of the highlights and lowlights of my career."

Such as? "Howard Clark and I beat Payne Stewart and Curtis Strange, the then US Open and PGA champions, at The Belfry in 1989, and I thrashed Mark O'Meara in the singles that year. I know we only drew in 1989, but it meant that we retained the Cup and, believe me, we were the ones who were celebrating."

What about the low points? "There's been a few of them. Not making the team for 1983, '85 and '87 was tough. I'd qualified for the three previous teams and took it for granted, but when you miss three in a row you begin to wonder if your career's slipped away from you.

"Also, my performance in 1993. I don't think I managed to hole one putt over six feet. I didn't feel confident, and felt I'd let both myself and the team down." This week James, who would fancy his old chum Howard Clark as his partner in the foursomes, is promising a different picture. "My putting's fine, I'm hitting the ball well and I've got my chipping back," he announces. "As for the team, we're on a losing streak and we're very anxious to win. The Americans have five rookies, while most of the others aren't that familiar with the Ryder Cup either. That's why Lanny Wadkins selected Couples and Strange, because there's no question that he feels his team lacks experience. I think we have a big advantage and I genuinely believe we will win."

One final question, and think hard before you answer. What would you rather do - sink the winning putt in the Ryder Cup, or take over First Officer Riker's position on the Enterprise and explore strange worlds and seek out new civilisations?

"Oh well, there' s no contest there," is the instant reply. "I'd want to be out there, on the edge, facing the final frontier, never knowing if your final putt could be your last."

It's golf, Mark, but not as we know it.