Prime time beckons for Langer

Peter Corrigan welcomes the swift return to golf of face-to-face combat
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ONE OF the pleasant legacies of a successful Ryder Cup is an appetite for the neglected art of match play which, by what can only be a coincidence, the golfing calendar is quick to satisfy. This week we have the Toyota World Match Play Championship, at Wentworth, followed a week later by the Dunhill Cup, at St Andrews, and a fortnight after that the World Cup in China.

We can overlook the fact that the World Match Play is for selected individuals while the others are for national teams of three and two respectively and that each event is played to a different format; it is the promise of more face-to-face combat that appeals as a temporary respite from the weekly cavalry charges of stroke play. Besides, most club golfers are more familiar with match play, particularly as the winter leagues are just beginning.

What helps to distinguish the Ryder Cup from the other three events is not only that none of its participants is paid - the winner at Wentworth gets pounds 170,00 and even those knocked out in the first round collect pounds 30,000 each - but that no golfer ever refuses to play in it.

We can't make anything like the same boast about the others. The recent history of the Match Play is full of declined invitations from the highest and mightiest, led on this occasion by the world No 1, Greg Norman. To this is added anguished complaints from those luminaries not invited to be among the 12 competitors. Criticism of the tournament suggests it would be more aptly named as the Annual Works Outing of the International Management Group.

Given the nature of the commercial game, it shouldn't be a surprise that Mark McCormack's client list is invariably well represented. In any case, it was IMG who conceived the event in 1964 when golf was dominated by three of their clients, namely Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. The organisation's net has spread considerably wider since then but not higher and, to maintain the status of the event, they do attempt to recruit the best. Although the World No 1 refused them, the No 2 and No 3, Nick Price and Ernie Els, neither of whom is an IMG man, will be at Wentworth.

They will not be joined, unfortunately, by two of the year's four major winners. The Open victor, John Daly, was refused a release by the American Tour and the US Open champion, Corey Pavin, has elected to play in Japan where, no doubt, he walks tall. The most noticeable absentee is Nick Faldo, IMG man supreme, who is claiming four weeks total rest with his family before returning to America.

It may say something for the strength of golf at the moment that the event can suffer all these no-shows and still present an attractive card. And at least we have last year's finalists. Ernie Els beat Colin Montgomerie 4 and 2 and is back to defend his title after a subdued year by his standards. He is 12th on the USPGA money list with winnings of $781,690 but is not enjoying himself over there. He believes he would be happier, and more successful, if he based himself back in Europe, and another Wentworth win might clinch it.

Four of the other 11 contenders are above Els on the US list. Lee Janzen, who unluckily missed Ryder Cup selection, is in second place; the Australian Steve Elkington, who won the USPGA in August, is seventh; the Fijian Vijay Singh is eighth; and 24-year-old David Duval, who has established himself as the leading rookie of the year, is 10th.

There are those from the fringes of these isles who will say that there is no sporting event that couldn't be improved by the total absence of the English. It is disturbing, nevertheless, that in the very heartland of English wealth and influence there is no representative from the home country. Four members of the European Ryder Cup team, Bernhard Langer, Costantino Rocca, Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance, will have to share the patriotic burden.

Of these, Montgomerie has an outstanding chance if his injured wrist benefits from its unexpected rest but Langer could be the man to bet on. He is certainly the most overdue. In six appearances he has been runner- up twice but has yet to prove that he is as proficient at match play as he is at stroke play.

As an individual, his recent record in the Ryder Cup is hardly impressive. He lost to Pavin at Oak Hill, lost 5 and 3 to Tom Kite at the Belfry in 1993, halved with Hale Irwin after missing that fateful putt at Kiawah Island in 1991, and was beaten 3 and 2 by Chip Beck in 1989. Flaws as glaring as that do not last forever in the Langer records.