Tour tees off in America's shadow

Golf

If the expectation is that the Americans, led by a rampant Tiger Woods, will turn them over in the Ryder Cup come September, it may not be entirely unsuitable for Europe's golfers to be beginning their season Down Under. At least they will set off with hope, or anyway at Hope Island, where the Johnnie Walker Classic tees off tomorrow.

The emergence of not just the phenomenon that is Woods, but others such as Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Justin Leonard and David Duval, has certainly helped to make the US Tour a happening place. Greg Norman, the Nicks, Faldo and Price, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and now New Zealand's Frank Nobilo have given the Tour an international feel by choosing to play the majority of their golf there.

But that hardly makes the Ryder Cup - a match between two teams of 12 players over three days and still some eight months away - a foregone conclusion.

Since the Great Britain and Ireland team gave way to Europe in 1979, the biennial match has not been about which tour is the stronger on either side of the Atlantic. The Americans found this out the hard way when they lost in '85 and '87; the Europeans could not take advantage of a stagnating US Tour in '91 and '93.

"It is one thing to look at names on paper," Bernhard Langer said, "it's another to be out on the golf course. They said that the Americans were stronger on paper last time, and that we were the underdogs, but we won."

If it is asking too much for Seve Ballesteros to concentrate on his Ryder Cup captaincy duties and regain the highest form, or for Jose-Maria Olazabal's rheumatoid arthritis to go into remission enough for him to resume playing, Langer is free of the injuries that led to his loss of form last year.

The broomhandle putter with which he swept to victory in Hong Kong to close his season will remain in the bag, which turned up yesterday after being lost for 24 hours in transit from Los Angeles. Currently 36th on the Cup points list, Langer, who has played on eight European teams, knows that gaining selection again is not something to be taken for granted. "No, definitely not," he said.

"It is getting harder to make the team every two years. There are now more younger, stronger players. The depth and strength of the European Tour is constantly improving. Ten to 15 years ago, we had four, six, eight really good players but the bottom of the list was weak. Now it is hard to get in the team."

Only Faldo can rely on one of the two wild card picks, as he has done on three of the last four occasions, when Ballesteros makes his selections on 1 September. He has arrived here after a week's fishing in New Zealand with Greg Turner, but will not play on the European Tour again until after the US Open. Then it is likely to be the Irish Open and the Loch Lomond World Invitational in July leading up to the Open at Royal Troon. A major championship win is the only way of satisfying his captain's request for the Englishman to qualify automatically.

If there is a reliance on the familiar names it is because only three of the 11 Europeans who have made their Cup debuts in the Nineties have played more than once. It is time for players like Paul Broadhurst and Peter Baker to put in a repeat performance to go alongside possible newcomers such as Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.

Similarly, the Tour has had 21 first-time winners in the past two years, some of whom may show that they can become multiple winners. The turnover of venues has also been high recently. Collingtree Park has suffered the inevitable consequence for its greens fiasco last summer and the One 2 One British Masters, the send-off event before the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, moves to the Forest of Arden.

The Midlands venue used to be home to the Alamo English Open, which now switches to Hanbury Manor in Hertfordshire. The list of sites has taken time to emerge as they have been regularly reappraised. There should be no complaints - a dangerous statement to make when concerned with professional golfers - about Hope Island, where Faldo and Langer will be joined by Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam, Els, Singh and John Daly.

Mined out of Queensland's Gold Coast, it was designed by Peter Thomson. "You can see it's been designed by an ex-Open champion," Montgomerie said. "It was not a question of the Tour getting back on track after last year, but there were a couple of hiccups. The Tour has admitted there were mistakes and we don't want any more. We must look for positives and one of them is coming down here to play quality courses like this week and next week in Perth."

Montgomerie, complete with a specially designed shaft in his Great Big Bertha driver that he picked up at the Callaway factory after winning the Million Dollar in December, remains the man to beat on the money list. Montgomerie will play eight or nine times in America, but has still scheduled 18 events in an attempt to win a fifth Order of Merit title.

"As for being the best player not to have won a major yet," Montgomery said, "it's better than being the second best."

It is still a tag the Scot will be hell-bent on losing this year.

EUROPEAN TOUR ITINERARY

January: 23-26 Johnnie Walker Classic (Hope Island, Queensland); 30-2 Feb Heineken Classic (The Vines, Perth).

February: 6-9 South African Open (Glendower, Johannesburg); 13-16 Dimension Data (Sun City); 20-23 Alfred Dunhill South African PGA championship (Houghton, Johannesburg); 27-2 Mar Dubai Desert Classic (Emirates Club, Dubai).

March: 6-9 Moroccan Open (Rabat); 13-16 Portuguese Open (Aroeira); 20- 23 Turespana Masters Maspalomas); 27-30 Madeira Island Open (Campo de Golfe).

April: 3-6 To be announced; 10-13 US MASTERS (Augusta, Georgia); 17-20 To Be Arranged; 24-27 Peugeot Spanish Open (La Moraleja 2, Madrid).

May: 1-4 Italian Open (Garda Golf, Milan); 8-11 Benson and Hedges International Open (The Oxfordshire, Thame); 15-18 Alamo English Open (Hanbury Manor); 19-20 Andersen Consulting European Championship (The Buckinghamshire); 23-26 Volvo PGA championship (Wentworth); 29-1 June Deutsche Bank Open- TPC of Europe (TBA).

June: 5-8 Slaley Hall Northumberland Challenge (Slaley Hall, Hexham); 12-15 US OPEN (Congressional, Bethesda, Maryland); 12-15 TBA; 19-22 Volvo German Open (Schloss Nippenburg, Stuttgart); 26-29 Peugeot French Open (National, Paris).

July: 3-6 Irish Open (Druids Glen, Co Wicklow); 10-12 Loch Lomond World Invitational (Loch Lomond); 17-20 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP (Royal Troon); 24- 27 Dutch Open (Hilversumsche); 31-Aug 3 Scandinavian Masters (Malmo).

August: 7-10 Chemapol Trophy Czech Open (Prague Karlstein); 14-17 US PGA CHAMPIONSHIP (Winged Foot, New York); 14-17 TBA; 21-24 Smurfit European Open (The K Club, Dublin); 28-31 BMW International Open (Golf Platz, Munich).

September: 4-7 Canon European Masters (Crans-sur-Sierre); 11-14 Lancome Trophy (St Nom la Breteche, Paris); 18-21 One 2 One British Masters (Forest of Arden); 26-28 RYDER CUP by Johnnie Walker (Valderrama, Spain).

October: 2-5 Linde German Masters (Motzener See, Berlin); 9-12 *Toyota World Match Play championship (Wentworth), Open Novotel Perrier (Medoc, Bordeaux); 16-19 *Alfred Dunhill Cup (St Andrews); 23-26 Oki Pro-Am (La Moraleja 1 and 2); 30-2 Nov Volvo Masters (Monte Castillo).

November: 6-9 *Sarazen World Open (Chateau Elan, Atlanta); 20-23 *World Cup of Golf (Kiawah Island, South Carolina).

January 1998: 3-4 *Andersen Consulting World Championship (Grey Hawk, Scottsdale, Arizona)

*Denotes approved special events

To be scheduled: Air France Cannes Open,

Catalan Open, Austrian Open.

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