The European tour's season kicked into high gear last week at the
Volvo PGA Championship, so it was no surprise that talk turned
to the only thing that really matters across the Atlantic, the
Ryder Cup. While Colin Montgomerie was busy chewing up the
suburban London scenery at the Wentworth Club during his
one-stroke victory over Ernie Els, Gary Orr and Patrik Sjoland,
the rest of the elite Europeans were preoccupied with a far
weightier matter: Who will be their captain for the 1999 match
A number of players are interested in the job, but no one is
ready to take it, save a wee Welshman who loudly nominated
himself two days before the Volvo began. Ian Woosnam did the
grandstanding, but what thickened the plot at Wentworth were the
proclamations of the two favorites for the captaincy. Both made
clear their desire to play for the European team rather than
"If I think I have a chance to make the team, then I won't take
the job," said Mark James, the Englishman who has competed in
seven Ryder Cups over three decades and the front-runner to take
over for Seve Ballesteros.
"The fact of the matter is that the captaincy is not going to
disappear, but my swing just might," said Sam Torrance, the
hangdog Scot who played in every Ryder Cup from 1981 to '95.
"I've got to give it one more shot as a player."
The ambivalence of James and Torrance, a couple of warriors born
two months apart in 1953, reflects a larger problem for the
European Ryder Cuppers. Most of the players who transformed
Europe from a 28-year joke into a powerhouse that has gone 4-2-1
in the Cup since 1985 are suffering midlife crises as they try
to remain competitive into their 40s. After a combined seven
matches under the leadership of Tony Jacklin and Bernard
Gallacher, last year the European stars for the first time were
led by one of their contemporaries, the then 40-year-old
Ballesteros. Having masterminded the epic upset of the U.S. at
Valderrama, Ballesteros could have kept the post for as long as
he liked, but instead he opted to try to regain his playing form
(though he has made noises about captaining again, maybe in
2005, when the match will be held in Europe).
After Valderrama, Ballesteros lobbied for Bernhard Langer as his
successor, but last week the 40-year-old German said, "I look
forward to being captain, but my time has not yet come. We need
our best players to be playing." This was a pointed barb at
Woosnam, who had said during his defending champion's press
conference before the Volvo PGA, "I'll stand down as a player if
they give me the captaincy. You cannot do both."
So, while Ben Crenshaw, named the U.S. captain seven months ago,
fusses over the color of his team's socks, the Europeans will
remain rudderless until at least the next quarterly meeting of
the European tour's 15-player tournament committee, scheduled
for late July. Unlike the PGA of America, which picks the U.S.
captain under Manhattan Project-like secrecy, the European
players get together for a smoke and a pint and decide who their
captain is going to be. "We are humble servants of the players,"
says Richard Hills, the executive in charge of the European
tour's Ryder Cup effort. "We at the organization merely
rubber-stamp their decision. It's a player thing, very
What makes things interesting is the composition of the
tournament committee: James is chairman while Langer and
Torrance are members. James doesn't see a conflict. "I've been
on the committee since 1982, and we've never had a disagreement,
let alone had to take a vote," he says. "Things sort themselves
out over time. By the [British] Open the season is two-thirds
over, and I'll know what kind of year I'm going to have, as will
Sam and anyone else under consideration. We won't have to make
the decision as much as the decision will make itself." Says
Gallacher, who is still very much in the loop, "I think the
committee is waiting to see which player is least likely to make
the team, and that person will be its choice."
Both James and Torrance have reason to be optimistic about
playing their way onto the team. James is in the middle of a
comeback that just keeps coming. Last season he failed to make
the Ryder Cup team for the first time in 10 years, but he did
finish 14th on the money list and win the Open de Espana, his
first victory since 1995 and the 18th of his 23-year career. In
only seven tournaments this year he has a pair of top 10
finishes and, after coming in 50th at the Volvo PGA, is up to
44th on the money list. Torrance, 16th at Wentworth, is 54th in
winnings, but has made five of six cuts and finished fourth at
the Portuguese Open in March.
Last year Torrance fell to 56th on the money list, the
second-worst showing of his 27 years on tour, during which he
has won 20 times. He secured his place in history by sinking the
winning putt in the '85 Ryder Cup, Europe's first victory since
1957. Watching last year's match on TV was such a downer that he
swore off drinking to prepare for this season, a remarkable
commitment for a man whose love for lager is almost as
celebrated as his mastery of snooker.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, which helps explain
Woosnam's aggressive campaigning. While all the candidates have
been deferential toward one another, Woosie gave James a jab
last week. Asked if the Englishman had helped contribute to the
victory at Valderrama in his role as one of Ballesteros's
lieutenants, Woosnam let out a snort and offered, "You know the
answer," he said, "but we've got to try and keep it friendly."
Woosnam has never been known as a team player. Two weeks after
last year's Ryder Cup he was still smarting about having been
benched for the first two sessions. "To be honest, I didn't
particularly enjoy it this time," he was quoted as saying. "Seve
had his own way of doing things, and that was it. If I was
captain, I would be in touch with my players."
Another knock on Woosnam is his often churlish behavior. A
classic example came two weeks ago at the Benson & Hedges
International. Leading after the first round, Woosnam was
invited to the pressroom by by a tour official. "Aw, f--- me.
I've been here all day already," Woosnam said. "Why don't you
put someone else through that." This from the man who hopes to
speak for Europe.
Like Ballesteros, though, Woosnam is a fighter who loves a good
scrap, a quality that separates him from the low-key James and
the even-tempered Torrance. The genius of Gallacher's leadership
was his ability to stay out of the way of his experienced
players, and he often sought their counsel on important
decisions. As these old-timers are phased out, the captain will
be more crucial in shaping the personality of the team. There is
a new wave of golfers making a splash on the European tour,
players such as Sweden's Sjoland, Andrew Coltart of Scotland and
Paul McGinley of Ireland. Five others--Thomas Bjorn, Darren
Clarke, Ignacio Garrido, Jesper Parnevik and Lee Westwood--made
their Ryder Cup debuts at Valderrama. Neither James nor Torrance
played with that group in Spain, which gives them less
credibility as captains than Woosnam.
"Woosie would make a wonderful captain," says Bjorn, "because
he's so good at reaching out to the younger players." In
Valderrama, Woosnam took Bjorn under his stubby wing, not only
nursing him to a crucial four-ball victory but also instilling
so much confidence in Bjorn that after the young Dane won this
year's Heineken Classic in Australia, he singled out Woosnam in
his victory speech. "Without you, I might not be here," Bjorn
Still, as Langer noted, Woosnam might be too good to be
sacrificed as a player. In '98 he has had three top 10s, and
after finishing 54th at Wentworth is ninth on the money list.
Ultimately, James may get the job, and not just because he's
expendable as a player. (His Ryder Cup record, 8-15-1, is on par
with Torrance's, 7-15-6.) James also gets bonus points for his
much-praised leadership of the tournament committee, his
successful apprenticeship under Ballesteros (not everyone agrees
with Woosnam on that score) and the kind of obsession with
detail that allows him to maintain a garden that is more than an
acre back home in Ilkley, England. (He's particularly proud of
his sweet peas.)
"If I was a gambling man, I would bet on Mark James being the
next captain," says Gallacher. "Then I would invite Sam to lead
the side when it returns to the Belfry [in 2001], the scene of
his winning putt. It would be full of nostalgia for him. After
that you go for names like Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo and Bernhard
Langer to maintain the tradition of those who have played so
well for Europe over the years."
So James would appear to be the pick, but he had better not
start playing too well.
COLOR PHOTO: MATTHEW HARRIS [Mark James]
Bjorn prefers Woosnam "because he's so good at reaching out to
the younger players."