Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

James Lawton: Bitterness over Faldo wild cards exposes the hidden cracks in European union

Nick Faldo has been criticised for leaving Darren Clarke out of Europe's Ryder Cup team

Tiger Woods has never hidden his contempt for the concept of team golf. Shortly after winning a routine million dollars or so on his own behalf six years ago, he was challenged over his lack of enthusiasm when he arrived at The Belfry, which of course was gripped by the usual Ryder Cup fever.

The Tiger was dressed so heavily in languor he might have been wearing a cloak. "I've never been taken with the idea," he finally admitted.

Team golf had always been for him, he explained, a bit like canoe racing – utterly futile if your team-mates couldn't paddle a lick.

Imagine, then, how he might feel operating under the captaincy of Nick Faldo and in a foxhole also occupied by Ian Poulter. We can assume he would find it about as stimulating as bridge night with some of his more elderly and cantankerous Florida neighbours.

Certainly, the bitterness generated by the controversy over Faldo's wild-card picks, the grinding sense that what we have is not the forging of a team but the resurrection of old feuds and the creation of new ones, is a reminder that in at least one basic way Woods is right.

Golf is not a team game. The success of the Ryder Cup, in European eyes at least, in recent years has thus been a small miracle of subdued individualism – and ego, but one that was surely never going to have an indefinite shelf life.

It has also, let's be honest, substantially obscured a decade of near total European failure in major tournaments, one only now redeemed by the spectacular emergence of Padraig Harrington. When Faldo's predecessor Ian Woosnam carried Europe to a third straight victory at the K Club two years ago, having survived his own firestorm of anger from Thomas Bjorn, he announced, from beneath the foam of champagne and Guinness, that we had just witnessed the greatest weekend in history. Perhaps it was precisely at that moment that the civilising aims of the founder, old Sam Ryder, might possibly have been said to have run their course.

The fear here, certainly, is that the current acrid build-up to the contest in Valhalla, Kentucky, later this month is confirming one concern that was hard to shake in the euphoria that engulfed Co Kildare.

It is that the Ryder Cup and its participants are beginning to take themselves far too seriously, and that something intended as a pleasant diversion, a meandering, agreeable walk among the flowers and the reflections urged upon all pros by the great Walter Hagen, has been inflated out of all proportion to its true value in a game that will always be the ultimate test of individual, and not collective, nerve and skill.

The new, and debilitating, element is a much wider and deeper level of rancour and maybe this was inevitable the moment Faldo was appointed. Britain's best golfer by a mile, a phenomenon of application which was apparent enough when, as a teenager in Welwyn Garden City, he announced that his greatest ambition was to become a golf machine, Faldo, let's face it, has proved himself perfectly capable of causing dissension at a vicarage bun fight. But put him in charge of fellow golfers who, until the breakout of Harrington, so clearly belonged on a different, lesser planet and the capacity for friction, was as it has proved, almost boundless.

Certainly, it is hard not to see the elevation of the equally abrasive Poulter by Faldo above such Ryder Cup legends as Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie as something rather more than a selector's whim.



The effect within the European locker room is sure to be devastating, and not only because of a camaraderie that sometimes in the past has been as cloying as it has been ferocious. Clarke and Montgomerie, even with the Scot so currently out of sorts on the course, were sure to have brought more of a chill to American hearts than a Poulter who failed to qualify automatically and then, while men of much greater distinction battled it out at Gleneagles at the weekend, sat back and waited for the call from his new friend and patron Faldo.



One cynical reaction is that Poulter's spirited play and cool putting along the back nine at Royal Birkdale in July, and second place, was an achievement far less spectacular than his making of rapport with Faldo, who, of course, not so long ago had a letter of encouragement to a Ryder Cup team thrown into a wastepaper basket.



The chances of such wounds healing in time for the showdown in Valhalla were always remote and now they seem like the last word in optimism. Maybe the Tiger was right all along. Perhaps a canoe paddle was sooner or later always going to look out of place in a golf bag.



Owen often victim of poor management – but not by Capello



How odd it is that Fabio Capello, so ludicrously badgered into extending the international career of David Beckham, is now besieged for signalling the possible end of Michael Owen's.



It makes you wonder how precisely it is a leading player earns a protected species category in English football.



First, plainly, you have to exhaust most of those qualities that made you such a dynamic force in the first place – in Owen's case, a sensational turn of speed and a marvellous instinct for finding the back of the net.



While Owen was displaying such ability around a decade ago it was a wearisomely necessary chore to argue his case against the folly of those in charge of his career at club and international level.



Going into the 1998 World Cup, Glenn Hoddle treated him not so much as a brilliant arrival, someone who earned rave reviews from such foreign coaches as Italy's Cesare Maldini, but a precocious embarrassment. His chances to develop a playing relationship with Alan Shearer were virtually nil, his impact on the tournament was delayed until late in the lost group game against Romania – when he came on and scored immediately – and in the process Hoddle issued the deathless edict that Owen, for all his speed and predatory instincts, was not a natural goalscorer.



It got worse. At Liverpool Gérard Houllier insisted on a rotation policy involving Robbie Fowler and his signing Emile Heskey, and the kid pined for the kind of unbroken action on which great ambition and nascent talent thrive.



Then there was the strange attitude of Owen's current Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, who as England coach expressed a preference for Andy Cole before a prestige friendly in Paris, when Owen came on late again to score a superb goal and, with great maturity, refrained from indulging in any excessive celebration.



Why the history lesson? It is because, unfortunately, the Owen we have been discussing is history now. Slowed heartbreakingly from his great days, he retains an instinct to score but it is Capello's decision that current injury problems, and that marked loss of pace, no longer make him a viable automatic choice for England.



It is a fair call and for Capello to be castigated for going into the qualifying games with Andorra and Croatia with a strike force of Wayne Rooney, Jermain Defoe, Heskey and Theo Walcott, is somewhat bizarre, especially in that some of the castigators heralded Walcott's World Cup selection by Sven Goran Eriksson as "a bold and imaginative choice". Walcott at the time had still to make his maiden run in the Arsenal first team, and his fellow England strikers Rooney and Owen were far from full fitness.



Another perspective on Owen's situation is that after his unforgettable impact on the World Cup of 1998, Eriksson took him to Japan in 2002 and Germany in 2006 when he was palpably unfit.



Capello, it seems here beyond debate, is now merely registering a proper professional caution. He is right to ditch the sentiment that has served England – and Owen – so poorly in the past.



Ohuruogu and the war on drugs



Christine Ohuruogu tells us that when she recalls the questions some have raised against her right to compete so successfully in the Beijing Olympics, she thinks: "Right, this is war."



It isn't, of course. It is the legitimately expressed concern of all those who believe that an athlete who missed three drug tests was undermining, for whatever reason, the whole foundation of attempts to clean up her sport. She would be wise to recognise this. The war is not against her but cheating. She has a good university degree, which implies a high level of intelligence. It is time she applied it to an issue that will never be resolved by unthinking arrogance.

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