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 Went-worth Club during his one-stroke victory over Ernie Els, Gary Orr and Patrik Sj�land, the rest of the elite Europeans were preoccupied with a far weightier matter: Who will be their captain for the 1999 match at Brookline?
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 lead it.
"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 democratic."
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 Espa�a, 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.