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A Continental Coming Of Age

European golf is making strides despite tradition

Posted Sep 03, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

colsaerts

Remarkable things have been happening in Continental golf.  The choice of Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts as a wild-card for Europe’s Ryder Cup team later this month, broadened the involvement of Continental nations to seven, encompassing 28 players.  And last weekend at Portmarnock, The Continent of Europe completed a second double in three years over GB&I in the St Andrews Trophy and the Jacques Leglise Trophy (under-18 boys).

It was the first time such dominance had been achieved on British and Irish terrain, since the biennial St Andrews event came under the banner of the Royal and Ancient in 1964.  It must be acknowledged, however, that when the Jacques Leglise tournament was launched as an annual event in 1977, Europe won the initial staging at Downfield, Dundee and again at Seaton Carew the following year.   

For me, another hugely significant milestone, certainly for Scandinavian golf, occurred at Lausanne GC, Switzerland in 1982, when a Swedish quartet, each driving a sponsored SAAB car, made a highly-organised assault on the World Amateur Team Championship for the Eisenhower Trophy.  "I certainly remember those cars, and how well the players seemed to be looked after by their national federation,"  recalled Tipperary's Arthur Pierse, a member of the British and Irish line-up.

As anticipated, the American team of Jay Sigel, Nathaniel Crosby, Jim Holtgrieve and Bob Lewis, captured the title.  But the big story concerned Sweden’s Per Andersson, Krister Kinell, Magnus Persson and Ove Sellberg, who shared second place with Japan.  Eight years later, they went the extra mile, when Gabriel Hjertstedt, Mathias Gronberg, Per Nyman and Klas Eriksson completed an astonishing victory in the Eisenhower Trophy in Christchurch, New Zealand. And more was to follow.  In 1991, the professional trio of Anders Forsbrand, Per-Ulrik Johansson and Mats Lanner succeeded Ireland as Dunhill Cup champions.  And the Swedes rounded off a marvellous year when Forsbrand and Johansson captured the World Cup in Rome.  Then, in 1993 at The Belfry, Joakim Haeggman became their first Ryder Cup representative.

Jan Blomqvist, Sweden's first national head coach and sadly no longer with us, was a key figure behind these performances.  And in conversations we had, he would express his great admiration for Irish golf, especially our rich tradition in the game, as personified by legendary figures such as Fred Daly, Christy O'Connor and Joe Carr.  He saw it as the one, key ingredient his players were missing.  Yet Neil Manchip, the GUI's national coach, believes Blomqvist was mistaken.  "Their lack of tradition leads them to question things," he said.  "In another way, it leaves them mentally unencumbered in their pursuit of success."

It seems remarkable that with nine Ryder Cup representatives, Sweden can match Spain.  Yet the fact that they have yet succeeded in emulating the Major achievements of Spain and Germany - even France has its own Major winner in 1907 Open champion, Arnaud Massy - would suggest that Blomqvist could have been right.

A more realistic assessment, however, would be that tradition, by definition, takes time.  The only people who seem to have successfully by-passed the process are Augusta National, by firing wads of money at the US Masters since its relatively recent launch in 1934.             

Meanwhile, the continentals have been making tremendous strides.  Manchip believes this can be attributed in no small way to the manner in which they nurture their young talent.  The tremendous work done there by ex-patriate professionals from Britain and Ireland over the years, has now been complemented by support at national and locals levels. “Having the one federation taking care of everybody, from amateurs to pros, makes for a cohesive flow from one group to the other,” said Manchip.  “They're also very well organised.  While going about their mechanics in different ways, players have a well-structured approach overall."

And things can only get better, now that golf is set to return to the Olympic fold at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, so bringing more government money into the game.

If further evidence were needed as to the current health of continental European golf, it was to be seen at Portmarnock in one, remarkable competitor.  Playing off a handicap of plus-six and seventh in the world, 18-year-old Austrian, Matthias Schwab, was the highest ranked player from any of the four sides.  Already, he has been runner-up in the British Amateur Championship.  Watch for him to become Austria’s first world-class player, while Europe continues to create its own golfing tradition.

- Dermot Gilleece

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