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Monty Turns Up The Heat

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the upcoming Omega European Masters

Posted Sep 01, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

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The countdown starts this week and European skipper, Colin Montgomerie, is already turning up the heat.  I'm referring, of course to the Omega European Masters, which is the opening tournament of the 2010 Ryder Cup qualifying campaign.

While leading candidates such as Padraig Harrington are embroiled in the FedEx Cup play-offs in the US, Monty has indicated he will expecting his top Ryder Cup candidates to compete in Europe's top events next season.  In fact he has e-mailed them to this effect while giving a verbal reminder to Harrington that in view of the reconstruction of Wentworth's West Course greens, there is no excuse for the Dubliner to miss the BMW PGA Championship in 2010.

Things were much simpler, the last time the qualifying process got under way for a European staging of the biennial showpiece.  That was in the corresponding week in 2005 when the FedEx Cup was no more than a highly ambitious piece of forward planning by PGA Tour commissioner, Tim Finchem.  

I can still picture snow-capped Alpine peaks glistening in early morning sunshine at Crans-sur-Sierre.  It was Thursday, September 1st 2005 and with a drive on the long first, high into rarefied air, Sweden's Fredrik Henge hit the opening shot while Ryder Cup skipper, Ian Woosnam, was among those who delighted in glorious, summer temperatures.  Crucially, Woosnam could assess the form of potential team members such as Luke Donald, Paul Casey and the eventual winner, Sergio Garcia, who were competing at Crans in the absence of a more attractive, conflicting event in the US.

With a predictably strong presence by Failte Ireland and The K Club, which would play host to the Ryder Cup little more than a year later, there was an inescapable sense of relief that the attention was largely on golf, insofar as it would have been daunting to try and sell Irish scenery against the spectacular beauty of the Swiss resort.  Golf cannot have a more magnificent setting than this extraordinary plateau, almost 5,000 feet above sea level.  As Donald, a dab hand with brush and palette, observed: "It's a beautiful place to play golf: something you don't see anywhere else. You never get bored with the views, looking around here."

Remarkably, the Royal and Ancient game has been there since 1905 when Arnold Lunn, owner of the local, Palace Hotel, commissioned two Englishmen named Freemantle and Gedge to lay out a golf course.  So it was that the original nine holes were opened in 1906, to be followed by an extension to 18, two years later.  With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the British left the so-called Haut-Plateau and in 1924, the Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club was founded.

Ballesteros, a three-time tournament winner at Crans, was commissioned in 1997 to remodel and up-grade the main course while the adjoining nine-hole stretch, which had been there since 1951, was totally transformed in 1988 to a design by Jack Nicklaus.   

For the European Masters, the tented village down by the 18th fairway, included an Irish stand decked out with appropriate images, including the iconic photograph from Oakland Hills of Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Harrington, draped in the Tricolor.  One imagines similar, promotional material this week from Celtic Manor and the Welsh Tourist Board.

A crucial difference from four years ago, however, is the current residence of the Ryder Cup.  By 2005, European Tour headquarters at Wentworth had been its home since the matches at The Belfry three years previously, when Sam Torrance's team regained the trophy which had been lost at Brookline in 1999.  Now, it is back in American hands as a consequence of the decisive victory by Paul Azenger's heroes at Valhalla 12 months ago.

Wherever the trophy may reside, George O'Grady, chief executive  of the European Tour, has a very clear view of the event's importance to the well-being of tournament golf on this side of the Atlantic.  "The Ryder Cup is about Europe versus America, not the European Tour against the PGA Tour," he said.  "The fact of the matter is that if we didn't have a really strong European Tour and we didn't have a tour in place to create really strong players, then the Ryder Cup wouldn't be what it is today.  Certainly the players who are now choosing to play on the PGA Tour, wouldn't have got to this stage of their career without a strong European Tour on which to hone their skills."

Finally, on a distinctly personal note, I will always have special reason to remember the 2005 European Masters.  On August 31st, the eve of the tournament, I got word from Dublin that my daughter had given birth to Harry, making me a granddad for the first time.  He was four last Monday.  And we helped him celebrate a birthday which he happens to share with a rather useful Irish golfer named Harrington.

- Dermot Gilleece

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