The Fasth show

AS we sat a golf buggy in the late afternoon Mount Juliet sunshine, it was hard to believe a five million dollar golf tournament was taking place a 100 yards or so away.

Here it was tranquil and peaceful, light years away from what could be expected exactly a week later with the 34th Ryder Cup well and truly under way.

Niclas Fasth was polite, as most Swedes are, and assertive, too. This was his scene and he loved it.

Others might complain about various elements of the occasion but for him the Ryder Cup was what it was all about and every single element of it was there to be enjoyed and savoured.

"I am really looking forward to it," he said with a slight smile which does little to conceal the man's steely determination to play his full part in the European cause.

"It's the biggest thing in golf. For me, the best golf is regularly played in the Ryder Cup. To be part of that is very special. I hope to rise to the occasion and have a wonderful time out there.

"You could even lose a match and still appreciate the wonderful occasion, the atmosphere. When we played the world match play at La Costa earlier this year, I played a few matches playing well and lost playing even better. I can honestly say it was wonderful out there the last few holes.

"The pressure is intense and I love it. Players rise to the occasion and that will happen a lot at the Ryder Cup and to be a part of that is fantastic."

Fasth one of the five new European caps at The Belfry, but a man who in the opinion of many good judges has the capacity to be one of the stars of Sam Torrance's team. That belief is engendered not alone because the 30-year-old from Gothenburg finished 2nd in the 2001 Open Championship along with a string of other near misses (he has been runner-up for the Murphys Irish Open in each of the last two years) but also because he has a quiet, laid back approach to the task.

He is deadly serious about the game, but it still isn't something he dwells over morning, noon and night. There are more things to Fasth's life, such as his partner Marie and year-old son Adam. And there's his rather strange but keen interest in hunting. He has indulged in the pastime for five years and yet seems undaunted when admitting that he hasn't killed a single animal.

"I don't know how it would be," he muses. "I like the atmosphere, to be out there when it's quiet. You see the dawn come up, you're there even before the animals have woken up. My father was out there for 10 years or so before he shot his first moose. I eat the meat. Anybody who eats meat shouldn't object to hunting."

Seems like a reasonable argument.

But who am I to say? I wouldn't know one end of a rifle from another. More pertinently, many would argue, I also wouldn't know what it's like to be cut down by a bullet if all I was doing was going for a stroll in my natural habitat without any malicious intent whatsoever.

He started playing golf at the age of 10 and showing progress, he says, by 14 or 15, receiving the kind of support from the Swedish Federation that has them dominating the mens and womens tours, numbers wise at any rate.

In 1990, at the age of 18, he was a member of a Swedish team beaten by Ireland in the European Boys Championship. He won a foursome against Gary Murphy and Gerard Sproule by 2 and 1 but lost his single by two holes against Richard Coughlan as an Irish team that also included Raymond Burns and David Higgins won 4-3.

After turning professional, he did well on the Asian Tour and won his European Tour card through the Challenge Tour in half a season. Carried away with his instant success, Fasth tried the impossible to play both the European and US Tours.

It cost him both his card and his game.

"I spent all my time on a plane," he groans. Niclas continued on the Challenge Tour, picked up a few more titles and then got his career back on track by leading the way in the Tour qualifying school at San Roque and Sotogrande in 1996. He lost the card when finishing a miserable 196th and 172nd in 1998 and '99 but that year he came close to becoming the first player to lead the school twice when missing out by a shot to the Scot Alastair Forsyth. He captured his only tournament so far on the European Tour, the Madeira Island Open, in 2000 and let's be honest, that is nothing to get excited about at this stage of his career.

However, nothing can detract from his second place finish in the Open at Royal Lytham St Annes last year, in his first appearance in a major Championship. He earned a career record prize of £590,853 for his heroics and that, coupled with his second place in the Irish Open, gained him his place in the Ryder Cup team. He opend with a par of 69s, was pushed back on the third day by a 72 before he stormed back on the Sunday with a 67. Four birdies in the first seven holes and another at the 11th put him in the lead before a bunkered drive at the 14th proved his undoing.

The pressure was huge that afternoon but Fasth constantly thought back to his days in the Swedish youth system which teaches physiology, anatomy, nutrition, fitness and psychology. It's psychology, he says, that has made the biggest impact on him.

"When stress threatens to overcome you in certain situations, you must do something to control it because muscular tensions and psychological tension are pretty much the same thing," he contends. "They work hand in hand. You can control one by controlling the other and it works the other way around as well. To do that, I use one of many techniques such as clenching my fists and holding my breath. But there are also times when you don't want to be too relaxed, like in the final round of the 2001 Open.

"20th place, say, in my first Open would have been fine but I asked myself if I was strong enough to go out there and go for it or did I want to go out there and hope for the best. I really went after it and that made me very proud".

FASTH'S work ethic cannot be questioned. He jogs and works out five times a week, pointing out that: "it's part of my job and anyway it makes me feel good. I'm not going to give an advantage to my opponents by not working out. I'm not going to be a winner if I don't put in the time. I'll do whatever I can to achieve the best results. I'll not leave anything to chance".

On the course, he consumes energy bars and sports drinks.

Practice is not a problem, no matter what the weather. His golfing ambition is all consuming well, almost. There's Adam, who was born last October.

"His birth was the strongest emotion I have ever felt," he says. "I was there. The love you feel for your child is amazing. If I have a bad day at the course and get a smile from Adam, it helps things a lot." Monaco is home these days for the Fasth family and maybe that explains why he was unaware that Sweden and Ireland were the only countries contributing three players to the European cause this week.

"The presence of three Swedish players will make for greater interest in the Ryder Cup back home although I don't think too many will travel to see the match, it is very expensive," he says.

"It's good for kids to have role models and for the past seven 10 years, a lot have come through the system. Many have done very well but it's getting harder and harder because the standard is getting higher and higher. But the big boom is ending because we don't have enough courses .

"I'm sure I'll be nervous when the Ryder Cup starts but it's not going to be nerve-wracking. I will enjoy it very much and I thrive on nervous moments. I don't get nervous very often. Anyway, I'm sure everybody is going to feel the pressure. I'm wide open as to who I play with and I wouldn't like to comment on any names in particular. I might be more sensitive in a foursome than a fourball, I'm not sure because I don't have experience of this.

"There has been a lot of talk about the poor form of many members of the European team but that doesn't worry me. Anybody standing on the first tee is going to have a match on his hands.

"Match play is uncertain anyway. I don't mind who I play, it could be Tiger Woods but I haven't thought about it. Of course it would be a great achievement to beat Tiger but anybody walking off the course on Sunday having won his match would be very happy no matter who he played."

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