Bjorn again on top of his game

THE many who believe Europe will have an even stronger team in the 2006 Ryder Cup match at The K-Club had their view strengthened at Mount Juliet over the weekend when Thomas Bjorn made such a dramatic return to top form.

Few would have bet against the Dane making the side at the turn of the year before everything went pearshaped and eventually the only role he was left to play at Oakland Hills was as one of Bernhard Langer's assistant captains. Langer wasn't trying to revitalise Bjorn's career when offering him the job, rather he believed that somebody of his age had something to give to the team, and if that helped his own rejuvenation at the same time, so much the better.

That's exactly how it worked out. Hugely supportive of all the players and his captain during the Ryder Cup, Thomas returned with his mind free of the "demons" that devoured him in mid-season and caused him to walk off the course and out of the Smurfit European Open at The K-Club.

Having chased Ernie Els home so impressively at Mount Juliet, one can only assume that Bjorn is back where he should be, fit and well enough to challenge for the game's biggest championships just as he did in last year's Open at Royal St Georges. That will lead to an automatic place in the European team in two years and boost their chances enormously.

And just as everybody was glad to see Bjorn back at the top, it was delightful, too, to note the joy of his caddy, Ken Conboy, who recently suffered a heartbreaking setback when sacked by his then boss, Paul Casey, the day before the European team set off for Detroit. Instead of being part and parcel of an historic and memorable week, poor Ken was inconsolable back home in England.

Little did he know that his old employer, Thomas Bjorn, was not alone relishing what was happening around him at Oakland Hills but also noting that Conboy was once again a free agent. "I was never close to quitting the game, I was never in that frame of mind, I just wanted to put some perspective in there and that's why I fought so hard to get my swing back," Bjorn explained. "And that's also why I jumped straight at the opportunity to get back my old caddy and coach.

"I knew those people are good for me and had brought me to those levels. This was the first week for me and Ken to be back working together and everything was just right. Pete Cowen is the greatest coach I know. His technical knowledge is second to none. He sometimes gets carried away with the technical side but I think that's also due to the way the players are. We're always looking for something." Bjorn was far from the only European at Mount Juliet with designs on the 2006 team to show what they're capable of. David Howell's achievement in finish 3rd was highly commendable and it could be that this very personable 29-year-old from Swindon is about to emerge on the world scene in a big way.

You suspect he has lacked the necessary self-belief in the past which may explain why his only Tour victory came in the Desert Classic in Dubai back in 1999. His Ryder Cup experience and this exceptional performance in the Amex - which earned him 367,167, by far the biggest cheque of his career will see that record immeasurably improved in the very near future. He is also up to 51st in the world rankings.

Then there was the sight of three key men in this year's side, Darren Clarke and Sergio Garcia, joint 4th and Pádraig Harrington, joint 6th, comfortably inside the Top 10. Luke Donald came in 11th to confirm all the rich promise he displayed on his debut a few weeks back. He swings comfortably and elegantly and while he may never have the power to go all the way to a major title, the quietly spoken Englishman clearly has an enormous future in the game.

Lee Westwood, like Bjorn in that he has had to recover from an even bigger slump, played solidly for 13th and if Miguel Angel Jimenez has good reason to be disappointed with weekend scores of 75 and 73, he was only showing the signs of understandable mental fatigue after many weeks on the road. He still came in 16th and remains a formidable competitor. Paul Casey, 21st, and Paul McGinley and Thomas Levet, 28th, all finished in the top 30 while there were also encouraging performances from Alex Cejka and Graeme McDowell, just two of many with aspirations of breaking into the European side in two years time.

Jean-Francois Remesy and most notably Freddie Jacobson came in at back of the field but they will also be knocking on the door in 2006 when we can also expect a serious challenge from the likes of Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and a whole host of Scandinavians who are making a bigger and bigger impact on the Tour with the passing of every year and yet had no representative in this year's dozen. And let's not forget Colin Montgomerie, his own idea of the captain at Straffan but too valuable as a player in the minds of the vast majority. It's when you look at the American situation that you really see why things are looking so good for the Euros. Their best at Mount Juliet was Open champion Todd Hamilton, scorned by Hal Sutton but who showed he has the golf game and the mental capacity to mix it with the best both at Troon and Mount Juliet. Yet in the end he had to settle for 6th in the Amex. Tiger Woods fought like only he can to squeeze into the Top 10 and Zach Johnson was one place further back. Jim Furyk, Chris DiMarco, Jay Haas and Fred Couples were outside the Top 30, Davis Love 111 was 41st, Chris Riley and Chad Campbell tied 50th and Scott Verplank and Charles Howell 111 couldn't make the leading 50. Most telling statistic of all is the absence of any new, young blood.

The Americans have been making a case for Howell for several years. At the very least, the jury is still out on that one.

And their pride has been further dented with the displacement of Woods from the top two places in the world rankings by a Fijian and a South African. As Sergio Garcia so cheekily but accurately stated during the Ryder Cup, "there are many great golfers in the world outside of America."

That message is coming through louder and louder every day and why there is now a rumpus about how the world rankings are so heavily weighted in favour of those competing regularly on the US Tour.

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