Weighing up the contenders

NO sooner had speculation ended on who the European Ryder Cup captain should be at The K Club next year than we are now into the business of guessing who should be Ian Woosnam’s vice-captain.

The little Welshman was quick to stress that his second in command would be Irish, an announcement that came as little surprise to those who know how much Woosie enjoys this country and how well he gets on with our top players.

If Woosie was to opt for a kindred spirit, then Christy O’Connor Jnr would already be past the post. The two love a knees-up and aren’t averse to a jar or two. But there’s a lot more to the issue than that, so let’s envisage how he will come to the decision, to be announced during the Smurfit European Open at The K Club in the first week of July.

The first criterion is that his assistant will have played in the Ryder Cup. That immediately restricts the options to five candidates, the “senior” trio of Des Smyth, Christy O’Connor Jnr and Eamonn Darcy, and Ronan Rafferty and Philip Walton of more recent vintage. It won’t be an easy call but Woosnam has the big advantage of knowing that he will have an excellent vice-captain no matter which man he chooses.

DES SMYTH (52 years of age. Ryder Cup record: 1979, Greenbrier, West Virginia, foursomes, Smyth and Ken Brown lost 7&6 to Hale Irwin and Tom Kite; singles lost 5&3 to Hale Irwin; 1981 at Walton Heath, foursomes, Smyth and Bernard Gallacher bt Hale Irwin and Ray Floyd 3&2; fourballs, Smyth and Jose-Maria Canizares bt Bill Rogers and Bruce Lietzke 6&5; fourballs, Smyth and Canizares lost to Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson 3&2; foursomes, Smyth and Gallacher lost to Kite and Larry Nelson 3&2; singles, Smyth lost to Ben Crenshaw 6&4).

Smyth is one of the game’s great gentlemen but a tougher competitor than his genial, friendly demeanour might suggest. He had an unhappy initiation to the Ryder Cup at the Greenbrier in 1979 when he got stuck in his first match with Ken Brown, who at the time was a petulant, unruly young man who hardly exchanged a word with a partner whom he openly claimed wasn’t worth his place in the team. Ironically, Brown is now one of the more respected elders on Tour, as is Mark James, who also let himself down very badly in ’79. He skippered the European team in 1999.

Smyth handled himself admirably in difficult circumstances that week, as he has invariably done no matter what situation he was in. His greatest win on tour came in the now defunct Sun Alliance European Match Play championship when he defeated Nick Price in the final, but his willowy swing defied the passage of time, a point proved by his victory in the Madeira Island Open as recently as 2001. Thus he became, at the age of 48 years and 34 days, the oldest winner on tour in his 28th consecutive year on tour. Calm and thoughtful, he clearly has the capacity to act as the perfect foil for the sometimes excitable Woosnam.

CHRISTY O’CONNOR JNR (56. Ryder Cup record: 1975, Laurel Valley, Pennsylvania, fourballs, O’Connor and Eamonn Darcy lost to Tom Weiskopf and Lou Graham 3&2; foursomes, O’Connor and John O’Leary lost to Weiskopf and Johnny Miller 5&3. 1989, The Belfry, England, foursomes, O’Connor and Ronan Rafferty lost to Mark Calcavecchia and Ken Green 3&2; singles, bt Fred Couples 1 hole).

“Junior” will forever be a Ryder Cup hero after the famous two iron to the 18th at The Belfry in 1989 saw off Fred Couples, a key man in the US team, and clinched the retention of the trophy. One of golf’s most charismatic characters, he enjoyed a lot of other success during his playing career, probably highlighted by his Carrolls Irish Open (1975) and British Masters (1992) victories while he also prospered on the seniors tour (now the Champions Tour) in the States, winning twice there in 1999.

He continues to compete effectively on both sides of the Atlantic while concentrating more and more on his course architecture business. The fans would love to see “Junior” riding around in the vice-captain’s buggy.

EAMONN DARCY (52. Ryder Cup record: 1975, Laurel Valley, fourballs, Darcy and Christy O’Connor Jr lost to Weiskopf and Lou Graham 3&2; fourballs, Darcy and Guy Hunt halved with Al Geiberger and Floyd; foursomes, Darcy and Hunt lost to Geiberger and Graham 3&2; singles, lost to Billy Casper 3&2. 1977, at Royal Lytham St Annes, England, foursomes, Darcy and Tony Jacklin halved with Ed Sneed and Don January; fourballs, Darcy and Jacklin lost to Dave Hill and Dave Stockton 5&3; singles, lost to Hubert Green 1 hole. 1981, at Walton Heath, Surrey: fourballs, Darcy and Bernard Gallacher lost to Hale Irwin and Ray Floyd 2&1; singles, Darcy lost to Jack Nicklaus 5&3. 1987, at Muirfield Village, Ohio: fourballs, Darcy and Gordon Brand Jnr lost to Andy Bean and Payne Stewart 3&2; singles, Darcy bt Ben Crenshaw 1 hole).

Like his good friend Christy Junior, Eamonn’s place in the annals of the Ryder Cup is assured. The nerve-jangling five foot downhill putt that enabled him to pip Ben Crenshaw at Muirfield Village in 1987 was the catalyst for a great European triumph over the Jack Nicklaus-led American side. His big wins on tour included the Desert Classic in Dubai in 1990 and the Spanish Open at Las Brisas in 1983. Nowadays, he plies his trade on the Seniors Tours on both sides of the Atlantic and is also professional at Druids Glen. Darcy was one of the game’s most consistent players for more than two decades in spite of a distinctly unorthodox swing. Tough and resolute, he retains all the attributes that enabled him to pull off that memorable win over Crenshaw in ’97.

RONAN RAFFERTY (41. Ryder Cup record: 1989, The Belfry, foursomes, Rafferty and Bernhard Langer lost to Mark Calcavecchia and Ken Green 2&1; foursomes, Rafferty and Christy O’Connor Jnr lost to Calcavecchia and Green 3&2; singles, Rafferty bt Calcavecchia 1 hole).

Winner of three tournaments in 1989, including the Volvo Masters and leader of the order of merit, Rafferty lacked the golfing longevity of most of his compatriots and rarely competes nowadays, preferring to work as an excellent analyst with Sky Sports.

Showed little or no interest in the captaincy but surprised many by holding his hand up on television last week when the vice-captaincy subject was raised.

PHILIP WALTON (43 this month. Ryder Cup record: 1995, Oak Hill, Rochester, New York, foursomes, Walton and Ian Woosnam lost to Loren Roberts and Peter Jacobsen 1 hole; singles, Walton bt Jay Haas 1 hole).

Another Irishman to clinch Ryder Cup victory. He did so by beating Jay Haas at the 18th at Oak Hill in 1995. However, the pressure of the occasion had an undermining affect on his beautifully natural golf game and he gradually faded from the scene until regaining his card at the Tour School last November.

Winner in his day of the French and English Opens and beaten by Ian Woosnam in a play-off for the Irish Open.

That Ryder Cup appearance took so much out of him that it is doubtful if he would ever again want to be involved in the match.

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