Three weeks from now, European golf will be assessing Bernhard Langer's personal perspicacity. Langer has been a great player, a great champion and is a much-revered figure on both sides of the Atlantic. It would be a pity if his record contained a footnote about his disappointment at Oakland Hills.
At a press conference after the conclusion of the BMW Open at Nord-Eichenreid, near Munich, Langer, with composed erudition in two languages and diplomacy that must mark him out as a future chancellor, announced the two captains' picks for his Ryder Cup team. He stated his case clearly, starting with a discussion of his four alternatives, Alex Cejka, Luke Donald, Fredrik Jacobson and Colin Montgomerie - before announcing Donald and Monty as his preferences. His picks came as no surprise to the majority in the press tent. Indeed, many present had canvassed hard on Monty's behalf, lengthily including quotes from other team members hoping for his inclusion. The others had no such coverage although there was a clear consensus for the inclusion of Luke Donald. Cejka had never been firmly in the frame but his recent form in the US and certainly his performance in taking equal third place in Munich attracted attention. Jacobson also came up with a game in Munich that some thought good enough to sway Langer. But it was Monty, who also tied for third place, a stroke ahead of Jacobson, who got the nod. Many were surprised since this is his best finish since April, and not a few were surprised with the inclusion of Luke Donald, who finished well down the undistinguished field.
Miguel Angel Jimenez won the event at 21 under par with Thomas Levet in second place two shots behind. Casey, Cejka and Monty finished in joint third with Jacobson in the fifth spot but it is significant that virtually the entire field finished under par. Nord-Eichenreid is not the most severe test of the European tour venues.
Montgomerie holed putts that that two months ago were certain misses. Monty was back, his closing round underlined the fact and Langer acknowledged that he was seduced by it. Had he watched him tee to green, particularly over the first two days play, he might have regarded things differently. It may be the case that for once in the Life of Langer he has allowed his heart to rule his head. Nord-Eichenreid is not a great golf course. It may be a good golf course but it poses little or no examination for players of this calibre and the overall scoring shows that. It is not a championship course, despite its pretensions, and it is certainly no Oakland Hills. If the performance of players on this course was the determining factor in his considerations, Langer is not the thinker we thought he was.
Monty's putting and certainly his new found self-control and consideration for others was most impressive in Germany. His driving and long iron play was not. Indeed, it was no better or worse than it has been through his extremely poor season. His driving, for so long the most precise in European golf, was miles off line for much of the time. His long iron play also seemed to be uncontrolled, but if his verbosity is any reflection of his mental state, it is not hard to see where things have gone wrong. After his second round he spoke of how he had laid up in the water with a 4-iron on the ninth hole, where he collected a seven. He then went on to speak at high speed about his singularly odd bogey at the tenth (short of the green with his approach, chipped badly before missing a putt) in terms of how well he was doing with his confidence in his caddie. Colin can be very confusing to listeners with limited concentration, or who find themselves challenged by mental processes that are out of the ordinary.
Those intellectually challenged will also find difficulty with Langer's reasoning. With the winner returning 21-under par and at least a third of the field in double figures, Nord-Eichenreid cannot be considered a test. Yet, other than Monty's showing in the Scandinavian Open and this, his final performance, he has hardly returned a card of significance since April. It is easy to make a case for Donald and even easier to make a case for Jacobson for in the world rankings he is the highest placed European of the four contenders and his form in recent weeks has been good and improving. Langer also spoke glowingly of Monty's Ryder record, apparently unaware that it is indisputably outstanding at the Belfry meetings but simply average in matches in America. Calcavecchia's collapse in 1991 helped Monty's balance sheet but in the three Ryder matches he has played in America, Monty came out on top only at Brookline in 1999. He was on form then with two wins in the six weeks prior to the match. The stats don't read well for Monty. Ryder rookies do better in away matches when the seasoned campaigners do less well.
Langer has done televiewers a service by keeping Monty on the course and out of the commentary box, where many suspect that his heart lies. He may also have compensated for Sutton's strange pick of Haas, but it is doubtful if he has done much for the future of European golf. He may be right and Monty may rise to the occasion, but if he is wrong and Monty plays glum he has a team morale problem on his hands that may not be helped with Thomas Bjorn on his backroom staff.
A poor performance may also terminate Monty's glorious career for the pressure comes at a time when he does not need it. At 40, Colin Montgomerie has years of competitive golf ahead of him. With his own particular brand of egocentricity tarnished and dented after his recent personal experiences, he needs time and not pressure to regain his lustre and relaxation to shape his game again. Monty will return with all guns firing. Let us hope that he does all the shooting at Oakland Hills.
|| 30 - AUGUST 2004