x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Flying the flag for England

A growing contingent climbing up the world rankings is primed to mount a strong challenge for a major title.

Brian Davis displays the attributes of a quality competitor by calling a foul against himself at the Heritage Classic in April.
Brian Davis displays the attributes of a quality competitor by calling a foul against himself at the Heritage Classic in April.

If you are an Englishman, the latest publication of the world golf rankings makes for pleasant reading. Luke Donald's victory in the Madrid Masters last weekend, a week after he had been within a stroke of winning the more prestigious European PGA Championship, propelled him into the top 10 where three of his compatriots were already featured.

That means England now have as many representatives in that elite band as the United States, although the four Americans - Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk - are all peering down on lesser mortals from the top five. Such a healthy English situation looked a million miles away at the start of the new millennium when the powers of Nick Faldo, the winner of six majors, were on the wane and there was no obvious contender to take over the task of flying the flag of St George.

There has been no English winner of one of golf's big four events since Faldo completed his haul at the 1996 Masters. But with Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Donald all flying so high, there should be one before much longer. While Westwood and Poulter have been knocking on the door of a major championship in recent years, England's drought may well be ended by one of their less heralded personalities. Brian Davis has chosen to try the US PGA Tour and twice in the last few weeks he has been within a whisker of claiming his first victory there.

Davis earned many new admirers by doing what comes naturally to golfers - calling a foul on himself to deny him the chance of a play-off victory over Furyk in the Heritage Classic in April. He looked the likely winner for much of last weekend's Colonial Tournament in Texas until Zach Johnson edged him out. Those two near misses have seen Davis make rapid progress up the rankings ladder to 72nd and on current form he is set to go higher, to the point where Colin Montgomerie, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, will be taking note.

Montgomerie, who has three wildcard selections at his disposal starts a four-day reconnaissance mission this morning when a cluster of his likely Ryder Cup line-up report for preliminary duty at the Celtic Manor venue to contest the Wales Open. Events of the past few weeks will have affected Montgomerie's planning for the eagerly-anticipated attempt to wrest golf's premier match play trophy from the Americans in early October.

Donald's return to winning form and the recent steadiness of Italy's Francesco Molinari have been principal factors in pushing Casey and Ireland's Padraig Harrington out of the list of nine automatic qualifiers. Casey, granted a wildcard by Faldo, the captain of the losing 2008 team, would probably get another call-up from Montgomerie on the strength of his high world rating and the fact that he plays mainly in the US where it is harder to accumulate qualifying points.

Whether the captain would be equally supportive of Harrington is more open to debate. The Irishman looked to have the game at his mercy when he picked up three majors in 2007/08, but he now appears to be going backwards. Three missed cuts so far in what has been a curtailed 2010 campaign hardly enhance his claim for a wildcard. It would have been good to see Harrington on the tee at Celtic Manor today having a pre-Ryder Cup look-around. Like Westwood and Poulter he has opted to take the week off to have his batteries fully charged for the US Open at Pebble Beach in two weeks' time.

Let us hope Harrington swiftly plays his way back into the kind of form which re-establishes him as a formality to take on the Americans and in doing so spares his old adversary Montgomerie what could be a tricky decision. ¿¿¿ The last time Tiger Woods appeared at Muirfield Village he put on a golfing masterclass to win the Memorial Tournament for the fourth time. Today, merely getting round the demanding Jack Nicklaus course is the objective for the troubled world No 1.

Woods has toiled along his rehabilitation road after coming out of his self-imposed exile from the game with a respectable tied fourth place in the Masters at Augusta in April. Fuelled by adrenaline during that emotional return after his domestic crisis, the game's most famous personality has gone into relapse since, missing the cut in his second comeback event and failing to finish because of injury in his third.

His fourth tournament since his lay-off will be on terrain that has been kind to him - as will the fifth at Pebble Beach when he seeks to repeat his US Open success of a decade ago. Another of his favourite courses, St Andrewslies in wait for him in July. Woods has faced a multitude of problems since hobbling off Torrey Pines an exhausted winner of his 14th and last major two years ago. Rarely has he needed a boost so badly. A 72nd PGA Tour success and the 98th title of his professional career cannot come soon enough. @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae