DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES l You had to wonder what Tim Finchem would have thought had he dropped in on the Dubai World Championship. Since this was the final tournament of the year, the European Tour’s family silverware was laid out on a table beside the first tee – the U.S. Open trophy, the Open’s Claret Jug, the PGA’s Wanamaker Trophy and the Ryder Cup.
The display may have struck some as a tad ostentatious but it was simply reflecting the current feel-good factor on the European Tour and the players’ almost startling new levels of confidence. In which connection, Graeme McDowell’s words before he set out in pursuit of Martin Kaymer in the Race to Dubai were at once typical and light years removed from how the Jose Maria Olazabals and the Ian Woosnams of this world used to speak.
“I can definitely feel from Martin that he really wants this win,” began McDowell, “but I’m the guy with the momentum going into this week and I certainly hope he [Martin] thinks I’m playing great. I want to look into his eye on Thursday morning and say, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
As for Kaymer, this most gentle and measured of men was similarly in no danger of talking himself down. “I’ve played good golf since the PGA,” he said, before hurriedly correcting the “good” for “great.”
No one thought for a moment that either of these two hugely popular figures was bragging. It is the way most of the players have been speaking of late.
Some put it down to the so-called “Poulter effect” as first encapsulated in that player’s old boast that the day was coming when it would just be him and Tiger Woods. Only a week ago in Hong Kong, people had a reminder that Poulter’s sometimes seemingly outrageous pre-tournament predictions work for him.
Luke Donald, however, wonders if it is more about normally less bullish competitors feeling emboldened to sing their own praises at a time when Tiger is lying relatively low. “Maybe before, they didn’t think they could win but now they do,” said Donald. “Whatever it is, I’m noticing that people are saying things that they used to keep inside.”
Padraig Harrington, who back in 2008 talked everyone save himself out of believing he could defend his Open title, gave the impression that he was struggling to keep up. “For the first eight years of my professional career,” he explained, “I had no inner confidence, let alone outer. I used to wake up in the morning wondering if my game would still be there.”
Harrington says that he started to work doubly hard on the belief side of things from the moment he realised it was arguably the most important part of the equation. “Some players,” he said, “create the right feeling by saying positive things all the time, but I think it’s enough to have it internally. You don’t have to show it to the world; you don’t have to shout.”
Pete Cowen, coach to Kaymer, McDowell and Lee Westwood, thinks that it is all for the good that Europeans are nowadays eschewing false modesty and blowing their own trumpets.
“If ever there was a time our players should be shouting from the rooftops, it’s now,” he said. “The European Tour is riding high and it’s absolutely brilliant what the boys have done.” Then Cowen, of all people, picked up on player trends by giving a litany of what his pupils had achieved over the season –two majors, the world No. 1 spot and a total of nine tournament victories.
Cowen realised years ago that his own instincts regarding the game’s mental side had been all wrong. “It hit me when I compared the way I had started my twin sons as against the way John Westwood started Lee,” he explained. “I used to tell my lads that they were useless in the expectation that it would make them work harder. It didn’t. All it did was to make them believe they were useless.
“John Westwood,” he continued, “was the opposite. He never said – or says – a negative word to or about Lee. It has always been, ‘Lee’s great at this and Lee’s great at that.’ ”
The big question about this latest wave of up-front confidence is whether the players will stay out of their shells if and when Woods rediscovers his old form. Several of last week’s competitors indicated that they would like nothing so much as to be able to make fresh comparisons between themselves and a Tiger in full cry.
Kaymer was among them. But when someone asked, “If Tiger gets back to the levels of, say, two or three years ago, do you feel you now have the game to match his?” this particular citizen was always going to opt for honesty ahead of bravado.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I mean, the shots that he (Tiger) did in the tournaments and the way he won them – I think that no one can really beat that.”