Defiance in defence

By: samjack

This time last week, Greg Owen could hardly move. We met at his golf club, Coxmoor, near Mansfield, and he spent the entire time shifting about uncomfortably in his seat; it was nothing to do with the probing nature of the questioning, just a painful back injury which may prevent him defending his Daily Telegraph Damovo British Masters title.
Until now, Owen, 32, would probably have agreed with the commonly held view that golfers are a bit wimpish when it comes to injuries. “You see some guys pulling out of events saying they have a bad toe and you think, ‘yeah, right – just get on with it’ but this is terrible,” he said.
“I have three degenerative discs and have been trapping a nerve. I hope I won’t need an operation but it’s hitting me now how much I love this game. Not being able to play has been awful.”
The trouble started on Easter Monday, when he was hitting some gentle seven-irons. Suddenly, he seized up and was in agony. “It felt muscular but I couldn’t walk,” he said. One MRI scan later and a home visit to a specialist on a Saturday morning and he was none the wiser about his condition. “I want to play, even if I have to crawl round,” he added.
The news in the last few days has been better, for another specialist, in London, suggested it was a fragment of disc which has been hitting the nerve and causing pain all down his left side. Owen has had an injection of local anaesthetic and is more confident of teeing up.
You have to believe that he wants to be at the Marriott Forest of Arden, for it is not as if he has defended a title before. While the likes of Colin Montgomerie and, until recently, Phil Mickelson, who won the “other” Masters, were always deemed the best players never to have won a major, Owen was one of the best never to have won a tournament. Always a consistent performer on the European Tour, he clinched the Daily Telegraph Damovo title last year for his maiden victory at his 158th attempt.
“It was the highlight of my career so far because although you always believe you are capable of winning, I must admit I was starting to doubt it would happen,” Owen said. “It was really nice to get that particular monkey off my back.”
So why hasn’t he kicked on from there and won again? “I took the following week off and that was a mistake,” he continued. “I lost the feeling and lost the edge. I relaxed and didn’t get my swing back until Madrid last October.
“This time I have had the best start to a season ever – three top 10s on some decent courses with decent fields, including Tiger – and now this injury has set me back.”
His back might have ground his game to a halt but the vocal chords are still up and running. Never shy about voicing his thoughts, he was critical of the European Tour’s tendency to play in far-flung outposts and of the world ranking system, which he believes works against those who prefer to stay loyal to Europe rather than join the continental drift across the Atlantic.
“The Tour is going to China next week [May 13-16] and it seems as though we will take anything. I appreciate we need to go where the sponsors want us to play, but at the event in Fuerteventura nobody was watching bar a few English tourists. We have lost two events in England, which is really frustrating, and we have also had to play on some very poor courses.
“The best players are going to America and because they can now pick up world ranking points by playing over there, there is no need to bother coming back to Europe.
“I want to play on the best courses against the best players, but although I have had a good start to the season, European events don’t earn many points and I have made no progress in the world rankings. That doesn’t seem to be right.
“We are heading towards a totally Americanised Ryder Cup, with a European side picked only from those who play in the States. Under the old system somehow we always managed to get the best players into the European team but now there is no real incentive for them to come back and earn their slots.”
As a European Tour winner, he also reckons he should be worth an occasional invitation to events in America. “I don’t know, we seem to hand out invitations to European events to whoever asks for them, yet we never get invitations in return. Having said that, I know that the answer is to play better and win tournaments.
“It can be done – look at Freddie Jacobsen: three or four years ago he was struggling to retain his European Tour card and now he’s doing brilliantly in America. Basically, I have to win, or shut up.”
You get the feeling that this injury, even more than his victory last year, might just be the catalyst that propels him towards fulfilling his potential. For the first time, he has been unable to play and something he had previously taken for granted has been put under threat.
Owen has played in the last five Open Championships (leading, briefly, at Lytham in 2001 before “seeing the scoreboard and getting carried away”), has tackled two USPGA tournaments and finally broken his duck with that maiden victory on home soil 12 months ago.
As he put it himself: “It’s not the greatest golfing CV in the world, but I have some fantastic memories, like Lytham or the atmosphere at the PGAs. I’ve been able to play some of the best courses in the world, against some of the best players, while feeling that I am not out of place in that company.
“I am very grateful for what I have been given and all I want to do now is try to make the most of it.”

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