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Q. Why is a French European Tour winner like a bus?
A. You wait ages for one, then two come at once!

For the second time this year, France's golfers have won back-to-back tournaments on the European Tour. Jean-Francois Lucquin's play-off success at last weekend's Omega European Masters trophy in Crans-sur-Sierre came hot on the heels of Gregory Havret's wire-to-wire win at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, Scotland.

Earlier this year, Thomas Levet won the Open de Andalucia and Gregory Bourdy lifted the Estoril Open de Portugal title in successive weeks.

All four qualify for the HSBC Champions in November and anyone looking to understand why French wins come in convoys need only follow them when they arrive in Shanghai to find the answer.

No other group in golf has the camaraderie, the spirit of togetherness and the mutual support system that exists among the French players; a characteristic that allows them to succeed despite that fact that golf is a relatively low-profile sport there when compared to other European nations.

"When you stay with the French players… it's difficult to explain… it's about relationships… it's about feelings. We're all friends. It's very important for me, when you're away from home for so long," says Lucquin, the 29-year-old known by the anglicised name "Jeff", who outduelled Northern Irish teenager Rory McIlroy in a play-off for his maiden win in Crans-sur-Sierre on Sunday.

"We have dinner together every night, we're always together. We play practice rounds together. Honestly it's like a team. It's a lonely career, but this is like a second family. On the course you have to play your game, but the rest of the time we're like a team. When there is a French player on the top of the leader board everybody is happy. Everyone supports the guy who is leading the tournament – like when Thomas Levet and Gregory Bourdy won this year."

When they win, they all celebrate! With champagne sprayed on the 18th green and consumed just as enthusiastically afterwards.

But as 23-year-old Michael Lorenzo-Vera explains, it's not just when they're successful that the players help each other. Having topped the 2007 Challenge Tour Rankings, the youngster from Biarritz qualified for the 2007 HSBC Champions, at that stage the biggest tournament of his entire life. He says he would have frozen with terror had it not been for the help of the veteran players.

"I arrived to practice and there was Vijay Singh, (Phil) Mickelson, Ernie Els, (Retief) Goosen… The first time I saw them I was like "whoa, what's going on?" but every night, Raphael Jacquelin, Gregory Havret and Gregory Bourdy took me to eat and kept me relaxed. I'm much more relaxed because of them."

But it's not always so gentle. Lorenzo-Vera reveals they all tease each other mercilessly when they shoot high scores.

"You play badly and they're going to say "OK, you were super-bad!" They're going to have fun with you because you played bad, but not in a nasty way. You're ego is going to get punished, but it makes you think "I'm going to have to be better tomorrow!" The young are like this. The older ones are "be patient, continue like this, be patient, you'll see. You're going to have a good week"."

The mutual support, the mockery that makes light of the bad day coupled with the quieter counsel of the veterans has helped. But it's true also that success has helped breed more French success.

"Before, the French golfers didn't believe they could win. But I think the current generation, players like Gregory Havret, "Jeff" Lucquin, they always believe that they can win, but the older ones didn't always believe that," says Lorenzo-Vera.

"The older players were super-good, big potential and the younger players were pushing them. Now the older ones are winning, the middle ones are winning too and we are coming… Jean-Baptiste Gonnet, me… we are pushing both generations up, because I think we have good potential too."

Christian Cevaer, the 2004 Spanish Open champion, who at 38-year-old is one of the old hands, agrees that the success of the young pups has re-energised the old dogs like him.

"For me, all the youth coming through is great. It pushes you. Thomas Levet and I are not the same generation as these guys, but we enjoy their influence. They're pushing us. It's about sports values. We have a saying in French "let the clubs speak for themselves" - "laisse parler les clubs". It's an individual sport and we all try our hearts out on the course, but afterwards we congratulate each other if one of us does well. It's a better mentality than being jealous of each other."

Out on the course, the mentality of the French players also shines through. Not for them, the po-faced stoicism or Zen-like calm that can allow golf's detractors to claim the sport is like watching paint dry.

"You're going to see emotion. If we're happy, you know it. If we're unhappy, you know it too!" Lorenzo-Vera exclaims.

"I like Swedish players. I know some of the Swedish players and they are really nice, but when you see them playing it's super-boring. They are super-great players but they are super-closed; no emotions. Three over par or five-under you have no idea by looking at them… no idea! I don't like that. Life goes by too fast. You have to live the present moment."

And it's not just the young generation of French players who wear their hearts on their sleeves.

"We are Latin. We all do it," says Cevaer, adding that he wouldn't claim that the French players care more about golf, just that they can't help showing just how much they care.

"I'm sure all young players love the game and play with passion, but I think overall the young French players play with a lot more expression and golf needs that. We need that for the galleries, for the sponsors, the game needs that."


September 9, 2008

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