Sport Golf

Tuesday 16 January 2018

France's young musketeer fires warning shot for future

Victor Dubuisson has been destined for the top from a young age, writes Dermot Gilleece

At 23rd in the list, Victor Dubuisson has become golf's highest-ever ranked Frenchman
At 23rd in the list, Victor Dubuisson has become golf's highest-ever ranked Frenchman

Dermot Gilleece

On April 16, 1990, Jean Van de Velde shared 17th place as the leading French finisher in the Cannes Open at the Mougins Country Club on Avenue du Golf. One week later, the city's newest-born son was a prospective champion who would tread those same fairways as a junior, while looking far afield for inspiration.

As a seven-year-old watching a telecast of the 1997 US Masters, Victor Dubuisson couldn't take his eyes off the spellbinding figure of Tiger Woods on his way to a record-breaking Augusta triumph. And that particular image of a thrilling new power in the golfing firmament gained a fascinating twist last October.

With a stunning victory in the inaugural Turkish Airlines Open in Antalya, 23-year-old Dubuisson burst onto the tournament scene. I watched with more than passing interest his remarkably calm demeanour on the closing par-five, where two putts on a treacherous green were required for victory.

In the event, perfect pace meant the ball obligingly took the intended break and dropped into the cup for a birdie four and a two-stroke triumph. Minutes later, I was asking Dubuisson about his golfing heroes. "I was playing in front of them today," he replied with admirable diplomacy and a disarming smile which became quite familiar last weekend during thrilling exploits in the Accenture Match Play at Dove Mountain.

Then, revealing an interesting attention to detail, he corrected himself – "I should say they were playing in front of me" – by way of acknowledging his position in the final group. Those challengers, who included none other than Woods, along with Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson, formed a seriously daunting quartet.

French players have made a worthy impact on tour in recent years, notably with Thomas Levet losing a play-off to Ernie Els in the 2002 Open Championship and Gregory Havret finishing runner-up to Graeme McDowell in the 2010 US Open. Yet, historically, they are not associated with regular appearances in the winner's enclosure. England, for instance, has delivered 283 victories on the European Tour. And where Continental nations are concerned, Spain is a clear leader with 170, followed by Sweden on 95.

As it happened, Dubuisson's victory in Turkey moved France from 13th on the international list to joint 12th with Argentina, both countries now having amassed 30 European wins. Against this background, it is hardly surprising that Dubuisson lacked the sort of local inspiration which is so much a part of the competitive game in these islands. "I watched only Tiger," he said. "I wasn't interested in anyone else. I wanted to play like Tiger, so I watched him all the time."

It is always uplifting to see young sportspersons realise their dream. And to do it at Dubuisson's age was all the more enriching as the 12th first-time winner on the European Tour last season. In the process, his five-stroke lead at 54 holes in Turkey happened to be the widest margin on tour since Woods opened up a seven-stroke gap at the same stage in the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone two months previously.

But like politics, tournament golf is essentially local. So there will be particular satisfaction in his native place for the fact that at 23rd in the current list, he has become golf's highest-ever ranked Frenchman, comfortably surpassing the 41st in the world by Levet in January 2005. Never mind that his country has still to secure a US tournament win.

France, of course, has a Major champion, which is something the Swedes, Danes, Dutch and Italians have yet to achieve. As it happens, the return of the Open Championship to Royal Liverpool this summer brings to mind the victory of Arnaud Massy at that venue in 1907. Indeed five years previously, Massy had gained the distinction of finishing 10th as the Open's first competitor from outside Britain and Ireland.

As an aspiring professional, he had the foresight to leave his native Biarritz and travel to the Muirfield area in 1898 to learn his craft from seasoned Scots. But, as Levet explained, he has had no impact on modern French professionals.

"When I came on tour in 1989, it was 82 years since Massy had won the Open and that's a very long time, no?" he pointed out. Levet then added with a grin: "And there were no videos of him to learn from." So he looked elsewhere, just as Dubuisson would do.

Back in 2009 at Dove Mountain, I chuckled with other European representatives at the xenophobic American scribe who questioned how Rory McIlroy could be among the world's top 20 players when he'd never heard of him. Though the media language was more circumspect on this occasion, you could still imagine the bafflement at where Dubuisson had emerged from.

Yet no more than McIlroy, he couldn't be considered a golfing mystery man, given that in common with the Holywood star, he too won the European Strokeplay Championship, in 2009, when he was, in fact, the number one amateur in the world. And those Americans sufficiently interested in the tournament scene on this side of the pond, would have had early-morning viewing on the Golf Channel of last October's Turkish triumph.

Further evidence was contained in European statistics of 305.8 yards in driving distance and consistently strong putting figures. And as an interesting variation on an old theme, Pádraig Harrington once remarked: "You drive for dough and you putt for more dough".

Meanwhile, parents often view golf as a rather isolating activity for their offspring and prefer them to get involved in team sports, such as Gaelic games, rugby or soccer. Where youngsters are allowed to indulge themselves, there seem to be inevitable consequences.

Like the fact that as a self-confessed loner, Dubuisson spent countless hours during his boyhood years practising on his own and was permitted to leave school at 12. "I was young and it was hard to do both," he explained simply. "I had some school lessons at home but mostly I played golf."

Though they spent a few more years in classrooms, Ronan Rafferty and McIlroy went through a similar process as teenagers, giving absolute priority to golf. With Dubuisson, it delivered a shy, somewhat withdrawn young man who is decidedly uncomfortable discussing life away from the golf course.

Which, as it happens, makes him all the more appealing, especially in the light of a remarkable golfing talent, competitive steel and the sort of good looks Dumas might have had in mind when creating D'Artagnan. He is certainly a wonderful prospect for next September's Ryder Cup team.

Yet it is a bit of a stretch at this stage to place him in the same short-game league as Seve Ballesteros, even allowing for those amazing recovery shots on successive holes in sudden-death defeat to Jason Day in last Sunday's Tucson final. Notwithstanding the excitement they generated, those efforts were essentially the product of admirable bravery under pressure, which delivered very fortunate results.

Still, two months short of his 24th birthday, time is very much on the Frenchman's side. And what better place than Cannes and its history with the movies to create another international star?

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