Cejka shows he has the head for major heights

NEW FACES FOR '96: Germany's latest golfing sensation has proved himself over the toughest terrain, says Tim Glover
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The Independent Online
Alexander Cejka was refused admission to the Munich Beer festival (his home city playing host to one of his favourite products) on the grounds that they thought he was a skinhead. Bernhard Langer would not have had that trouble, but in 1996 Cejka should have no problems gaining entry to almost anything.

Perhaps it is his background, but in the course of the European Tour if he had attempted to live the life of a fugitive, he could hardly have changed his appearance more effectively. When Cejka won the Turespana Open in Andalucia last March, his hair was long enough to accommodate a ponytail; when he won the Hohe Brucke Open in Austria in August, he had the makings of a beard.

Earlier in the season, he had an agreement with his coach, Peter Karz: they would both go for the Yul Brynner look if he won two tournaments. They had the close shave when they returned to Germany and by the time of the Volvo Masters in October, Cejka just about had enough hair to avoid being mistaken for one of those dummies that remain intact when a Volvo crashes into a wall. In short, he is not so much the face for '96 as the head.

Cejka grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia and was introduced to golf, like so many impressionable youngsters, by his father, an engineer and a 16 handicapper at the local course in Marianske Lazne, a notable spa town. The club was once the Wentworth of its day, but went into decline under the hammer and sickle party, who have never regarded golf as a suitable ideological pursuit.

In 1980, aged nine, Cejka and his father, under the pretence of going on holiday to Yugoslavia, fled to Germany. Two years later, when the German Open came to Frankfurt, Cejka was there. "I remember seeing Bernhard Langer. He walked right by me and I looked up to him as a big star. He's still my hero. It is hard to believe that I now play in the same tournaments and play practice rounds with him."

Cejka, a scratch amateur at 16, gained his card at the fifth attempt, but had been successful on the Challenge Tour, winning the Czech Open twice. He was beginning to make an impression in 1994 with a couple of top 10 finishes, but then suffered a series of setbacks. He was out of action for five weeks with sunstroke; was disqualified from the Mercedes German Masters for missing his tee time due to a traffic jam on the autobahn and missed the Czech Open because of food poisoning.

The Turespana Open was where Cejka arrived. He was the only player to avoid straying over par for all four days and won the tournament by three strokes from Costantino Rocca. That was his maiden Tour victory and his second success, in the Austrian Open, was even more spectacular. Cejka opened with a course record of 61, 11 under par, and continued to post record aggregates for two, three and four rounds. He was never headed and finished four strokes clear of the field with 267, 21 under par.

His exploits in Austria coincided with the US PGA Championship in Los Angeles, where most of the leading Europeans were competing. However, for the Volvo Masters, the end of season showpiece, the cream had settled at Valderrama. Cejka, having never finished in Europe's top 100, was making his debut in the championship. All eyes were on the denouement to the season-long duel between Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance, with Langer the only other player capable of winning the Order of Merit.

Big Monty duly won the war by finishing second, but the tournament belonged to Cejka. Valderrama is consistently voted the leading course in continental Europe and any professional breaking the par of 71 can congratulate themselves. Cejka went round in 74, 66, 72 and 70 for an aggregate of 282, two under par. He finished two strokes ahead of Montgomerie, three ahead of Torrance and four ahead of his hero, Langer.

Turning for home, Cejka was not on the leaderboard, but he birdied the 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 18th. He finished sixth in the Order of Merit. The previous year he was 102nd. From winning a total of just pounds 258 in 1989, he had earnings in 1995 of pounds 308,000.

One of the reasons for his emergence is that he worked for hours, sometimes until 3am, at an indoor course in Munich. Another is that, according to the official statistics, he is the best putter on the Tour with an average per green of 1.69.

Cejka, who was 25 a couple of weeks before Christmas, appears to have the temperament and resolve to be a cut above. He will now be able to play on the major stage for the first time, and Valderrama beckons for the Ryder Cup there in 1997. Before then, the Munich Beer festival owes him a few rounds.

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