Crocks may hand Asian gold to Els

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The Independent Online
Golf

ANDY FARRELL

reports from Singapore

The start of a new season - everyone fresh, fit and raring to go. Not quite. Greg Norman is in bed with a chest infection, Sam Torrance has a septic toe and Ian Woosnam's back is still playing up. The 1996 European Tour may be set to go farther afield than ever before, but it is an expansion of the physiotherapy trailer that is most needed.

One reason Johnnie Walker has continued its connection with the Asian Classic, which usually attracts the world's best players, after pulling out of the World Championship, which did not, is that for superstar golfers Asia in January is a better proposition than Jamaica just before Christmas.

This year's event in Singapore has not gone quite according to plan. Colin Montgomerie, keen to equal Peter Oosterhuis's record of four successive Order of Merit titles, has stayed at home for the birth of his second daughter, Venetia Grace. Seve Ballesteros is on a five-month sabbatical learning how to relocate a fairway and Jose-Maria Olazabal withdrew because his injured foot means he can still not walk 18 holes.

Playing golf is not the only demand on the top players. There is their second career as course builders. Bernhard Langer broke his journey to open his new design at Lotus Hill in China; Woosnam spent the weekend scouting the land for a project in Bangkok and Norman looked in on his work on the first integrated resort and golf course in India. Near Delhi, it is called Sterling Grand, and usually the question is: How many? This is the man who earned $30m (pounds 20m) from the sale of the equipment company Cobra, in which he bought a $1.9m stake in 1990.

Norman was feeling ill enough to want to skip the 36-hour stopover, but according to his manager, Frank Williams, the owner pleaded with him to go. He was given an injection, but felt worse and his temperature is still in the 100s. "I don't think we have another Phuket," Williams said, referring to when Norman won the same title two years ago after not playing a practice round. "He only has a 10 per cent chance of playing."

Torrance also missed yesterday's pro-am, but the swelling on his poisoned foot has gone down and he expects to play.

Woosnam has been resting his back since November, but three days' practice have seen it stiffen up again. "I've been swinging badly for a couple of years and that might be the problem. When I aim straight it goes crooked and when I aim crooked it goes straight, " the Welshman said.

All this is good news for Ernie Els, who is confident after winning last week's South African Open, the defending champion, Fred Couples and even John Daly, who has given up burgers in a search for the form that made him the Open champion, rather than finishing 45 shots behind Couples in Jamaica.

While the American Tour opens with the West Coast swing, the European goes global. First there is this week's Johnnie Walker Classic in Singapore, then it is Down Under for the Heineken Classic in Perth next week, before going to South Africa for a further three tournaments. The advantage is that the Tour can provide events at this time of year on good courses in good conditions. This has been in response to criticism from the membership, who sometimes find it hard to say anything nice about their work place. Not at Tanah Merah, which is next door to Changi - the airport, not Nick Leeson's current abode. "I can't fault it," Woosnam said.

On the minus side, the reduced entry means no spots for the newcomers to the Tour. While most will make their debuts in South Africa, Steve Webster, the winner of the qualifying school has received a sponsor's invitation. He has just signed as a client for the International Management Group, who happen to be promoting the event.

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