Future is now the burning issue

Tim Glover finds that a sporting institution could be the next victim of politics
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THE Benson and Hedges International Open is in its 28th year and the burning question is whether the championship, the oldest on the European tour, will live to be 30. The hostility towards smoking and smokers has reached such a pitch that the manufacturers fear the next medical pronouncement will deem it harmful if somebody so much as looks at a cigarette, even if it is unlit.

With the European Parliament ready with the extinguisher for tobacco sponsorship, the Benson and Hedges International would appear to be down to its last few drags. The company has a contract to stage the tournament at the Oxfordshire next season, but its growth is stunted, the future as cloudy as the smoking area at New York's Kennedy Airport. "We might be all right up to the Millennium but then it's curtains," Jim Elkins, the special events director of Benson and Hedges, said.

Yesterday, the BBC were grateful for the tournament. What else were they going to put up against the FA Cup final on ITV? Thanks in part to the influence of Bernie Ecclestone, it is fine for tobacco to whiz around the Formula One Grand Prix circuits of Europe but golf, cricket, ice hockey and snooker, all supported by Benson and Hedges in Britain, will have to find a new politically correct sponsor. Presumably something like All Bran or Lucozade would fit the bill, although the passive fall-out could be disquieting.

When Bell's used to sponsor the Scottish Open, they gave the caddies a half-bottle of their product. It was a bit like donating a mountain of Old Shag to Virginia. At the Oxfordshire neither caddies nor players were issued with a packet of 20. Instead they were given fruit. Note to Fyffes or Cox's Golden Delicious: a sponsorship opportunity will shortly be available but interested parties will have to cough up around pounds 1.25m.

A cream to tackle acne would be another possible contender with the professionals of the Millennium barely out of the practice of receiving pocket money from their parents. One such is Justin Rose, the gangly teenager who is being nurtured for stardom. The Rose show has been seen to good effect here. He outscored Jose Maria Olazabal in the pro-am on Wednesday and, following rounds of 72 and 68, remained at four under par for the championship with another 72 in the third round yesterday.

The North Hants player, who will be 18 in July, would normally have been playing in the Brabazon Trophy at Formby, one of the mainstays of the amateur circuit. However, Rose accepted an invitation to play at the Oxfordshire and achieved his immediate ambition, which was to make the half-way cut. It is the first time he has done so in a professional tournament.

"This is where I want to be," Rose, the youngest player to appear in the Walker Cup, said. "I feel at home here. I had a few nerves to begin with but once I settled down I enjoyed myself."

Apart form experiencing the atmosphere of a pounds 750,000 pro tournament, he also learned how to give autographs, sometimes to people who were older than himself. He may turn professional at the end of the year or wait until next season. "That's the big decision," he said. "I can definitely hold my own in this company but there is the week-to-week travelling to consider. I'll know when the time is right. It all depends on how I'm playing." Give the boy a cigar. On second thoughts make that a banana.

The European Tour could do with a transfusion of exceptional talent. Lee Westwood, who has been remarkably successful in the last couple of seasons, played with young Justin yesterday but did not view the experience through rose-tinted spectacles. Westwood, who shot 77, was bothered by an infection to his left eye and had to call a doctor to the 12th tee to administer drops. "My vision was blurred and my head was throbbing and that made it difficult to concentrate," Westwood said.

Ol' red eyes, the winner of the New Orleans Open, thought his retirement from the Benson and Hedges was imminent.