Golf: Clarke gets away to a flying start

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DARREN CLARKE is already the European No 1 in one category. Last night at the Montecastillo Hotel, Clarke received his award for topping the stroke averages, the Ulsterman's seasonal mean of 69.56 edging him in front of Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els and Jose Maria Olazabal.

Earlier, on the Montecastillo course, Clarke had also left his rivals trailing. His five-under-par round of 67 put the 30-year-old in a six- way share of the lead in the Volvo Masters. Should a monsoon descend for the next three days - not forecast - he would still have to win a play- off to top the money list but with the main protagonists, Montgomerie and Westwood, both on 70, Clarke could be well satisfied with his opening day effort.

"I'm so far behind that I must win to have any chance whatsoever and that's all I'm trying to do," Clarke said. "I can't affect Lee or Colin."

Regardless of what was happening in the tournament itself, the main scoreboard by the 18th green had Montgomerie and Westwood at the top which stiffened Clarke's resolve to hole the six-foot birdie putt with which he finished the round. The opportunity had arisen thanks to a fine approach from a fairway bunker, the 170 yards to the flag covered with a six-iron.

"That was proper shot," Clarke said. "I hit it perfectly out of the bunker." He was aiming for six feet right of the flag, rather than on the left, the side closest to the water, but he was happy when his putt fell into the hole.

Clarke's need to win the tournament to retain any interest in the money title is in contrast to the fact that he has not, unlike his rivals, made winning a habit. "I have got into position a lot but my putting has been very average," he said. "I've played well enough to win but not finished it off on the greens."

Indeed, Clarke's only win this season came at the Benson and Hedges International in May, before which he was given a putting lesson by Montgomerie. On Tuesday evening, it was Westwood who helped out his friend. "Lee noticed my elbows were aligned too far to the left and squared me up," Clarke explained. "I suddenly started striking the ball better and I feel I can hole anything again."

While vast crowds usually flock to the neighbouring race track for a Grand Prix, Jerez is hardly in danger of becoming known as a golfing resort rather than the home of sherry and the offer of free admission to the European tour's seasonal finale was not taken up in large numbers. But, with all three of the top contenders still interested, the buses hoping to ferry in spectators from the Costa del Sol may fill up.

"It could be an exciting three days," said Westwood. "It will be if I keep making double bogeys." The 25-year-old could not have had a better start as he birdied four of the first five holes but he missed a number of short putts on the back nine. None was shorter than the 18-incher which horseshoed back at him at the 12th. At the next he left a bunker shot in the sand, and only just got the next one out, which caused the double bogey. "I just about managed to roll a 65 into a 70," he said.

Although no far nearer as tough a test as Valderrama, the venue for the tournament until 1996, over pounds 1 million has been spent on improving the condition of the Montecastillo course and the greens were faster than any seen in Europe this season.

Montgomerie eagled the 12th from 30 feet and the last from 20 feet to haul himself under par and ensure he was in talkative mood. "I've been here before," was, however, about the only thing of note the five-time money list winner said.

As for the talking at the players' meeting on Wednesday night, it was, apparently, done most impressively by Ken Schofield, the executive director of the European tour, who managed to win over a large body of players unhappy at the inclusion from next year of the three new World Championship events on the order of merit. The tournaments offer huge prize money but limited places for Europeans.

"My view turned full circle as a result of listening to the full business reasons," said Paul McGinley, one of those unsure of getting into the new events. "It is a much wider picture than just looking out for yourself. It is important to keep the tour as strong as possible."

A possible cap on the value of the points from the new events for Ryder Cup qualification will be reviewed prior to the tour resuming in January but other reforms wanted by Seve Ballesteros, such as reducing the period of the world rankings from two years to one, are unlikely to come into effect. "I hope Ken is right but I have my doubts," Ballesteros said.


Current positions in the race for the Harry Vardon Trophy:

1 Darren Clarke 67

18= Colin Montgomerie 70,

Lee Westwood 70.

If Clarke wins, he will finish top provided Westwood finishes no better than third and Montgomerie no higher than ninth.

Westwood can win if he is second and Montgomerie is no better than third, or Westwood is third and Montgomerie no higher than 12th or Westwood is fourth and Montgomerie is no better than 45th.

Any other scenario and Montgomerie wins.