Golf: England owe it to Baker

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ENGLAND scraped into the semi-finals of the Alfred Dunhill Cup by the skin of their chattering teeth after a day of chaos and confusion here where play began more than three hours late because of Arctic conditions that never relented.

Their opponents today are Ireland, who themselves had a nerve-racking wait after their victory over Argentina. To get to the semis they needed Zimbabwe to beat Spain, which looked unlikely until Tony Johnstone birdied the 18th and overcame Jose Rivero on the second extra hole.

With England guaranteed a place in today's action even ifthey lost 2-1 to Sweden, it seemed they had the easiest of all the tasks facing yesterday's contenders, but it took a lucky birdie at the last by Peter Baker to beat off a late challenge to England's progress by Ernie Els.

With Nick Faldo and Mark James solidly beaten by David Frost and Fulton Allem, it was left to Baker to secure the win they needed and after 13 holes the young Englishman was in possession of a four-shot lead and the composure of a hero.

But any thought he cherished about parring his way home with the chill westerley wind at his back was shattered when Els suddenly mounted a charge that looked capable of causing the day's biggest upset.

The tall South African birdied the 14th, 15th and 16th to put himself within a shot of Baker. English sighs were audible when Els then found the dreaded Road Hole bunker, but despite being close to the sheer face of it he splashed out close enough to join Baker in a par.

Els used his superior driving power on the 18th to send his tee-shot to within 10 yards of the green. Baker's drive was destined to be much shorter until it hit the road crossing the fairway and took a prodigious bounce to the edge of the green. Baker putted to within three feet, while Els chipped to within six, they both made birdies and England were safe. They had a long wait to see who they were to meet today.

The United States were the first team to crash through to a place in the semi-finals. A brilliant performance by Fred Couples helped to obliterate Scotland's faint chances of warming their chilled following, but the home team's was a ramshackle performance in the 30mph wind that made playing and watching such a trial yesterday.

Captain Colin Montgomerie, who was playing against Couples, managed an eagle on the 12th but even after that was still six shots adrift of Couples, whose display in playing the front nine two under par was incredible. No one came near to matching it. He faltered at the 17th, where he dropped two shots, but still came in with the best-of-the-day 69.

His team-mates, Payne Stewart and John Daly, did not have to be anything like as brilliant to overwhelm Gordon Brand Jnr and Sam Torrance. Brand slumped to an 80 while Torrance took a quadruple-bogey eight at the 14th to make Daly's task easy. The big hitter was thereafter able to show mature restraint by leaving his driver in the bag and parred his way home with an iron off the tees.

The situations in the groups were so complicated it was impossible to predict any of them until practically the last putt. Yesterday's outcome in Group 4, for instance, was officially summed up thus: 'Sweden will go through if they beat Australia. But if Australia beat Sweden 3-0 and Canada beat Japan 3-0, then Canada would go through. However, if Australia were to beat Sweden 2-1 and Canada still beat Japan 3-0, Canada and Sweden would be tied at two points and six wins each but Sweden would go through because Sweden beat Canada on Day Two.'

As it happens, Sweden won and play the US today. Such complications are deemed necessary to squeeze the last drop of excitement out of the Cup and make it worthwhile for teams to make the long trek to East Fife from all over the world. It is a format that already had the air of contrivance about it even before yesterday morning's frost caused some hasty rethinking. The delay brought frustration as well as the threat of frostbite to spectators who had arrived early to claim vantage points. Perplexity was added to the discomfort because the course was not covered with a white carpet of frost.

It was 11.45 before Ian Woosnam stepped up to the first tee and hit a drive straight into the strong westerly wind to begin Wales's match against Paraguay. At the same time, the Canadian captain, Dave Barr, was teeing off at the 10th against Japan's Tetsu Nishikawa.

Some degree of television connivance had been arrived at in the decision about which matches would start at the 10th. The BBC's cameras are stationed at the opening and closing holes. By starting the Welsh match, followed by US v Scotland and England v South Africa, on the first it guaranteed lunchtime viewers would see three of the four home countries in action and would be back after the rugby league international to see them finish.

This was hardly a compliment to Ireland and the others out of camera range for the day. But at least they had the kinder start, with the bitter wind behind them. Those who had it in their faces were soon suffering, in company with the surprisingly large galleries. Thanks to the wind-chill factor it was colder at midday than it had been at 9am.

The wind was such that even Daly could not make any impression and it took him two holes to light a cigarette.

(Photograph omitted)