Golf: Faldo fires a Ryder reminder

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SOMETIMES IT is the name on the leaderboard that impresses, other times it is the score attached that attracts the attention. In scoring seven-under-par rounds of 65 to lead the way on the first day of the Benson and Hedges International, Phil Price and Miguel Angel Jimenez, both of whom are pushing for Ryder Cup places, represented the large body of tour players who are highly talented and capable of producing high-quality golf.

From the smaller ensemble of genuine stars, too many of whom in Europe have of late been appearing to fade into the outer reaches of the galaxy, Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle made an encouraging start at The Oxfordshire.

Conditions were not easy, with a cool breeze and intermittent downpours, so Faldo was rightly pleased with not dropping a shot to par in a 68, his lowest opening round of a disappointing season to date. "It's a start but it is only one day," Faldo said.

Faldo was playing alongside Mark James, the Ryder Cup captain and a man whose diplomatic answers suggest he was once the one dodging the blades in a circus knife-throwing act. James himself was four over par and it was with a typically ironic smile that he said: "I'm pleased for anyone who shoots a 68 around a monster like this. I thought it was difficult but the scoring overall was good so maybe it was just me."

Barring a full return to major-winning form, Faldo will be looking to be one of the beneficiaries of James's two wild card picks. But the captain was not about to reveal anything about a decision he does not have to make for three and a half months. By the time the questioning had drifted into the murky waters of the hypothetical, James burst out laughing. "Good try," he said. "You'll get me one day."

Faldo knows his final position on Sunday afternoon is what will count most but his start could not have been much better, going to the turn in 32. A three iron to two feet at the third and a four iron to three feet at the fifth said much for the quality of his long game, while he holed out well in parring the entire back nine.

Lyle, who scored a 69, will soon reach the point where he has been in decline for longer than the two-time major winner was in the ascendant. It stretches credibility that he has not played in the Ryder Cup since 1987, a year before he won the Masters.

Lyle's outings so far this season have been restricted to a few sponsors' invitations in America. By last week in New Orleans, he had had enough. "I hit a brick wall," said the Scot. He returned home and went to see his coach, Ian Wright from West Linton. "Oh dear," was Wright's reaction after just two swings. An old problem of taking the club too far inside on the backswing had recurred.

After three weeks off, Colin Montgomerie was not only keen to get back to the course, where he did not drop a shot, hit every green and almost every fairway in his own 68, but to offer his opinions on a range of subjects. Lyle was prominent among them. "Sandy Lyle has more talent in that," Monty said, pointing to his little finger, "than most players on this tour. I once asked Seve who would win if one week everyone was performing to their very best and he said Sandy would win by five, and he'd be second."

BENSON AND HEDGES INTERNATIONAL (The Oxfordshire, Thame): Leading first- round scores: 65 M A Jimenez (Sp), P Price. 67 R Wessels (SA). 68 P-U Johansson (Swe), C Montgomerie, G Emerson, N Faldo, M Farry (Fr), B Langer (Ger), B Lane. 69 P Mitchell, A Cabrera (Arg), A Sherborne, S Lyle, F Valera (Sp), R Claydon, B Davis, P Sjoland (Swe), P Quirici (Swit), S Hansen (Den), T Johnstone (Zimb). 70 F Lindgren (Swe), I Garrido (Sp), A Oldcorn, V Phillips, R Goosen (Rsa), P Harrington, S Cage, A Beal, G Orr, R Karlsson (Swe), MA Martin (Sp), D Clarke, JM Olazabal (Sp), S Ballesteros (Sp), S Leaney (Aus), S Field, S Allan (Aus), A Forsbrand (Swe). 71 I Pyman, R Chapman, J Van de Velde (Fr), J Lomas, S Kjeldsen (Den), R Winchester, I Woosnam, B May (US), P O'Malley (Aus), P Affleck, J Payne, R Jacquelin (Fr), E Canonica (It), M Mackenzie, E Romero (Arg), D Edlund (Swe), D Howell, S Luna (Sp), G Turner (NZ), J McHenry, R Boxall.