Golf: Garcia strokes ahead of his hero

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The Independent Online
THOSE COGNISANT in the art of spread betting knew they were on to a good thing when one firm predicted the difference between the two- round scores of Seve Ballesteros and Sergio Garcia in the Desert Classic would be six shots. Even allowing for the fact that the 19-year-old amateur, Garcia, was expected to prevail, the youngster's 10-shot lead after the first round at Dubai Creek will have delighted those invested in him.

On the more demanding second nine, Ballesteros dropped seven strokes, including a triple-bogey at the last, while Garcia made five birdies and dropped only one stroke in a 68 which left him in a group just one behind the leaders, Paul McGinley and Phil Price.

As pleased as he was with his own round, Garcia finds no joy in his hero's current decline. "It makes me really sad," Garcia said. "But something inside tells me Seve is going to come back, I'm sure. Probably, he won't be the player he was but I'm sure he is going to win tournaments."

Garcia, the British amateur champion, is sure to be as prolific a collector of titles when he turns pro as he has been as an amateur. The baton is poised to be exchanged: Garcia lies just two places behind Ballesteros in the lower reaches of the world rankings.

His pro debut will likely be at the Spanish Open in April, after Garcia has played in the US Masters. "I want to turn pro with everything OK, everything ready," was all he would say yesterday. Yet, he is not thinking of playing in any more amateur tournaments and has already competed in a Spanish mini-tour event, finishing one stroke outside a play-off won by Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Garcia was 29th at the Open at Royal Birkdale, 25 places behind Justin Rose, but the contrast between the prototype pro and the hapless one is stark indeed. Rose went to the turn in 41 and then had a triple-bogey eight at his last hole, the ninth, which included a penalty shot for hitting on to the first fairway when not realising it was out of bounds.

Rose matched Ballesteros's 78 and today faces the prospect of taking his pro career record to played 13, missed 13 cuts. "I don't think that what happened to Justin could happen to me," Garcia said. "We are different players. It could happen to me, but I don't know."

What he avoided yesterday, which was no mean feat, was a crippling high score on any one hole despite the areas of short grass being in short supply compared to those of thick rough (almost unplayable) and water (completely unplayable). Nick Faldo missed 12 greens in his 75 while the defending champion, Jose Maria Olazabal, was tied for the lead playing the 18th but pushed his drive into the water and the double-bogey dropped him one behind Garcia.

The acknowledged world expert in coping with such conditions is Colin Montgomerie, according to McGinley. Montgomerie's 70 was three behind the Irishman but his only dropped shot came from an early three-putt while the dew was still on the greens. "What surprised me was that Colin did not have a driver in his bag," McGinley said.

The Scot kept to his three-wood or an iron off the tee and covered the 395-yard third in two five-irons. Though the policy forced him to lay up at the last after fractionally missing the fairway, Montgomerie saved par by holing from 25 feet.

"It shows he knows how to play this type of course," McGinley added. "He doesn't care about distance, just get the ball on the short grass. He is very patient."

McGinley hardly strayed off the fairways, either, and took the opportunities that presented themselves on the greens, three of his six birdies coming from within eight feet. A former Gaelic footballer, the 32-year-old's current goal is to recapture his fitness level from when he was 19 and his role as a half-forward in the Dublin junior team was to "get the ball and run like hell".

"It is not completely essential but getting fit is part of being a top player who plays all year round," said McGinley, who has a makeshift gym in his garage at Sunningdale. "It is no coincidence that the top two players in the world, Woods and Duval, are probably the fittest." For the record, Sergio Garcia has had a personal trainer since the age of 11.

n In Melbourne, a little-known Australian, Craig Spence, was in the lead after the first round of the Australian Masters yesterday. Spence shot a nine-under-par 64 on the revamped course to finish three shots clear of the field. Another Australian, Peter McWhinney, and an American, Robin Byrd, were tied for second on 67. Greg Norman had a one-over-par 74 while Gary Player, now 63, opened with a tidy round of 70.

Scores, Digest, page 31