Golf: Gilford plays leading role to perfection: The European Opn winner could be a reluctant front-runner in the race for places in the Ryder Cup team

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The Independent Online
WHETHER he likes it or not, David Gilford has made an early stab at qualifying for the 1995 Ryder Cup team after stealthily walking away with the European Open at East Sussex National yesterday. In a leaderboard that had almost as much pedigree as Gilford's herd of Herefords, the part-time farmer from Crewe left the rest to toll the knell of parting day.

Gilford, who would be an ideal stand-in in a silent movie, shot an exemplary 67 to win by five strokes from Jose-Maria Olazabal and Costantino Rocca, and by seven from Colin Montgomerie. It was his sixth victory on the European Tour and his most significant.

Gilford, who will be 29 on Wednesday, was asked if he was going to celebrate. 'I might have a bottle of wine,' he whispered. He can also afford another bag of feed for the cattle.

Gilford established a one-stroke lead after the second round, increased it to two after the third, by which stage he was eight under par for the championship, and yesterday he calmly dealt with the challenge of Olazabal. The Masters champion, three strokes off the lead after the third round, had four birdies in the first six holes at which point he was nine under.

Olazabal, who was playing with Montgomerie in the penultimate pairing, held the lead but if you had blinked you would have missed it. Almost immediately, Gilford, who began with five pars, also birdied the sixth, hitting a sand-iron to 18 inches, to go to nine under. He regained the lead at the eighth, hitting an eight-iron off the tee to 12 feet. He made that putt for a two and, although he got a par at the next, the ninth was another critical hole.

After the second round, when he had a bogey five there, Gilford was positively controversial, accusing the ninth hole, one of the longest par fours on the course, of being 'severe'. Into the wind, they were hitting driver, driver and still not finding the green. Yesterday, the tee was brought forward and Gilford hit a driver and a two-iron to about six feet from the flag. Minutes earlier, Olazabal had a five there and his charge had been repelled.

Gilford consolidated his lead with three more birdies over the back nine, including one at the 15th, where he hit a drive and a five-iron - 'two perfect shots' he said - to eight feet. 'It was the perfect way to win,' he said. 'I didn't really look like dropping a shot. I missed only a couple of greens and hardly missed a fairway. It was perhaps the best round I've ever played.'

Gilford, who won pounds 100,000 and an invitation to the Johnnie Walker World Championship in Jamaica in December, leads the table for the Ryder Cup match against the United States in Rochester, New York, next September, but he is a reluctant frontrunner. When he played in the match on Kiawah Island in 1991 he was dropped from the singles - a response to Steve Pate's injury - and the experience has not enamoured him to the Ryder Cup concept, or the hullabaloo that surrounds the event.

All the survivors here were relieved to find that the weather yesterday was kinder than on the first three days. A blimp, drifting over the course, looked almost stationary and was as silent as Gilford himself.

Christy O'Connor Jnr, in spite of a bogey five at the first, compiled seven birdies in an early 67, a score only matched by Gilford. Craig Cassells, who was 144th in the Volvo Order of Merit, finished joint fifth with Howard Clark and Darren Clarke and his reward of pounds 21,466 virtually assures him of his card for next season.

Not everybody found it a pleasant experience. Mark James, a Ryder Cup veteran, went round in 81 to finish at 20 over par. There are those who think that East Sussex National, designed by an American, should, ideally, be situated in America. Only 11 players finished under par in what Gilford described as 'trying conditions' on a 'fantastic' course, and only four of those yesterday did not have a bogey on their cards. 'I'm really pleased,' Gilford said. You just had to take his word for it.

(Photograph omitted)