Golf: Langer keeps to the straight and narrow

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: German stays within one stroke of first-round leaders in attempt to equal Faldo's record
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According to Nick Faldo, the famed West Course here is playing the "longest, narrowest and greenest it has been for a long time". Where once the sheer length of 6,957 yards was enough to intimidate the best players of yesteryear, now the lushness and extent of the rough has once again produced a fitting stage for the Volvo PGA Championship, the European Tour's flagship event.

Such conditions promote the cause of the better ball-strikers, so it was no surprise to find Bernhard Langer among those one behind the joint leaders from Ireland on six under, Darren Clarke and Eamonn Darcy. Additionally, poor shots are punished and three pulled drives, including one into the trees at the 15th, were costly for Faldo.

Only birdies at the last two holes got the Englishman, on his first appearance in Europe this year, to a two-under 70. Jose Maria Olazabal was on level par and his countryman, Seve Ballesteros, returned a 76. In contrast, Langer could have had birdies at each of the first seven holes.

That he finished that stretch only two under, and then took three putts on the eighth, was because "I found it very difficult to read the greens early on," he said. The German is in search of his third successive victory, which would tie him with Faldo on four PGA titles. His 18-under-par record aggregate should be safe, however.

Ian Woosnam joined Langer on 67 with his second eagle of the day at the last where he holed from 54 feet. His playing partner, Colin Montgomerie, went to the range after his 69 to correct a push in his driving. Montgomerie, who typically suggested that he would like to see the fairways even narrower, found a bunker at the 13th, rough at the 15th, and trees at the 16th.

Clarke and Darcy could not make a more contrasting pair. Clarke, 28, embodies the modern power game and has been working hard to alloy some consistency to the talent that promised more than his two wins in six years on tour.

Darcy is the possessor of one of the game's most idiosyncratic swings, once described as "like a man snatching a five pound note from a grate with a pair of tongs". The style may or may not have been the root cause of the back problems the 44-year-old former Ryder Cup player has suffered in the last three years.

After the Dubai Classic, the scene of Darcy's last victory seven years ago, he had to take a break due to internal bleeding caused by the strength of the anti-inflammatory tablets he was taking. He arrived here having missed his last five cuts, but first-round rejuvenations by veteran Irishmen is becoming a theme. Christy O'Connor Jnr was on the leaderboard at The Oxfordshire two weeks ago, where he revealed his tennis elbow had been so bad he had been unable to pick up a cup of coffee.

Darcy had no such worries. "I don't drink coffee," he said. "It did get to the point where I had difficulty picking up a pint of Guinness." So it was serious. "Three years ago, I thought I was gone. Then I met this chap in Ireland, Frank Dowling, and he saved me form having a disc- fusion operation." A rub-down in the physio's van with Tiger Balm and switching to the same putter as Tiger Woods - "If I can hole half the putts he makes, I'll be happy" - proved the cure for his golf.

After birdies at four of the first six holes, Darcy only needed a fraction more luck at the 10th to have lowered his score by one. A par-three of 186 yards, Darcy's four-iron tee shot finished one inch short of the cup. "All it needed was one more roll," Darcy sighed. Although he did not manage the feat, there were two holes in one recorded: by Jeff Hawkes with a seven-iron at the second hole, and by Greg Turner with a six-iron at the fifth.

VOLVO PGA CHAMPIONSHIP (Wentworth) Early first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 66 E Darcy, D Clarke. 67 I Woosnam, R Karlsson (Swe), D Gilford, A Sherborne. 68 F Nobilo (NZ), M Farry (Fr), B Langer (Ger), D Carter, T Bjorn (Den). 69 C Montgomerie, C Whitelaw, E Els (SA), P Walton, B Lane, T Gogele (Ger). 70 D Borrego (Sp), D Edlund (Swe), S Ames (Trin), P-U Johansson (Swe), C Rocca (It), J Parnevik (Swe), L Westwood, M Davis, N Faldo, V Singh (Fiji), M-A Martin (Sp), P Hughes (Fin), K Eriksson (Swe). 71 J Pinero (Sp), S Torrance, D Smyth, E Romero (Arg), S Struver (Ger), I Garbutt, S Field, I Pyman, S Cage, G Emerson. 72 J Sandelin (Swe), D McGrane, B Hughes (Aus), A Tait, D Higgins, A Oldcorn, J-M Olazabal (Sp), P Broadhurst, R Burns, C O'Connor Jnr, W Riley (Aus), P Affleck, D Robertson, M Roe. 73 J Rivero (Sp), A Bossert (Swit), R Allenby (Aus), J Lomas, S Luna (Sp), R Goosen (SA), M Gronberg (Swe), M Mackenzie, C Mason, R Willison, K Dickens, P Hedblom (Swe). 74 S Richardson, R Rafferty, A Cejka (Ger), P Lonard (Aus), P Harrington, J Hawkes (SA), E Canonica (It), J Payne, J Coceres (Arg), J Townsend (US), C Ronald, S Henderson, A Butterfield, F Tarnaud (Fr), R McFarlane, P Mitchell, P Baker, P Linhart (Sp). 75 Zhang Lian-wei (China), D Hospital (Sp), T Johnstone (Zim), MA Jimenez (Sp), P Sefton. 76 G Brand Jnr, S Bottomley, B McGovern, M Mouland, S Ballesteros (Sp), D Cooper, L Bond, P Way, R Muntz (Neth), M Hallberg (Swe). 77 J- M Canizares (Sp), M Harwood (Aus), A Coltart, M Gates, M James. 78 R Green (Aus), R Coles. 79 B Longmuir. 82 S Purves. 83 Kang Wook-Soon (S Kor).