Golf: Lyle has stretcher bearers at the ready

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SANDY LYLE was possessed of a strange feeling. He was sitting pretty, two strokes clear of the field at the half-way stage of the Volvo Masters over a course that has Hades written all over it. Lyle, who has not been a major contender since he won the Masters in Augusta four years ago, was 10 strokes clear of his arch rival, Nick Faldo. Two rounds is a long time in golf, especially over Valderrama.

Lyle was a man apart yesterday, the only player to stay on level par for the championship. He shot 70 for an aggregate of 142 and although there were better scores on the day nobody has been as consistent. Lyle has a good record here on a course where nobody has a good record. He has finished third, fourth, ninth and 21st. 'It's tricky but good,' he said.

Faldo, the world No 1, agreed with the first half of the statement. He shot 79, his worst round of a wonderful year. He came home in 41, finishing bogey, bogey, double bogey, bogey, par. 'I played badly and putted very badly,' was Faldo's succinct account of a round in which he did not make a single birdie.

On the scoreboard red figures signify a player below par, blue for those above. Red is redundant. The board is a sea of blue. The way Lyle played, over the hardest course in Europe, if not the universe, and the way he feels about this place is probably significant. 'I'm happy with my swing,' he said. In the golf world this amounts to Eureka]

Lyle had five birdies, four bogeys. 'You've got to hit the ball well here or the course will show you up,' he said. 'You've never really quite got control of it. The margin between making a par and a bogey is so small.'

While Faldo has been establishing himself as the dominant force in the game, Lyle has been on skid row. Victory here would represent a sea change. 'If I won they'd have to carry me off on a stretcher,' Lyle said. The stretcher bearers are standing by. What is very much in Lyle's favour here is Valderrama. Nobody can shoot abnormally low scores and the leaderboard will not change dramatically.

Those closest to Lyle are two Irishmen, Christy O'Connor Jnr and David Feherty, and a Scot, Gordon Brand Jnr. The three are on plus two. O'Connor, the silver- haired senior of the two juniors, had a 76 in the first round and yesterday he produced what he described as the best round of his life. His 68, a stunning score over this course, included an inward nine of 32.

O'Connor did what nobody has done, compiling four birdies from the 11th. Equally important, he did not drop a shot over the back nine, most of which were played into the teeth of the wind. 'It is not the length of the course that's the problem,' O'Connor said, 'it is the toughness of club selection. If you don't choose the right club you're dead.'

O'Connor's score was almost as remarkable as Feherty's rehabilitation. The Ulsterman had had a wretched year until he won the Madrid Open last week. Asked to explain the sudden improvement, Feherty said: 'I'm buggered if I know. It has nothing to do with hard work and practice.' Feherty said that reading the greens here was akin to playing a pinball machine. 'They are 20 per cent better than last year,' he said, 'and they're still bloody awful.'

Compared to some he is playing like a pinball wizard. Paul Broadhurst shot 84 in the second round and then withdrew from the championship, citing a wrist injury. He was 19 over par. Valderrama has taken its toll on others. Tony Johnstone, a man who wouldn't say boo to a goose, was fined for swearing and Michael McLean for club throwing. The swear box is full and the air is thick not only with expletives but soaring steel shafts.

VOLVO MASTERS (Valderrama; Sp) Leading second-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 142 S Lyle 72 70. 144 C O'Connor Jnr 76 68; G Brand Jnr 70 74; D Feherty 74 70. 145 M A Jimenez (Sp) 73 72; R Rafferty 77 68; S Richardson 71 74; J Spence 70 75; W Westner (SA) 74 71. 146 A Sherborne 75 71; C Montgomerie 76 70; T Johnstone (Zim) 78 68; E Romero (Arg) 74 72; P Mitchell 73 73. 147 F Nobilo (NZ) 74 73; J-M Olazabal (Sp) 75 72; P Walton 74 73. 148 D Gilford 73 75; B Langer (Ger) 72 76. 149 B Ogle (Aus) 77 72; D Clarke 73 76; R Karlsson (Swe) 77 72; G Day (US) 78 71. 150 J Payne 77 73; M McLean 73 77; M James 76 74; M McNulty (Zim) 76 74; R Davis (Aus) 74 76; M Mackenzie 77 73. 151 P Baker 79 72; J Rivero (Sp) 78 73; M Roe 80 71; I Woosnam 76 75; I Palmer (SA) 73 78. 152 C Rocca (It) 74 78; J-M Canizares (Sp) 74 78; N Faldo 73 79.