Golf: O'Connor puts pain behind him

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After 27 years on the tour, Christy O'Connor Jnr thought a year away would do him some good. Fat chance. "The whole family are steeped in golf," he said. "I was the only one in the house not playing. I watched the boys on television and I missed the crack.''

O'Connor proved his successful return from a nasty bout of tennis elbow in his left arm with a 68 in the first round of the Benson & Hedges International. He was one behind the New Zealander Greg Turner, while Colin Montgomerie, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer, in their own ways, all had 70s.

A Ryder Cup hero at The Belfry in 1989, O'Connor made a dramatic comeback, after being involved in a helicopter crash, by winning the British Masters in 1992. Since then he has suffered from Morson's Metarsalgia, a painful foot condition, and in November 1995 was afflicted by tennis elbow.

A cheque for pounds 3,800 for 54th place in the Volvo PGA was the sum total of the 11 tournaments he played last year. After six months and pounds 12,000 worth of unsuccessful treatment, Conor O'Brien, the Irish Olympic doctor, put O'Connor under the laser. "It was very severe but it put me back on the road to playing golf," O'Connor said.

"It was like placing your hand on a red hot grill. You could smell the skin burning. It was black for two days. But having a full-body MRI scan was even worse. It was an awful sensation. I wanted to die. I pressed the red emergency button to get out.''

O'Connor, who will join his famous uncle Christy Snr on the Seniors tour next year, could not hold a cup of coffee in his left hand but has gradually built up his strength in that arm and returned to the tour in Dubai in February. Yesterday he collected four birdies, did not drop a shot and missed twice from inside four feet. "I am playing nicely and enjoying it," he said. "I know exactly how [Jose Maria] Olazabal must have felt, especially him being so young. I really missed it."

The Irishman made his score in the morning and despite the temperature rising - well, relatively - and the rain holding off in the afternoon, no one challenged Turner's 67. The Kiwi arrived on Tuesday to find a light smattering of snow covering the course and decided against a practice round. He was not in the pro-am on Wednesday, either, but warmed by a pair of long johns, bought by his wife Jane, his only dropped shot came at the ninth, his last hole, where he was short of the green with two drivers.

While Woosnam's round contained two birdies and 16 pars, Montgomerie was far from his consistent self. Having had three birdies and one bogey on the back nine, which he played first, he then played the front half: bogey, bogey, bogey, birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie, double bogey, birdie. "We're playing a big golf course and eight birdies suggests something is going right," Montgomerie said, "but all those bogeys suggests there's far too much going wrong.''

The main problem was coming up short with his short-irons. At the eighth, where he took six, Monty had 130 yards to the flag and hit it only 80 into a lake. There are plenty of man-made water hazards on the course but there is no need to dye them blue since they turn that colour with the cold. Montgomerie's face turned a deeper shade of red. "Something is not right and I'll phone my coach when I get home tonight," the Scot said. "It's probably an easy fault to cure, it's just finding the cure.''

Woosnam did not drop a shot but was never going to pick up too many, either. "I played steady, but I didn't hole anything," said the Welshman, who only missed three greens. His long approach putt at the last tinkered on the edge of the hole and then decided to stay above ground a little longer.

BENSON AND HEDGES INTERNATIONAL OPEN (The Oxfordshire, Thame) (GB or Irl unless stated): 67 G Turner (NZ). 68 C O'Connor Jnr. 69 J Lomas, D Clarke, A Coltart, L Westwood, R Goosen (SA), P Mitchell, P Sjoland (Swe), B May (US). 70 C Suneson (Sp), C Montgomerie, P Lawrie, B Langer (Ger), P Broadhurst, D Howell, K Vainola (Fin), D Borrego (Sp), I Woosnam, G Orr, R McFarlane, S Luna (Sp), N Fasth (Swe). 71 P Quirici (Swit), R Boxall, J Coceres (Arg), I Garrido (Sp), D Gilford, D Cooper, P Hedblom (Swe), P Eales, T Bjorn (Den), R Karlsson (Swe), J Spence, G Emerson. 72 J Robson, P Price, R Rafferty, MA Martin (Sp), P McGinley, M A Jimenez (Sp), D Robertson, S Webster, J Payne, I Pyman, F Roca (Sp), I Feliu (Sp), S Ballesteros (Sp), P Baker, K Eriksson (Swe), S Allan (Aus), J Haeggman (Swe). 73 R Muntz (Neth), S Richardson, M McNulty (Zim), A Forsbrand (Swe), D Cole (Aus), P Walton, R Willison, J Murray, E Canonica (It), S Struver (Ger), W Westner (SA), P Harrington, M James, E Darcy, I Mosey, E Romero (Arg), R Davis (Aus), D Chopra (Swe), D Lee. Selected: 74 S Torrance.

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