: Golf: Torrance uncorks a vintage opening round

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There are 2,766 cork oaks at Valderrama and Sam Torrance managed to hit two of them. And that was just on the first hole. Torrance, however, is accustomed to extracting pleasure from corks and he did so yesterday in the style of a connoisseur.

Give this Scotsman a whiff of the Johnnie Walker Ryder Cup and there's no holding him. The 41-year-old veteran of seven cup contests is back in the frame following a 65 in the first round of the Volvo Masters here. It equalled the course record but the bad news, at least for Torrance, is that the Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and the Englishman, Peter Mitchell, also got to six under par.

Valderrama - we know it has that many corks, a native tree of Andalucia, because Jaime Ortiz-Patino, the owner, counted them - appears to have lost its mystique since being awarded the Ryder Cup for 1997. When Sandy Lyle won the Volvo Masters two years ago his aggregate was 287, three over par. This place was so long and so difficult that it prompted D J Russell, who has seen most things, to remark: 'I left a trail of blood from the first tee to the 18th green.'

Any figure under par was regarded as an aberration but yesterday there were as many decent scores as indecent. Torrance put the renaissance down to the weather. 'The course is running quite fast,' he said. 'In the past we have had a lot of rain and the rough has been thicker and the course has been playing longer.'

Torrance added a rider to his thesis. 'I've always thought,' he said, 'that this is one of the best courses we play. It is a great test of golf with no respite at all. Jaime Patino is a great man because he listens to the players.'

Mr Patino would be better off sticking to the original blueprint. Courses that comply to huge under-par totals are two a penny. Valderrama was deliberately designed to be different and with pounds 1.25m up for grabs it had a sound reason for making the going tough. Torrance smacked his first drive left and the ball rebounded from cork back on to the fairway. Then he hit a seven-iron into a bunker via another tree: out of the sand to eight feet, two putts, a bogey five. He followed that with three successive birdies, holing putts, with a long putter that is almost twice as heavy as the model he used earlier in the season, from 12 to 18 feet. He did even better over the back nine with four birdies.

Torrance has a touch of bronchitis and Mitchell has trouble with his knees.

'It is a beautiful course but very severe,' Mitchell said. 'You can see why all the best golfers do well here.' Mitchell, a self-effacing man from Kent, was not including himself among the elite. Mitchell for the Ryder Cup? Bet Lynch to run the Ritz.

Mitchell and his caddie have spent three days drawing up their own map of the course 'trying to work out where to hit the green. It looks horrible.'

Most of the best golfers are there or thereabouts: Ian Woosnam shot 68, and Colin Montgomerie and Seve Ballesteros, Nos 1 and 2 in the Order of Merit, 69.

The scorecards were confusing: one of those 69s contained a single bogey and three birdies; the other, five bogeys and seven birdies. In the good old days you would have put your mortgage on the erratic round belonging to Ballesteros. Yesterday it belonged to Big Monty. Last year, when he won this championship, winning the pounds 125,000 first prize and another pounds 125,000 for finishing top of the Merit table, he had five bogeys over four rounds.

'If you'd told me,' Montgomerie said yesterday, 'that I'd have only six pars in my round I'd have anticipated shooting a score of 80. I'll take seven birdies around here any time.' Twelve months ago the incentive for Montgomerie was great. Winning secured him not only the title but the Order of Merit. Before he took a club out of the bag here this week he was assured of pounds 125,000 as the uncatchable Merit table leader.

Nick Faldo used to enjoy such luxury but yesterday his card contained almost enough sixes to provide him with an omen. 'I can't unravel the problem,' Faldo said. A sympathetic aficionado from the Fourth Estate offered consolation. 'Don't worry Nick,' he said, 'we all have our ups and downs.'

Faldo could have shot him. 'There,' he said,'speaks an expert.'

VOLVO MASTERS (Valderrama) First-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 65 M A Jimenez (Sp), P Mitchell, S Torrance. 67 T Johnstone (Zim). 68 P Fulke (Swe), I Woosnam, 69 R Allenby (Aus), P Eales, C Rocca (It), C Montgomerie, S Ballesteros (Sp). 70 M Harwood (Aus), F Nobilo (NZ), P Curry, P Way, M McNulty (Zimb), J-M Olazabal (Sp), D Gilford. 71 S Struver (Ger), R Davis (Aus), V Singh (Fiji), A Coltart, B Langer (Ger), H Clark, S Lyle, J Haeggmann (Swe), P Hedblom (Swe), P Price, R Rafferty, J Lomas. 72 B Lane, P-U Johansson (Swe), M-A Martin (Sp), R Claydon. 73 J Parnevik (Swe), C Mason, A Forsband (Swe), P McGinley. 74 G Brand Jnr, D Clarke, N Faldo, M Roe, M Davis. 75 M James, K Eriksson (Swe), G Turner (NZ), G Orr, E Romero (Arg), P Walton. 76 L Westwood. 77 G Hjertstedt (Swe). 79 J Rivero (Sp), R Goosen (SA). 84 W Westner (SA).

The European Open will be staged for the next three years at the Kildare Hotel Golf and Country Club in Ireland. The tournament, traditionally held in the London area, was played for the last two years at the East Sussex National Club.

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