Golf: Warren's not a rabbit now

The best man on the Challenge Tour graduates to be in contention by outplaying O'Meara
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The Independent Online
UNTIL yesterday, Warren Bennett had not seen in the flesh, let alone met, Mark O'Meara, the Open and Masters champion. It is a measure of his esteem for the game that he should attach such significance to the moment. It is an even better measure of his qualities as a golfer that he recovered from a poor start to finish six strokes ahead of his partner.

Bennett, the runaway winner of the Challenge tour last year, bogeyed two of the first three holes, but completed a third round 71 in the Desert Classic to share third place, two strokes behind David Howell and Wayne Riley. O'Meara came home in 42 for a 77.

The American blamed his poor driving for falling out of contention in the tournament but was full of praise for the 27-year-old from Watford. "Warren is a fine young player," O'Meara said. "He played really well and kept his composure nicely. If he can do the same tomorrow, he has every chance of winning."

It was an assessment that Bennett, without trying to be arrogant, agreed with. "I think so as well, as long as I can keep bogeys off my card," he said. Winning became a habit for the amateur silver medallist in the 1994 Open when he won five times on the Challenge Tour. It was then that his career got back on track after two years getting over neck and shoulder injuries.

"This was my first real experience of playing a European tour event in front of crowds and I have been thrown in the deep end," Bennett said. "It's taken so long to get here I feel like an old age pensioner but I think all my ups and downs have helped me in the long run.

"I got off to a shaky start and was conscious of playing with a major champion but he didn't make me feel uncomfortable. He encouraged me all the way round and we had quite a few chats. I said it would be a dream to play on the US tour one day and he said that if I keep going the way I am, I could."

Howell celebrated his victory in the Australian PGA Championship last November by going to the Brisbane Test match. If that was a bad move, playing tennis on the day he returned home was even worse. The 23-year- old from Swindon sprained his ankle and had to take eight weeks off.

In only his second tournament of the season, however, Howell is once again at the top of a leaderboard. Paired with an Australian for the final round, he has revenge for cricketing defeats Down Under uppermost in his mind. He survived an ugly weather day, as a cool wind and overcast sky lingered after an early morning storm. "It was nice to get round in one under to retain the lead while not playing my best," Howell said.

While Howell birdied two of the last five holes, Riley matched that finish over the last three as the pair reached eight under par. With Bennett on six under were Ed Fryatt, the Las Vegas-based Englishman, and Miguel Jimenez. Lurking, with intent, at four under were Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, the latter's 69 tying the Ryder Cup captain Mark James for the low round of the day.

While Howell awaits a maiden win on the European tour, Riley, one of the circuit's more colourful characters, is aiming to regain the card he lost last season. "Going back to the qualifying school was embarrassing," he admitted. A failure there meant he was left writing off for invitations from tournament sponsors to get starts.

Equally important was the moment his wife, Louise, interrupted his viewing of Football Focus one Saturday when he had not bothered to go and practise. "Basically, she kicked me in the arse, gave me a few home truths," Riley said. "I needed to apply myself a bit more. Now I feel guilty if I don't go and practise every day."

Talking to other sportsmen back home, including the tennis player Patrick Rafter, also persuaded Riley, who has won six times around the world, to get fitter. "I have been going for a jog every evening. My head is clearer and I don't get puffed on the course.

"When you are 36 you have to work hard to keep up with the younger players. They are good and they are fit. They eat bananas and drink Evian, and they are built like a one-iron with ears." The description fits Howell and Bennett to a tee.

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