Golf: Welch takes first step on familiar course: Guy Hodgson on the Shropshire teenager following famous footsteps in his Open debut

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MICHAEL WELCH was following in famous footsteps. Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam were approaching Muirfield's 11th green yesterday and their 19-year-old playing partner brought up the rear. It could have been an allegory of the young man's life.

Quite why Shropshire has acquired the knack of producing world-class golfers nobody can pin down. But in recent times the smallest county in England has turned out Lyle and Woosnam (three majors and 52 tournament victories between them) in addition to Peter Baker (two professional victories) and Philip Parkin (former Amateur Champion). Welch is the next on the production line.

The design is not becoming inferior with time. Welch's achievement in making his Open Championship debut at such a young age - he finished first in both his regional and final quaifying tournaments to become one of five amateurs in the field of 156 - is meritorious enough but merely extends a list of achievements which at boys level even outshone his illustrious predecessors. In 1990 Welch was not so much the best boy of his year but possibly the best Briton of all time.

In a spell of unprecedented and well nigh unbelievable excellence, Welch won 10 tournaments in succession working his way up through the Midland, English, British, European and World Championships. For the last two of these events, both at King's Links, Aberdeen, he was a combined total of 28-under-par. He also set six course records during this brush with perfection.

Inevitably there have been comparisons with the 1991 Masters champion, Woosnam, but the man he has been held up to most frequently is Lyle. Not only because the burgeoning skills are reminiscent of the former Open and Masters champion when he was young but also because Welch, like his boyhood hero, spent his formative years at Hawkestone Park under the tutelage of Lyle's father Alex.

'I live next to the sixth fairway at Hawkestone,' Welch said, 'so I've been taught by Sandy's father almost from the beginning. Sandy has also been a huge encouragement to me. Every time he visits his parents he rings me up to ask me if I want a game. He's always there if I want advice.'

Lyle was aiding and abetting his protege again yesterday. He had instigated the practice fourball that also included Scotland's Paul Lawrie and, like an approving parent, he pointed out Muirfield's pitfalls, advising where to aim the ball and, more pertinently, where not. To good effect, as Welch went round close to par.

'I gave up counting almost straight away because I made a mess of the first hole,' he said, 'but I was reasonably satisfied with the round. I was under par on Tuesday and so far have managed to avoid going in any of the fairway bunkers. I was nervous at first, you don't normally get galleries five deep in the tournaments I play, but I settled down eventually.'

Welch believes he has also learnt from the trough he suffered when his form nose-dived from the heights it touched in 1990. 'I created such expectations for myself,' he said, 'and I didn't want to let myself or anyone down. Suddenly I had newspapers and golf magazines wanting interviews and it all added to the pressure. I've struggled for 14 or 15 months and it's only in the last six weeks that I've started to feel confident again.'

Confident and keen to draw knowledge from his elders. Welch is drawn to go out in the third last group today at 4pm and Woosnam, aware of the dangers of boredom or of witnessing a low score that would increase the burden on inexperienced shoulders, told him to keep away from Muirfield until 2pm at the earliest and to avoid watching on television.

'I had planned to go on a boat trip but the possibility of getting stranded out at sea persuaded me to abandon that,' he said. 'I'll probably visit Edinburgh and look at the sights. Anything to take my mind off golf.

'I'm fortunate that I've not been drawn with any of the big names so the crowd shouldn't be too large. I know I'll have to play very well just to make the cut. That's the hard part. Only then I'll think about the silver medal (for the top amateur).'

With that he traced Lyle and Woosnam's path into the clubhouse. He was catching them up physically and metaphorically.

(Photograph omitted)