Golf: Westwood falls to curse of the 17th

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BILLIONAIRES ALWAYS have their own particular foibles and with Jimmy Patino, sometime Bolivian tin-miner, it is the 17th hole on his Valderrama golf course in the Andalucian hills above Gibraltar. A substantial chunk of the $30m (pounds 18.6) Patino has spent on the place over the last decade and a half has gone into the controversial par five.

In most areas, the money has been well spent. Valderrama has always been immaculately conditioned in hosting nine Volvo Masters tournaments, the Ryder Cup two years ago and, currently, the inaugural AmEx World Championship. The event was designed to provide the denouement of both money lists on either side of the Atlantic.

Tiger Woods has already taken care of the American ranking but the European Order of Merit is still alive. If yesterday's first round is anything to go by, the 17th hole will play an important role.

Once, in the days when Sandy Lyle shanked his third shot out of bounds only for the ball to rebound into play off a tree as the Scot went on to victory, the hole was a long, plodding three-shotter with an elevated green.

While Patino was bidding to host the Ryder Cup, he had the brainwave of offering Seve Ballesteros a seven-figure commission to redesign the hole. The green was lowered to provide a spectator bank behind and water was introduced in front. In 1994, Miguel Angel Jimenez holed his second shot for an albatross and so camel humps and rough were introduced on the fairway.

During the Ryder Cup, the hole provided all manner of drama, including Woods putting into the water. Now the hated humps and strip of rough have gone. The fairway has been lowered, bunkers taken out, new traps added. Patino had thought about shortening it to a par four, but it remains a par five with the decision whether to lay up or go for the green in two.

"I hate that hole," said Colin Montgomerie. "I dread that second shot. It still is, and will always be, a very controversial hole." Monty had 220 yards to carry the water and hit a four iron on to the green and two- putted for a birdie. His 70, one under par, left the Scot comfortably in front of his order of merit rivals. Sergio Garcia sneezed his way to a 74, Retief Goosen had a 75 and Lee Westwood a 73.

Westwood, however, was one under for his round on the 17th tee. But after a poor drive and a lay up, the Englishman put his 100-yard sand wedge into the pond. "The green is not that deep and you don't want to be over the back," Westwood said. Replaying the shot, he put it to 18 inches but managed to miss the putt.

A double-bogey seven never does much for a player's opinion of a hole. "It's just a rubbish hole," Westwood said. "They will find a way to get it right but it is not right yet." Quite how Westwood would do it would require a consultancy fee from Patino to discover.

A bogey five at the last added up to three shots dropped in the last two holes. "It was a poor finish, a bit disappointing," Westwood said. "I actually hit the ball solidly. In practice I was hitting it terribly. I have no idea what has to happen on the order of merit, I am just trying to win the tournament."

That is Westwood's minimum requirement but no one better at jockeying for position than Montgomerie, who was three behind the leader Vijay Singh and two off Jim Furyk's second place. "I've done this before," said the six-time European No 1. "I enjoy the challenge of it. This is a week of patience and I'm glad the first day has gone."

A strong breeze kept the scoring high while a vastly reduced gallery from the 30,000 who packed the course for the Ryder Cup made the atmosphere seem more subdued. Woods, whose level-par 71 was five better than that of his playing player, Paul Lawrie, only got his putting going late on to birdie two of the last three holes.

But the world No 1 did have a chance to show off his greater range of shots, one of them a five iron from 236 yards over the water to 12 feet on the elevated fourth green. He holed the putt for an eagle.

Woods is a faster learner. Mark James, the Ryder Cup captain, admitted to being a slow one. His 69 was only the third time he had been under 70 in 33 rounds on the course. "I am usually in the low 80s here," James said. "I definitely overachieved. I'm certainly not overconfident."

Jean Van de Velde has had some harsh words to say about James leaving the Frenchman and two others out of the Ryder Cup action until the final day but not so Jarmo Sandelin, the eccentric Swede who had his best round at Valderrama with a 70.

"I told Mark whatever he decided I'd stand by him," Sandelin said. "I think he did a very good job. I only expected to play one round. Next time I hope I am good enough to play more."

AMEX WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP (Valderrama, Sp) First-round scores (US unless stated): 67 V Singh (Fiji). 68 J Furyk. 69 M James (GB), B Estes, P Mickelson, N Price (Zim), S Hoch. 70 J Maggert, J Sandelin (Swe), C Perry (US), C Montgomerie (GB). 71 R Pampling (Aus), B Langer (Ger), T Woods, J Leonard, T Herron, F Funk. 72 L Roberts, D Toms, J Huston, S Pate, C Spence (Aus), T Bjorn (Den), MA Jimenez (Sp), C Parry (Aus), J Van de Velde (Fr), T Lehman. 73 J M Olazabal (Sp), K Hosokawa (Japan), M Weir (Can), L Westwood (GB). 74 S Dunlap, A Cabrera (Arg), D Waldorf, S Garcia (Sp), D Love, R Karlsson (Swe), S Elkington (Aus), E Els (SA). 75 B Geiberger, D Hart, H Sutton, C Franco (Par), B Tway, B Watts, R Goosen (SA), S Cink. 76 N Ozaki (Japan), D Frost (SA), D Paulson, S Appleby (Aus), J Moseley (Aus), P Lawrie, P Harrington (Irl). 77 B May, N Begay, J Sluman, T Tryba (SA). 78 G Day, R Kaplan (SA). 79 A Cejka (Ger), D Clarke.