Seve Ballesteros is a hero to Paul Hughes, as he is to most golfers the length and breadth of Europe. A gynaecologist from Cork and a member at Fota Island, Hughes has had an extraordinary week at the Murphy's Irish Open from the moment he learnt that Seve wanted to employ him as his caddie for the tournament.
Hughes was then involved in a car crash that wrote off the vehicle but left him and his wife intact. Worse was to follow as Ballesteros scored an 89 in the first round, with a 12 at the last, but was disqualified for signing for a wrong score. "It was very sad," Hughes said. "He smiled and put on a brave face but he was embarrassed."
Ballesteros arrived in the Emerald Isle hoping for a rebirth and to continue his association with a tournament he won three times in his glory days. By the time he left, he had withdrawn from the Open and other upcoming engagements. Yet the ironic thing about his miserable retreat to Pedrena, and possibly retirement, is that plenty of others have been treading the fairways of Fota with renewed lightness of step.
Lee Westwood, whose own spell in the doldrums has lasted for 18 months, made huge strides forward with opening rounds of 67 and 68. The Worksop man arrived feeling better about his game than for some time but needed the positive feedback of not only making the cut but going into the weekend in contention.
Colin Montgomerie's form improved during May but the Scot is still awaiting his first victory for 11 months. A year ago his winless drought had not been so severe but a wire-to-wire triumph was a welcome tonic. In attempting to repeat the feat, he declared four four-under-par rounds of 67 would do the trick.
He was on course after two rounds but his back went again on Friday and he was unable to practise before yesterday's third round. He was also unable to keep up with the earlier starters on a day when the breeze got up in the afternoon to the aid of those already in the clubhouse.
Montgomerie gingerly putted out at the last for a 74, in which he came home in 34, to drop six strokes off the pace at five under. Westwood never got his round going and a 72 left him at six under.
But while the other overnight leaders struggled to play to par, the scoring earlier in the day was overwhelming. Three times the course record of 63, initially set by Montgomerie in the opening round last year, was equalled, first by Richard Bland and then by Thomas Bjorn and Niclas Fasth.
The Dane and the Swede were playing together and between them they posted two eagles and 15 birdies. "It was one of the most fun rounds I have been a part of," Bjorn said. "It is rare for both guys to shoot the lights out but we both played really, really well. It seemed neither of us was going to make a mistake. You get a lot of confidence not only from playing well yourself but seeing the other guy doing the same. The course is still not easy, but it felt like it was easy to both of us."
Bjorn and Fasth, members of Europe's Ryder Cup team, have both had mediocre seasons but felt that their best form was not far off. Fasth is the less experienced of the pair but Bjorn would like to be paired with the Swede at The Belfry in September.
"We need guys who are going to go out and do it themselves, not expect the other guy to do stuff for them," Bjorn said. "I think Niclas will play a lot of games and will be a big asset to the team."
The pair were joined at 11 under by another Dane, Soren Hansen, who had a 64, while Bland, who started the day at two under, had briefly held the lead at 10 under. The 29-year-old from Southampton is in his rookie season on Tour and had missed his last four cuts. He is a friend of Matt Le Tissier, the former Southampton striker who plays a mean game of golf himself.
"Matt is going to caddie for me at the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond," Bland revealed. "It is something we said we would do. Mentally, he is very good. With everything he went through with injuries, he is the most positive guy I know. He has always believed in me and has helped me with my self-belief."
The scoring madness began with Graeme McDowell's 65. McDowell, in only his second event as a professional, finished birdie, birdie, eagle, while his fellow Ulsterman Darren Clarke, in the next group, also posted a 65 to move within four of the lead.