Home fires burning as Woosnam sparks

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The old frown looked the same as Ian Woosnam arrived here like a train yesterday. And yes, they'd all come to see him.

The old frown looked the same as Ian Woosnam arrived here like a train yesterday. And yes, they'd all come to see him.

But whether, with a few swivels of those famous hips, Woosnam can make it the dream, dream grass of home today by becoming the first Welsh winner of the Wales Open is probably dependent on the dreaded vissitudes of time not catching up with the 47-year-old, and on the putter he calls "my black devil" remaining obedient. On yesterday's gritty evidence, however, Europe's Ryder Cup captain has one big hit left in him.

To triumph, Woosnam must first negate the one-shot lead held by Italy's Alessandro Tadini, escape the company of those also on seven under - the Spanish pair of Miguel Angel Jimenez and Jose Manuel Lara and France's Jean-Francois Lucquin - as well as resist the expected charge of the young Englishman Nick Dougherty, who made ominous strides to stand at five under.

No easy task, but after a day when he bogeyed his first three holes, before fighting back with four birdies of consummate character, Woosnam appreciates how hard he will have to work for his 45th title in all, and the first since the World Match Play at Wentworth in 2001.

"I didn't play well today and I'll have to play better tomorrow," he said. "But maybe that's my bad round out of the way. Winning is the goal I've had for a long time, and it would be such a boost to my confidence. Today was one of those days when you had to battle, and I think my Welsh battling came out today; and it was great to have the crowd behind me."

Perhaps their roars helped to convince Woosnam not to give up the ghost when he missed a frighteningly short putt on the first hole, as the "twitches" that have spooked his career manifested themselves early.

"I thought, 'Great, I've been practising my putting all night and I'm off to a flyer'," said the 1991 Masters champion. "I had to go cross-handed straight away, but I knew if I kept on battling that even three over par would not have been too bad, and I scrambled well from then on."

Indeed, with the wind whipping up, bringing squalls that arrived and departed with such haste that they were seemingly just having a quick water stop while speeding down the adjacent M4, moving day was always going to be proving day.

While this obviously applied to Woosnam and Tadini - the little-known 31-year-old who had stolen a two-shot lead with a 62 in the second round on Friday, and who showed commendable gumption to hang in there with a 72 that contained one double-bogey, four bogeys and three birdies - for Dougherty it was the perfect chance to emphasise that he isn't the show pony many still believe he is.

Having just turned 23, with more money in his bank balance than is altogether healthy for a handsome young man of his tender years, it would have been understandable for the Liverpudlian to peer up the leaderboard before his early tee-time yesterday morning, see the 10 shots that separated his name from the runaway pacesetter and turn his attentions to the doubtless pleasures to be had on a Saturday night out in Newport. Except that Dougherty cuts a more mature figure nowadays, not to mention an extremely robust one, and with a 65 that was capped by an eagle on the par-five 16th he not only gave himself the best round of the day but also an alluring and unlikely sniff of his second title of the season.

"It would be a great one to win from being one under after two rounds and so far behind," said Nick Faldo's protégé, who the six-times major champion has groomed since he was a teenager. "When the squalls come in, the wind really gets up. The 16th was downwind and playing quite short, and I hit a driver and six iron to the back of the green to set up an eagle.

"But on the 17th a squall came in and with the rain it played so long. There are not many par fours I can't reach in two but I had no chance there, even hitting two drivers. There was 100-yard difference between the drives on those holes - 330 yards on the 16th and 232 up the 17th."

It was another bleak mid-spring tale 200 miles up the coast at Royal Birkdale for the final of the Amateur Championship, where the gusts finally ended the run of a unique golfer who grips the club with his hands the wrong way around.

"My swing's so bad you have to be over 18 to watch me," said Scotland's John Gallagher, and the self-taught 24-year-old's score in yesterday morning's first 18 was similarly X-rated as his nine-over round of 79 all but handed the most austere title in amateur golf to the young Brian McElhinney.

In grinding out a 5 & 4 victory in the afternoon, the 22-year-old from County Donegal became the first Republic of Ireland winner since the late and great Joe Carr captured the trophy a third time in 1960. Some company that for the young Walker Cup hopeful to walk in, as indeed will it be at St Andrews in July for the Open Championship and at Augusta next April for the Masters, for which McElhinney now qualifies.

There may have been no prize money for yesterday's triumph, but in pure golfing terms prizes don't get any more priceless than this.