Sore throat fails to stop Poulter getting back in the swing

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The Independent Online

Fittingly for the Wales Open, red is most definitely the colour for Ian Poulter this week after a 65 gave the 27-year-old from Leighton Buzzard a share of the first-round lead with Nick O'Hern.

First, Poulter pulled into the car park in his dashing red Ferrari. Then he got out to show off the red streaks he has dyed into his hair in honour of his beloved Arsenal. Next came an opening round fairly littered with the red squares that indicate birdies. And to cap it all off he then revealed he had done so with a throat so red raw he had been on the brink of pulling out.

Indeed, the only things redder must have been the faces of the hoards of leading European professionals who had chosen not to appear at an event being played in a glorious setting, under glorious sunshine and that has a piffling prize fund of some £1.5m. One of these absentees is the reigning champion, Paul Lawrie, who pulled out earlier in the week with a "sore neck". Yesterday, Poulter could only dream of such an encumbrance.

"I haven't been too well since I got here, and it's developed into tonsillitis," Poulter said. "It has felt like somebody has put two cricket balls down my throat. I'm dosed up on antibiotics." Whoever makes these pills should repackage them and sell them as game-improvers in golf shops everywhere, especially as Poulter has had some previous success when "dosed up".

"I won in Morocco when I had tonsillitis as well. But I think I want to get them removed now because I've had enough of this." Maybe he should not whip them out too hastily, or at least have them made into a lucky charm, as yesterday represented a huge upturn in form from a slump that has seen him miss five halfway cuts in his last six events.

"This was a massive surprise as I had no expectations at all," he said. "I have been to see David Leadbetter and he changed a few things. I knew it was going to take a little time so hopefully this is the time. Maybe it was a blessing that I was feeling lousy and just went out there and swung it at 80 per cent."

Goodness knows what he would have scored at full pelt as he stormed through the first 11 holes in six-under par. A solitary bogey on the par-three 14th slowed his momentum monetarily until a 20-foot putt for a birdie three on the 15th put him back on track. Another birdie at the par-five 18th gave him a 65 that only O'Hern was able to match.

The Australian left-hander has been knocking on the door for his maiden tour title for a few years now and a blemish-free round with seven birdies yesterday prised it open a little further for the 31-year-old. One shot behind was England's Jonathan Lomas and then, on five under, a group of seven who included Australia's Peter Fowler, Sweden's Jarmo Sandelin and Scotland's Alastair Forsyth. None of that lot would have lost the leading two much sleep and there were not too many big names bubbling under for them to keep their eyes on either (the local hero, Phillip Price, and Andrew Coltart probably the most dangerously placed on four under).

But then, apart from Colin Montgomerie, who struggled to a 73 yesterday, there are not many big names here. Two starlets the organisers would dearly have loved to have lured would have been Justin Rose and Paul Casey, who have taken this week off to prepare for their first US Open in a fortnight's time. They also happen to be Poulter's best friends and the three-time Tour winner is using their ascent into the world's top 50 as the impetus to rediscover the touch that took him to within one place of making last year's Ryder Cup.

"It's been very frustrating with the other guys playing well and knowing that when I'm at the top of my game I can beat them," Poulter said. Someone who can appreciate that sentiment is Montgomerie, who ventured out for his first competitive round with his new caddie, Steve Rawlinson. It was all smiles early on as Montgomerie clearly enjoyed the company of an employee who looks like he should be in the England front row but who possesses so many one-liners he could have them laughing all the way to the back row. Alas, three bogeys, as well as a raft of missed putts, means it will be a day of few giggles for the fairway-splitter and the side-splitter if they fail to make the cut today.

WALES OPEN (Celtic Manor) Leading early first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 65 I Poulter. 67 P Fowler (Aus), A Forsyth, J Sandelin (Swe), P Archer, R Green (Aus), R Gonzalez (Arg). 68 S Khan, A Coltart, J Donaldson, J-F Remesy (Fr), S Luna (Sp), Klas Eriksson (Swe), C Rodiles (Sp), P Lawrie, A Wall, D Drysdale, D Fichardt (SA), G Havret (Fr), P Price.