High noon comes to Valderrama

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The Independent Online

If they were to make a paella western at Valderrama, they could call it Unforgiven II. Only four players out of the cream of Europe are under par after the first round of the Volvo Masters, and most of the others have already shot themselves in the foot.

Not so Colin Montgomerie, who matched par with a 71, and in the three- horse race for the Order of Merit is two strokes in front of Sam Torrance and three in front of Bernhard Langer. "This is a 28-mile walk," Big Monty said, "and we've only gone seven. A lot can happen in 21 miles around here... a hell of a lot."

A lot has already happened, most of it at the 17th - a par five which in the space of one round has embedded itself in the minds of the players as some sort of hell-hole, golf's equivalent to Tombstone. Two former winners here, Ronan Rafferty and Mike Harwood, suffered the ultimate penalty at the penultimate hole.

Rafferty had a nine at the 17th in a round of 84; Harwood a 10 in an 82. Last night, their balls - loads of them - were sleeping with the fishes. Rafferty chipped into the lake, a watery grave in front of the green, three times. Then he took a triple bogey seven at the last, but on his scorecard signed for a six.

Rafferty enjoyed a leisurely lunch before learning of his inevitable disqualification. Others may fall by the wayside before Sunday. Rafferty, however, did not get the hell out of here. He qualified for this end of season bonanza by finishing in the top 50 in the Order of Merit and he will earn pounds 3,500 here, even if he has been disqualified.

Thus this morning Rafferty will be first out with Harwood and will partner the Australian as a marker. Harwood achieved his 10 by also losing three balls in the water at the 17th. When the man from Reuters asked him about this unfortunate experience, Harwood said: "Piss off. You haven't talked to me all year and you're only interested when I shoot 82."

Montgomerie has an impressive record at Valderrama and yesterday he had two bogeys on the front nine and two birdies on the back. He missed from three feet at the par three third and three-putted the par-three sixth. "Four 71s around here would be very nice," Monty said. "Forget the Order of Merit, I've come here to win the Volvo Masters. I'm playing well enough. I love this course."

This is why Big Monty, whom any normal golfer would regard as a masochist, has an excellent chance of winning the Order of Merit for the third year running. However, even he views the 17th with the utmost suspicion. "You have 17 unique holes and then you have the 17th," he said. "If the other 17 were like the 17th, this course wouldn't be ranked No 1 in Europe."

Seve Ballesteros, who is on a sabbatical, is responsible for the redesign of the 17th. Jaime Ortiz-Patino, the owner of Valderrama - the Americans won't know what has hit them when they come here for the 1997 Ryder Cup - sat down with Ballesteros at the conclusion of last year's Volvo Masters. "The idea," Patino said, "was to make the hole a subtle par five. Why automatically reach for the driver? Why not a three wood and then go for the green with a three or four iron? Seve told me he didn't want professionals reducing the hole to a drive and an eight iron, and he did not want a bail-out area to the right of the water. I've followed his plans to the letter. Sometimes I think that all the players want to do is drive the ball to Timbuktu."

For every horror story at the 17th, there were also happy returns. Fifteen players, Torrance included, birdied the hole. Wayne Riley, Monty's partner yesterday, might also have had a four there, but for the fact that his approach shot finished two inches from the water. Riley, who was having a decent round, took his shoes and socks off, rolled up his trousers and, giving an impression of belonging to some mysterious Australian brotherhood, waded into the water.

All he needed was a knotted handkerchief on his head. Riley is in the water and his ball, to his right, is on terra firma. He took a practice swing and then knocked the ball into the lake.

Riley thought he had escaped with a double bogey seven, but as Mark James, commentating on Eurosport, observed, the Australian had grounded his club in a hazard. Tut tut. Not allowed, two stroke penalty, a nine instead of a seven; wet feet, red face.

As for James, he had earlier gone round in 74, which included a bogey five at the 10th. When he played a poor chip, he hurled his club away like a spear. Such behaviour can result in a fine. James, chairman of the Tour's tournament committee, was not punished, although his "offence" was far more serious than the innocent mistake made by Riley.