McNulty's birthday celebration

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The Independent Online
With the Ryder Cup being staged at Valderrama next September, the Volvo Masters will have to find a new home and the odds are not on the event immediately returning here. This might well be a relief to some of Europe's professionals, who have struggled for nine years to get to grips with the place.

Even when they do, the goalposts are moved. The par-5 17th did not have any water until Seve Ballesteros was brought in to redesign the hole. Now a pond fronts the green, but when Miguel Jimenez had an albatross there two years ago, there were more changes. A strip of rough crosses the fairway, which also features rolling mounds. The bank in front of the green was also shaved right down, in Augusta style.

Colin Montgomerie predicted earlier in the week that a pin positioned on the front right of the green would cause problems. That is where it was yesterday. "We don't need pins like 17," Monty said. "This course is hard enough. If you are long you are in danger of chipping into the water, and if you are short, you will spin back in." Groups backed up on the tee while bogey sixes and worse were compiled. Montgomerie himself got away with a par, though he single-putted at the last seven holes.

Bernhard Langer made a direct assault on the pond and came off with a seven. A bogey at the last put him eight behind leader Mark McNulty and his run of winning every year on tour since 1980 looks like going the way of the German's record run of consecutive cuts made, which ended earlier in the season. Frank Nobilo was making steady progress until he sent his second shot on to the bank behind the green at the 17th.

The Kiwi faced an almost impossible shot and was unable to stop his recovery on the green. The ball trickled down the bank to the right of the pond, then made a 90-degree turn and still ended up getting wet. Nobilo took a six which leaves him in a crowd at one under, four behind McNulty. It also includes Lee Westwood, who can overtake Robert Allenby in third place in the money list with a victory, and Jose Coceres, who made par at all 18 holes.

As overnight leader Paul Curry collapsed off the leaderboard - visits to the water at 17 summing up his and playing partner Stephen Ames's day - the Zimbabwean McNulty, 43 on Friday, moved as smoothly and efficiently as ever into pole position. His 67 contained four birdies and no bogeys and, unlikely to face a low-scoring charge today, he should collect his third title of the season.

"I'm never one to count my chickens before they are running, but it was a great round of golf," said McNulty, who celebrated the previous night with three bottles of 1985 Rioja. "We all know this is a course that treats players with no respect. It was playing a couple of shots more difficult with the wind, but I knuckled down and putted well.''

For someone who is fed up with talking about the Ryder Cup, Ballesteros, Europe's new captain, is talking an awful lot about it. "It is becoming a nightmare," he said on BBC Radio 5 Live. Ballesteros has been laid low by flu and was off early in the morning when a 76 took him to 13 over par.

"I did not use the right word," Ballesteros said. "I meant I am dreaming about the Ryder Cup because there is too much talk. It is still a year away. I do not have a team yet. People are asking me whether the road outside the club is going to be finished and how many people will be coming. I say, hopefully there will be 24 players."