Monty gives rivals big start

Peter Corrigan looks far afield as golf's European Tour swings into action
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SINGAPORE, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Africa, Arabia ... it reads like the itinerary of a lottery winner trying to give his relatives the slip but these are nothing more exotic than the first stops on that annual grind of weekly golf tournaments known as the European Tour which long ago burst through the borders of its continent of origin.

Whatever we may think of their expansionist policy, no one can argue that the Tour organisers have adhered doggedly to what they see as their bounden duty - to ensure that the rising cream of European golf have as many opportunities as possible to pitch their talent against the challenge of making their fortune. The Tour's success in that aim can be traced by the remorseless rise in annual prize-money. Since 1960 when the amount on offer was pounds 53,000, the booty has increased to an anticipated pounds 30m this year.

For many of the young bucks setting off today for the first joust at Tanah Merah, Singapore, the Tour can often be a frustrating odyssey. But the thought that the crock of gold that has disappeared one week will alight behind the 72nd hole in some distant land the following week keeps them going with a persistence not evident in all sports.

Despite the growth in this sun-following season that once was harnessed firmly to the vagaries of the European weather, the Tour has had its problems of late; not the least of which was the defection of Nick Faldo to the American Tour two years ago. He left behind the implied criticism that the courses which house the Tour are not of a pleasing consistency. They have managed to overcome both his complaint and his absence which has not yet led, as was feared, to a mass exodus.

Ironically, it has been Faldo's friend Colin Montgomerie who has maintained the Tour's high profile. He has headed the money list with a considerable flourish for three successive years and his tussle last year with his fellow Scot Sam Torrance kept the interest going until the last day of the final tournament, the Volvo Masters, at Valderrama.

Montgomerie, as befits the hot favourite for a fourth successive title, will give the others a sporting start. His wife is expecting a baby within the next week or two so he will miss Singapore, Perth, Sun City and Johannesburg and will probably wait until the Dubai Desert Classic in March before making his grand entrance. Seve Ballesteros is another waiting for the Tour to get aired before he ventures forth while Jose Maria Olazabal is still sidelined by injury for another week or so.

Torrance, meanwhile, is already warming up out East and will be on the launching pad this week, and despite the aforementioned absentees there is a formidable list of runners; not the least of which are Fred Couples and Greg Norman. Couples had the distinction last year of leading the European money list for a few months after he scooped the opening two tournaments, the Desert Classic and the Johnnie Walker Classic. It is a feat not likely to be repeated, unless by Couples himself. He also took the World Championship in Jamaica in December and those three titles alone were almost enough to put him into 15th place in the world money list with earnings of $1.5m.

Norman managed to reach fourth place in the same list - won by Corey Pavin - with just over $2m and he, like Couples, will be keen for a strike at the early money. Among the more dangerous of their opponents will be the South African Ernie Els who finished seventh in the world while managing to maintain the impression of falling short of his potential.

There is also the presence of the Open Champion John Daly to contend with. Since his famous victory at St Andrews last July, Daly has not enjoyed a steady level of consistency. Indeed, he could well be roaming the world in search of new places to go out of bounds but it would be a mistake ever to rule him out.

Leading the European resistance to foreign intervention is the ruthlessly consistent Bernhard Langer while Ian Woosnam, despite a few torrid misadvantures in the humidity of the Far East in recent years, is determined to turn up and give account of himself. And perhaps this will be the moment when the young German Alexander Cejka will begin to fashion the bright future forecast for him.

Among the bright rookies we are sending over the top this week are Walker Cup heroes Padraig Harrington of Ireland and England's David Howell. Welshman Richard Dinsdale, whose professional credentials include the winning of the Rhondda Masters for which he received pounds 800, is one of those beginners facing the reality that they will need to earn at least pounds 5,000 to break even with expenses over the next month or so. But in the game's curious democracy Dinsdale's pounds 800 and Norman's $2m will count for nothing in Singapore on Thursday. It is golf's new year, you all start from scratch and the cheque that matters is your next one.