Practice pays off for Faldo

GOLF: An Englishman makes a stylish return in the PGA Championship. Guy Hodgson reports from Wentworth
Click to follow
Ask Nick Faldo why he is playing predominately in the United States this season and he will answer "for a change". After 20 years on this side of the Atlantic he needed new courses and fresh challenges like he desired more majors. And in his case that is quite a need.

One win and a string of high finishes on the other side of the Atlantic later and it is hard to find fault with his reasoning but yesterday he strengthened the case. When he should have been struggling to acclimatise to English conditions, he adjusted to the lower bounce and slower greens with the precision of a clockmaker tinkering with the workings of a timepiece.

His five-under-par 67 yesterday here in the opening round of the Volvo PGA Championship gave him joint second place in his first tournament of the year in Europe - giving credence to his theory that his game has improved in the US. "I can practise constantly," he said, which, as everyone knows, was something he hardly ever did when based in Britain.

Yesterday the practice reaped the dividend of four birdies and an eagle and his score would have been more remarkable had he not missed chances on the opening nine and sliced into the rough and then shot over the green en route to a bogey at the par-four 11th.

His best was reserved for the last when his three-iron arced over 220 yards to finish 12 feet from the flag. With infinite care he circled the putt before rolling it in dead centre for an eagle three and a 67 score that was surpassed only by Peter Senior's 66 in the evening.

"I'm trying to make it feel like I've never played here before," Faldo, who has won this event four times, said. "Instead of thinking I've been here for the last 20 years it helps me concentrate on what I'm doing."

One subject that was concentrating his mind yesterday was the Ryder Cup. This year the captain, Bernard Gallacher, will have two choices instead of the usual three to complete a team that otherwise will conform strictly to points earned on the European Tour. As Faldo hardly plays over here it will require a remarkable run of results for him to gain an automatic place and he will be dependent on Gallacher's preference.

"The only option is to stay friendly with Bernard," he said. "It might all come out right in the wash, but it would be a shame if a player who is playing well is left out because the captain does not have enough choices. Jesper Parnevik could quite easily win a tournament in the US and not make it to the team. Two choices is not enough, there should be three or four."

Right on cue Parnevik hit a four-under-par 68 to further endorse the merits of jet lag. Like Faldo, he did not fly into the country until Monday and although he found the first three holes a struggle he accumulated five birdies and an eagle that were reined back only by three bogeys.

The Swede sprang to prominence last season when only a dropped shot at the last hole cost him the chance of a play-off for the Open Championship with Nick Price but it is the attention of Gallacher he wants most. "If I show no interest my chances will decrease a lot," he said. "I spoke to Bernard Gallacher last week and he told me I'm not forgotten just because I'm in the United States. It will be tough for him to pick someone who has not made it over here."

One person who will definitely be in the team is Seve Ballesteros whose win in the Spanish Open on Sunday ensured he has enough points already. Not that he played like a man with a weight off his shoulders but rather as a player with too much on his plate.

"I'm tired physically and mentally," he said after a stodgy 72 that included four bogeys. He then ran through his itinerary that included a pro-am, a photo-call, a measuring for his Ryder Cup uniform and a meeting with the tour's executive director Ken Schofield. "There are too many things going on," he said. "I cannot just play golf."

Which is precisely what Senior could do yesterday, particularly on the back nine which included five birdies and some monstrous putts, particularly on the 17th which was rolled in from 40 feet.

VOLVO PGA CHAMPIONSHIP (Wentworth) Leading first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 66 P Senior (Aus); 67 B Langer (Ger), N Faldo; 68 F Nobilo (NZ), A Sherborne, J Parnevik (Swe); 69 P Mitchell, M Campbell (NZ), S Struver (Ger), J M Canizares (Sp), J M Olazabal (Sp), W Riley (Aus); 70 P Walton, M Davis, R Davis (Aus), J Van de Velde (Fr), P Curry, M Besanceney (Fr), A Oldcorn, G Orr, C Montgomerie, Zhang Lian-wei (Ch), P Bak

er; 71 M Roe, D Clarke, D Smyth, E Darcy, P Mayo, P-U Johansson (Swe); 72 S Grappasonni (It), I Garrido (Sp), A Cejka (Ger), R Karlsson (Swe), M Mouland, S Luna (Sp), V Singh (Fiji), C Rocca (It), R Boxall, V Fernandez (Arg), S Ballesteros (Sp), D Cooper, C O'Connor Jnr, P Simpson, P Hedblom (Swe), R Goosen (SA), M Plummer, P Price, R Chapman, S Hamill, J Townsend (US), R Alvarez (Arg), T Levet (Fr); 73 W Westner (SA), E Romero (Arg), D Feherty, J Haeggman (Swe), M McLean, M Lanner (Swe), M Gates, P Wesselingh, P Fowler (Aus), P Lawrie, P Fulke (Swe), M A Jimenez (Sp), P Moloney (Aus), P Eales, J Spence, G Brand Jnr, M James, P Linhart (Sp), L Westwood; 74 E O'Connell, S Torrance, J L Guepy (Fr), J Lomas, S Ames (Trin), B McColl, G Turner (NZ), K Stables, J Rivero (Sp), G J Brand, D Gilford, K Eriksson (Swe), D Carter, B Lane, M Clayton (Aus), M Mackenzie, R Claydon, S Lyle, P O'Malley (Aus), C Gillies, D Hospital (Sp), F Lindgren (Swe), S Tinning (Den).