Snooker: Hairy White cut short

At the 21st anniversary of the Benson and Hedges Masters, the first of the semi-finals flashed by like an express train. John Higgins of Scotland became the first wild card player in the tournament to reach the final, beating Jimmy White six frames to one. Blink and you would have missed it, although you probably would not have regretted that. It was one of White's most dismal performances in what has of late become a string of them.

The game promised more than it gave; fireworks versus solidity, raffish elder statesman versus squeaky clean youth. Higgins, fresh-faced, snub- nosed and 19 years old is the lad from near Motherwell who has made such progress up the rankings that he has almost stopped being mistaken for his namesake, the increasingly loose cannon Alex.

He had reached the semis with efficient wins over Darren Morgan and Alan McManus, while White, perhaps surprisingly, found himself there after beating James Wattana 5-3 in a rather humdrum encounter on Friday. This has been the first tournament since the start of the year that White has managed to string two wins together.

Nethertheless, White is a changed man, at least from the eyelids up. Most of his face still looks like a hotel room before the chambermaid has been in, but above the eyes a remarkable revolution has taken place. The bald patch which White-watchers have seen grow from the size of a sixpence in 1990 to the proportions of a beer mat in 1994 has gone. Thanks to an excruciating-sounding hairlifting operation, White now has the forehead of a 20-year-old and locks of which Joan Collins would be proud, although at the price of several jokes, such as that he could have avoided the hazards of a general anaesthetic and simply put himself under by watching re-runs of old Eddie Charlton games instead.

White's drastic beauty treatment is unlikely to start a trend. These days, many of snooker's biggest names are so young they barely look in need of a shave, let alone a hairlift, and Willie Thorne, the sport's most famous baldie, has been judged too far gone for treatment, their being nothing left to lift except his eyebrows.

More and more, White's personal battle between brilliance and inconsistency has been ending with the latter quality dominant. In yesterday's semi- final, he barely got the chance to show either. Higgins' display was stolid rather than inspiring, but in each of the first three frames he got his foot in the door early, and pushed it open with leads of 38, 48, and 69 which in all cases were enough to crush his opponent against the wall.

White sent out for a half of lager, and when he made a 44 break in the fourth frame to lead 63-17 with 41 on the table it looked as though belatedly he might have got into his stride. White went on to take the frame but then the mid-session break intervened, and after that Higgins' inexorable progress re-started and he quickly led 5-1. At four down with five frames left to play, White never looked a decent bet to get out of trouble and his rumpled face said it all, from the eyebrows down, of course.

Afterwards, Higgins was unassuming about winning his crack at the £120,000 first prize. "Jimmy played terrible and I just about played okay," he said, going on to reflect on the new breed of players that he believes are coming through - "some of the top players right now are struggling and I'm getting stronger." White, meanwhile, was philosophical. "I just didn't play a good safety in the first three frames," he said, "and that put me under a lot of pressure. I didn't compete and that's disappointing. John's got a very solid all-round game and he's very difficult to beat." White can say that again, and indeed will probably find himself doing so in the coming months.