Woosnam buoyed by imported support

THE US MASTERS: Former champion in contention with a three-under- par 69 while Nicklaus receives the gallery's loudest roar
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When Ian Woosnam won the Masters in 1991 he had to put up with some ill-natured barracking from a few rednecks in the crowd who were impatiently waiting for an all-American winner. This time the Welshman has imported his own fan club and he was buoyed by the support during the first round here yesterday.

Woosnam - they invariably called him "Woosman'' over here and it had nothing to do with dyslexia - shot 72 in the first round four years ago and yesterday he made a much better start with a 69, three under par. "Were you aware of the support you had out there?" Woosnam was asked. "Of course," he replied."I brought them with me."

The cheerleaders were led by Max Boyce, who caddied for him in the par- three competition on Wednesday, and his regular playing and drinking partner, Ian Botham. Woosnam did not let the support down although Botham and Boyce might have found more riveting entertainment had they followed Jack Nicklaus or Jose-Maria Olazabal, or even David Gilford. Nicklaus, who has been playing here since 1959, shot 67 as did Gilford, who is playing here for the first time. No whispering cow farmer from Crewe - he has a herd of 20 Herefords - has ever appeared on a Masters leaderboard before. Nicklaus, of course, is rarely off it.

Gilford has learned a lot this week from Woosnam on how to play Augusta National. He partnered him in a practice round. "Ian's a very aggressive player who tends to go for the flag," Gilford said. Gilford is the antithesis of Woosnam - you could not find a less aggressive player. Asked if he could win the tournament, he replied: "I can go very close." Had he been speaking in Cheltenham, not even GCHQ would have picked it up.

America is not ready for Gilford. It is one thing for Woosnam or Nick Faldo to win the Masters but quite another for Gilford to whisper a victory speech as he received the Green Jacket. He has already been asked to raise his voice when answering questions and that was when he was speaking into a microphone. Anyway, Gilford let his golf do the talking yesterday - and most eloquent it was.

Nicklaus had only 28 putts in his round although he could hardly believe it. "The greens were so darn tough," he said. The consensus was that Augusta National, diluted by rain, was at its most accommodating. "I don't think it will ever be easy but it was as easy as it could be," Gilford said.

There is a healthy mix of Americans and Europeans on the leaderboard and perhaps the most surprising appearance is that of the defending champion. Olazabal missed the half-way cut in New Orleans last week and has been walking with a limp. He is still feeling the effects of an operation on his right big toe but says he does not feel any discomfort when hitting shots. "It was a great chipping and putting round," Olazabal said. "My foot doesn't hurt when I'm playing well." At the 15th he might have experienced a touch of dj vu for he eagled the hole to get to six under par, just as he had done in the final round 12 months ago.

Woosnam negotiated Amen Corner, the 11th, 12th and 13th, successfully. He rolled in a 12ft putt for a birdie-three at the 11th and was relieved to walk off the short 12th, the Golden Bell, with a par. "I was shaking a bit on the tee," Woosnam admitted.

Woosnam got to four under with another birdie at the 13th but the last of the par fives, the 15th, exacted a degree of revenge. With his approach shot he was not sure whether to attack the green with a two-iron or a three-wood. He finally plumped for the former, and it was not enough. His ball failed to carry the lake in front of the green and, with a penalty shot, the result was a bogey-six. "I made a big mistake there," he said," and I paid the price.''

He could afford to be philosophical about it. He holed long putts at the 17th and 18th to save par and the 15-footer he made at the last was a particularly satisfying way to end the round after he had sliced his drive into the pine trees. "I'll have to get a great big saw and cut those down," he said. The Augusta National official sitting next to him did not find the remark amusing.

Woosnam was heartened when he awoke to find lead-grey skies and a persistent drizzle that took the sting out of the notoriously fast greens. "The greens were softer and the course was very playable," Woosnam said. "I'm drawing the ball well, which helps my confidence. I'm close to the way I played here in 1991." He was playing with Guy Yamamoto, who shot 84, and had it been match play between the two, the Welshman would have won 9 and 8.

Woosnam is in the thick of it and there were other familiar names on the leaderboard. The loudest roar that echoed beneath the pines and the umbrellas was reserved, once again, for Nicklaus. The Golden Bear, a mastermind on this course with six Green Jackets in his wardrobe, began with four pars and then had an eagle-two at the 435-yard fifth.

He also had the temerity to get a birdie-two at the Golden Bell and that provoked another resounding roar from the crowd.

It is not true that people do not remember who finishes second, at least not in the Masters. Chip Beck and Scott Hoch remember it very well. Beck was runner-up here to Bernhard Langer in 1993 and Hoch went even closer in 1989, when he was defeated by Nick Faldo in a play-off.

Beck was criticised for laying up at the 15th in the denouement against Langer and yesterday he birdied the hole to get to six under par. However, bogeys at the 16th and 18th dropped him back to four under. Although Hoch recognised that the rain had softened up the course, he maintained that officials tried to redress the balance by placing the flags in extremely awkward positions. "Some of them were impossible to get to," Hoch said. "The pins were hellacious.''

Hellacious or not, they did not appear to hold any fears for David Frost, whose 66 did not contain a single bogey, or for Phil Mickelson or for Olazabal or for Nicklaus.