Ames rides the storm to take top prize
A POTENTIALLY gripping climax descended into the bizarre yesterday when Stephen Ames from Trinidad and Tobago captured the top prize of £116,660 here in the Benson and Hedges International.
Officials devised all sorts of stratagems in a desperate attempt at defying virtually-unplayable conditions of gale-force winds, but none of the top challengers responded.
It was a particularly grim exercise for Colin Montgomerie who seemed destined for his second European win of the season when a course record-equalling third round of 67 gave him an overnight lead of three strokes.
Not only did the big Scot slump to an 82, it was later increased by two strokes to 84 as a penalty for kicking the sand in a bunker at the 13th while his ball lay in the trap.
Playing partner Ian Woosnam also came to grief with an 82 that contained an outward half of 42 and a double-bogey seven at the long 11th. So, there was particular merit in a best-of-the-day level par 72 by Ames, even though he, too, carded a seven at the wickedly-conceived 17th.
Keeping a six off your card would have been a pointless challenge, given the horrific nature of the overall scoring. Yet, in this context, Ireland's only survivor, Ronan Rafferty, was successful, despite carding an 88 - arguably the worst score of his professional career. There was an eight, a seven and lots of fives on Rafferty's card, but no six.
Rafferty, who collected £2,240 for 58th place, didn't have the courtesy to make any meaningful contribution when approached by myself and the tournament press officer.
"It was windy," he observed, with an enigmatic smile. When questioned further, he offered the same reply. Given his status as a member of the tournament committee of the European Tour, Rafferty would have learned much from the behaviour of colleague Jean Van de Velde of France, who was quite satisfied to be interviewed after shooting a worst-of-the-day 89.
The entire exercise was ill-fated, given that officials set pin-placements in anticipation of the wind remaining from a north-easterly direction, as it had been over the previous three days. Instead, it turned around 180 degrees to sweep the course from the south-west. Then, amid mounting fears that play would have to be abandoned, the sprinklers were turned on at certain holes so as to make the greens less treacherous.
Despite all of that, Seve Ballesteros claimed that with the wind gusting to 40 mph, the conditions were unplayable. Nick Faldo didn't go quite that far, though he conceded that it became largely a question of hit and hope." Five strokes behind the leader, Colin Montgomerie, overnight, Faldo shot an 80 that included every number from three to seven.
"There was an upside to it in that I hit two drives of 390 yards," he said afterwards with a smile. He went on: "It certainly wasn't golfing weather but it was just about playable, even if the ball was wobbling on the greens. From my standpoint, the frustrating thing was that I could never feel in control of what I was doing."
Montgomerie's round started ominously when a poorly-struck, short-iron second shot came up short of the first green from where he went on to make a bogey five. Then, a wayward tee-shot, pushed right of the green at the short second, struck a woman spectator on the head. The fact that the ball fortuitously bounced back onto the green, from where Montgomerie sank an eight-foot putt for a most improbable birdie, didn't seem to help the Scottish cause.
When informed afterwards of Faldo's views, Montgomerie snapped: "I'm not interested in what Faldo thinks. It's not playable." Faldo admitted that his breaking point came at the eighth and ninth where a visit to the water led to a total of five dropped strokes. Montgomerie's problems came at the same holes, which cost him three strokes.
Against that background, it is highly significant that Ames had pars there, as did England's Peter Baker who, with nine straight pars, was, in fact, the only player not to drop a stroke on the outward journey. As it happened, the destination of the title became a three-way battle between decidedly lesser-lights of the tour - Ames, Jon Rob son and Derrick Cooper.
With Rob son and Cooper playing ahead of Ames, he knew what he had to do for victory. If Robson parred the 18th, Ames could afford to drop only one stroke over the last two holes. As it happened, his options were seriously reduced when he hit a one-iron second shot into the water at the long 17th to run up a double-bogey seven.
Now, he had to hope that Robson wouldn't make par from a fairway trap at the 18th. He didn't, so Ames could now win with a closing par. On the long 18th green in two, he faced the difficult challenge of getting down in two putts from 80 feet. The challenge became even more formidable when his first effort came up 15 feet short of the target. Against the odds, however, it went in.
"The putter was the strongest club in my bag," said the 32-year-old who had previously won the Open V33 in 1994.
"It's funny that my first win was also in the wind. To be honest, it hasn't really sunk in yet. I feel overwhelmed by what I've done." He went on: "It became a mental challenge. Every hole would look back at Monty. I knew he was making mistakes and my objective was to keep the pressure on him."
Ames holds the distinction of being the first touring professional to emerge from Trinidad and Tobago. His grandmother, of Portuguese-Irish extraction, was the islands' champion 20 times before moving to Devon. Ames went on a golfing scholarship to Florida before turning professional in 1987.
As if to emphasise the nature of golf as a funny old game, however, he missed five cuts in 12 previous tournaments this season and shared 21st place behind Harrington in the Spanish Open the previous week.