Irish seek reply to Spanish inquisition

 

With quips about a good Chinese takeaway, observations on the golfing skills of Prince Andrew and the erstwhile nocturnal habits of a noted American hell-raiser, there was no doubting the international nature of the occasion. And in the serious stuff, Ireland begin their challenge for a third Alfred Dunhill Cup against Spain here on the Old Course today.

The appeal of the event is as fresh now as when it was launched 13 years ago. For that, it owes much to the hot favourites from the US who, with the marvellous line-up of world number one Tiger Woods, reigning British Open and US Masters champion Mark O'Meara and the 1995 British Open winner at St Andrews, John Daly, face England in their opening match.

Ireland, meanwhile, had to live with the reduced status of non-seeds, due to the rather curious conditions of play. Spain and Scotland are the leading two teams in Group 2 in which Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Padraig Harrington are the third-choice team, ahead of China who are competing for the first time.

In the event, Spain nominated Santiago Luna to meet Clarke in the top match and the Irish then decided that McGinley would face Miguel-Angel Jimenez at number two. Which left Harrington with the unenviable task of playing Jose-Maria Olazabal in the anchor position.

But the Dubliner can take encouragement on two fronts. In three meetings between the countries in this event, Ireland have won two and in the first of them, Olazabal was beaten 71-73 by Des Smyth in the opening round in 1986.

"With myself and Padraig winning the World Cup last year and Darren playing as well as anybody in the world at the moment, we're potential winners," said the Irish skipper, McGinley. Clarke added: "It would be fantastic to complete the double of the World Cup and Dunhill Cup."

The Irish have reason to be less than pleased, however, at their presence in the same group as Scotland. Though the players scoffed at it as no more than a statistic, the fact remains that the Scots have won all five meetings between the countries here at St Andrews.

Still, McGinley insisted: "That's a negative angle to be coming from and we're not going to dwell on it. In fact we're looking forward to playing Scotland if only for the fact that the law of averages is on our side. We're due a win against them."

Though Clarke is currently 26th in the world, Ireland were denied a position among the seeds through a change in the rules last year. Instead of the combined world ranking positions of all three players being used to determine the relative merit of participating teams, it was decided to count only the top two players. In simple terms, it became a handy way of protecting the leading players who, presumably, are on appearance money.

But competitors are sensible enough to know that Dunhill Cup success never comes softly, as Ireland's first winners of the trophy discovered when beating Canada, the US, England and Australia in 1988. Either way, they are currently playing well. In yesterday pro-am, Clarke shot 68 and McGinley had a 69 while Harrington's 74 had to be seen in the context of a solid performance in Belgium last weekend.

In the event, Ireland play the Scots tomorrow and China on Saturday. This is mainland China as opposed to the previous Taiwanese representation which carried the cumbersome banner of "Chinese Team Taipei." Their very presence reflects the remarkable growth of the game internationally.

Little is known about them other than the fact that their leading player, Zhang Lian-wei, is a useful 30-year-old who is currently 24th on the Omega Tour with $36,561 from 19 events. We are informed that his hobby/special interest is singing, which would make him an ideal partner for Daly who is becoming quite an accomplished guitarist.

US skipper, Mark O'Meara, opted to put Daly in at number one against Lee Westwood in today's clash with non-seeded England; Tiger Woods plays Murphy's Irish Open champion David Carter while O'Meara fills the anchor position against Peter Baker. The elevation of Daly can be viewed either as a sacrifice or as a spur to rekindle the irrepressible sparkle he found here three years ago.

One thing is certain: his last six appearances on the USPGA Tour make grim reading. From the Quad City Classic in July until his last outing in the Greater Vancouver Open on August 30th, Daly's record reads - cut, cut, disqualified, cut, withdrawn, cut.

Typically, however, he wasn't prepared to concede the limelight to his esteemed colleagues. Example 1: O'Meara - "I love watching European events on the Golf Channel back home." Woods - "That's because Mark gets up at 4.0 a.m." Daly: "I remember when 4.0 was when I used to hit the sack." Example 2: O'Meara (on playing with Prince Andrew) - "I called him Andrew. Was that wrong?" Daly - "When I met George Bush (as US president) for the first time I said `Hey George, howya doin' "'.

But others have become decidedly guarded in their comments. Like Colin Montgomerie, who retains painfully embarrassing memories of this event in 1993 when he declared: "If we can't beat Paraguay, we might as well go home."

Which Scotland did, after a 2-1 defeat in which Montgomerie lost to that legendary figure, Raul Fretes. And he was also in the team beaten by the might of India in 1996.

"I don't want any headlines this time around," said the world number six, while contemplating today's meeting with the Chinese. And by way of proving that his brain had most definitely engaged first gear, he added with a knowing grin: "It's always dangerous to come up against teams you're expected to beat." Indeed.

Then, having claimed some knowledge of Zhang, his opponent today, Montgomerie was asked if there was anything particularly Chinese about his technique (by this stage his inquisitors had clearly relinquished University Challenge aspirations). "His good takeaway," interjected a voice in the crowd, no doubt cleverly anticipating the Scot's reply.

All of which would explain Westwood's observation - "I enjoy this week more than most in the year."

BETTING: 9/4 United States, 9/2 South Africa, 8/1 Australia, 9/1 Ireland and Sweden, 10/ 1 Scotland, 12/1 Argentina, 14/1 Spain, Zimbabwe, 16/1 Germany, New Zealand, 20/1 England, 66/1 France, 100/1 Japan, 300/1 South Korea, 500/1 China.