Mount Juliet ready for elite


GOLF: With 49 of the top 50 players in the official world ranking participating in this week's American Express World Championship at Mount Juliet - starting on Thursday - the field is the highest quality ever to compete in Ireland. And Craig Parry, winner of the NEC Championship in Seattle last month, claims the greens at Mount Juliet are "the best I have putted on in Europe".

The field was finalised after last Sunday's German Masters in Cologne and events there led to a number of changes in the final line-up, which numbers 65 players. France's Thomas Levet, who was in the top 20 of the European Tour money list on arrival there, missed the cut and paid a price as he was leap-frogged by winner Stephen Leaney and Gary Evans, who each earned places in Kilkenny at Levet's expense.

All four of this year's major winners - Tiger Woods (US Masters and US Open), Ernie Els (British Open) and Rich Beem (US PGA) - are competing, as are the two players who have won the two previous world championship events held this season: Kevin Sutherland, who won the world matchplay, and Parry, winner of the NEC. Padraig Harrington, who remains number eight in the latest world rankings, and Darren Clarke are the Irish representatives.

Ten members of the US Ryder Cup team and seven members of the European are competing. Those missing are Stewart Cink and Hal Sutton of the US, and Jesper Parnevik, Paul McGinley, Pierre Fulke, Phillip Price and Lee Westwood of the European team.

Making his competitive reappearance since making his breakthrough win on American soil in the NEC, Parry was impressed with the course when he played a practice round there yesterday.

"It's fantastic, really. It is in great shape and so different from when I played here in the Irish Open in 1993. From what I remember, it was very wet then. It is really good now. The greens are perfect, as are the bunkers, the fairways. Everything really. It reminds me quite a lot of Muirfield Village, another Jack Nicklaus course. The greens are fantastic and the ball is rolling really pure. They're the best I've putted on in Europe."

With the week's weather forecast as good as it can be for an Irish autumn, Parry doesn't believe that will lead to players going on a birdie fest. "The greens will dictate everything and I don't see it getting too low. If you tuck the flags in behind bunkers or close to water then you're going to have to be putting from 30, 40 feet away."

Meanwhile, far removed from the huge prize fund on offer at Mount Juliet, aspiring professionals will be seeking to take the first step towards a European Tour card for next year when they compete in the first stage of qualifying school at courses in England and France, starting today. There are 20 Irish players in action.

Gary Cullen, Padraig Dooley, Michael Hoey, Colm Moriarty, Graham Spring and Leslie Walker are competing at Carden Park; Eoin Feely, Gavin McNeill, Tim Rice and Barry Templeton are at Chart Hills; Chris Devlin, Paddy Gribben, John Kelly, Finbarr Madden and Danny Sugrue are competing at Five Lakes; Conor Young is playing at Moliets, and Stephen Browne, Conor Mallon, Andy McCormick and Ciarán McMonagle are competing at Wynyard Club.

IRISH POSITIONS ON EUROPEAN TOUR ORDER OF MERIT: 3, P Harrington €1,366,849; 23, D Clarke €719,964; 47, G McDowell €390,801; 49, P McGinley €370,133; 134, D Smyth €117,305; 162, E Darcy €67,064; 179, M Hoey €41,043; 182, P Walton €38,240; 183, G Murphy €35,925; 195, R Rafferty €27,970.

IRISH POSITIONS ON EUROPEAN CHALLENGE TOUR: 12, P Lawrie €46,582; 22, D McGrane €34,957; 29, G Murphy €28,461; 60, P Walton €15,862.

IRISH POSITIONS ON EUROPEAN SENIORS TOUR: 3, C O'Connor Jnr €146,844; 17, D O'Sullivan €77,366; 41, E Polland €39,860; 42, J McDermott €37,895; 45, D Jones €36,586; 51, E Darcy €31,540; 60, L Higgins €20,111.