Terribly sad sign-off for Ballesteros

 

GOLF: Of all the holes on a course in pristine condition, the 18th was far from the hardest in yesterday's first round of the Murphy's Irish Open at Fota Island.

It was, in fact, the 14th easiest; but it inflicted the most mortal blow of all. While five players moved into a logjam to share the lead on five-under, Seve Ballesteros, a golfing legend, dunked his ball four times into the water that surrounds the green - and was to pay a penalty even heavier than that repeatedly mortifying act.

In the circumstances, and with everyone's heart reaching out to the Spaniard, it was hardly surprising that Ballesteros should lose count of what was going on. Ultimately, and all that will be remembered, is that he signed for an incorrect score - pencilling in a 10 that should have been 12, and consequently a round of 87 that should have been 89 - and he was subsequently disqualified.

It was only after Ballesteros had left the course that he realised his mistake. Upset and apologetic, he contacted the European Tour's John Paramour, the chief referee to the tournament, and informed him of his mistake. "I just wish my tournament had not ended like this," Ballesteros told him. There was nothing else to say, for it was a sad moment that left no room for words.

Ballesteros had attempted to go for the green in two, and put his approach into the water on the left of the green, the one place that must be avoided. After taking a penalty drop, and attempting to recreate his magic of old, he tried to finesse the ball across the pond to the green. Again. And again. And again. On the fourth try, he found the putting surface and two putted and walked away to sympathetic applause and, very possibly, the end of his career. He hadn't played in seven weeks, and only teed-up here because of his affection and affinity for the Irish Open.

While the Spanish maestro exited the tournament in a way that he would not have wished, and doesn't even get to play today, others made the most of a course in rather benign mood. No fewer than 57 players beat the par of 71 with the course surrendering 18 eagles and 476 birdies, and a dry if windy day finished with a cosmopolitan quintet of players representing four different continents - Fred Funk, Nick Dougherty, Peter O'Malley, Joakim Haeggman and Eduardo Romero - sharing the lead after shooting five-under-par 66s.

For the Irish, it was a mixed day. Old timers Des Smyth, with a 67 - just one off the pace - and Eamonn Darcy, with a 69 that included a lost ball, were just two of four home players - along with David Higgins (69) and Graeme McDowell (70) - to break par.

Padraig Harrington birdied the last to sign for a level-par 71, while Darren Clarke suffered a nightmare on the greens, taking 33 putts, on the way to the same score.

"Well, 71 is better than 72," was the philosophical remark of a disappointed Harrington, while Clarke, who will receive an honorary degree from Coleraine University next Monday, was not in any mood to reflect on a round that comprised exquisite driving and good iron play with some woeful putting. "It was not what I was looking for," said Clarke, who headed directly to the putting green after his round.

On a day of some exceptional golf, the five players at the head of the field arrived there by vastly different routes. Romero, for instance, had the distinction of shooting three eagles in his round - holing putts from 15 feet, 18 feet and 20 feet at the fourth, 10th and 18th respectively - and remarking: "I am the eagle man . . . not bad for an old man."

But, with so many players under par, the tournament remains wide open, with such as defending champion Colin Montgomerie among a group of five just one shot adrift.

One of those sharing the overnight lead, however, was Fred Funk. An American with five US Tour wins - and a best finish of tied-fourth on the US Tour this season in the Tucson Open - Funk was actually paired with Ballesteros in yesterday's first round.

"I had never been paired with Seve before," the American said. "He has been such a good player in the past and it is very sad. He looks so good over the ball, as good as ever, but he obviously doesn't trust his swing and he decelerates coming through and sometimes the hands release and sometimes they don't and you don't know where the ball is going. It is sad, and I hate to see it."

Funk is on a three-week-in-a-row stretch of tournaments that will also take in the European Open and the Scottish Open. Apart from chasing the various titles, the American is hoping that he can earn enough money to earn a ticket to the British Open at Muirfield next month which goes to the top seven players in the moneylist not already exempt.

The American's route into professional golf was far different from that of one of his young challengers, England's Dougherty. A member of last year's Walker Cup winning team in Georgia, and a protégé of Nick Faldo, Dougherty - unlike Funk who only joined the US Tour as a 32-year-old - won his tour card at the first attempt last November. The 20-year-old has made a quick impact on tour and is currently 25th in the European Tour moneylist.

"I'd love to win a tournament in my first year on tour, but I won't be devastated if I don't," said Dougherty. It is the sort of calm and collected approach required in the heat of a situation where, literally, any one of a hundred players can still win.