Five players from five different nations were tied at five under par after a first round of the Murphy’s Irish Open in which a golfer who just missed out on a share of the lead commanded centre stage at Fota Island in County Cork.
Rounds of 66 carried England’s Nick Dougherty, American Fred Funk, Joakim Haeggman of Sweden, Australian Peter O’Malley and Eduardo Romero of Argentina to the top of the leaderboard after the opening round.
However, lurking one shot off the pace after a score of 67 is Lee Westwood, who once ruled the roost in Europe by winning the 2000 Volvo Order of Merit and achieved a World Ranking position of fourth a few years earlier.
Going into the Murphy’s Irish Open, Westwood had slipped to 95th in the world and 104th on the current Volvo Order of Merit without a title of any note to his name since those heady days in the Millennium season.
Westwood had slipped so far down golf’s pecking order that he wasn’t eligible to play in the recent US Open in New York, but the Englishman remains remarkably philosophical about his sudden decline and his new, bold attempt to scale the heights once more.
“I think missing the US Open was a blessing in disguise” he said. “The way I played recently I didn’t deserve to be in the field and to be perfectly honest I wouldn’t have enjoyed it the way I’ve been playing.”
Rumours abounded that Westwood was not working hard and was enjoying the creature comforts associated with the amount of prize money he has amassed. The player himself vigorously denies those charges and pointed out: “I wouldn’t be working so hard if I had lost my hunger. I don’t pay attention to those comments.
“It’s my job and I am used to the criticism but other people around me find it hard to take sometimes. My wife says I am no different to live with but I do miss winning. It’s not much fun, I can tell you. Maybe it was a good way to get out of the limelight and get a bit of anonymity back but now I am taking things one shot at a time, trying to build some bricks and not go straight to the 30th floor. I am trying to put down the foundations again.”
Westwood might have joined the group on 66 had he not bogeyed the last hole, but that dropped shot could not dampen his spirits. Also satisfied was former Ryder Cup player, Haeggman, who has had little to enthuse about recently.
Unlike Westwood he birdied his final hole to set the clubhouse target and said: “My dad passed away in April and I took four weeks off and never got going again. The way I have been playing recently, this round was very satisfying.”
Dougherty, slowly emerging from the shadow of being known as Nick Faldo’s protegé, has already made sure of his card for 2003 but has spent the last few months attempting to make subtle changes to his game.
“It is a rookie’s dream to have his card so early and as much as I wanted to do well for the rest of the season my coach, Pete Cowen, more or less said to me that if I want to be a world beater there are things we have to change. I can afford to sacrifice my golf at the moment and I am working hard on my swing.”
Funk, in Europe for three successive weeks in order to sample the delights of The European Tour, briefly reached six under par but a dropped shot at the 16th saw him fall back into a tie with the other quartet.
It was a bitter sweet day for the 46 year old American, who was a pained bystander as his playing partner, Seve Ballesteros, shot an 89 before suffering the disappointment of disqualification. The Spaniard signed for a ten at the last when, in fact, he took a 12. Ballesteros later realised his mistake and phoned European Tour Chief Referee, John Paramor, to admit to his error.
It was a despondent Ballesteros who left the course and Funk was equally saddened. He said: “It is sad. I hate to see it. He has been such a great player in the past. He looks as good as ever over the ball but obviously doesn’t trust his swing.”
O’Malley birdied four of his last seven holes to make his charge towards the leadership of the tournament while Romero is fast building a reputation as the master of making eagles. On his last event in Europe, the Volvo PGA Championship, Romero closed with a pair of eagles at Wentworth Club for a share of second place.
This time he holed putts of 15 feet, 18 feet and 20 feet at the fourth, tenth and 18th respectively – all for eagles – to climb to five under par. He laughed: “I have never had three eagles in one round before. Coming after Wentworth it’s unbelievable.”