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Getting the vapours at Valderrama
Other than the famously clement weather, the appeal of Spain's Costa del golf is not exactly obvious. It is not unlike much of the worst of Florida, both in style and presentation and Valderrama, now the established home of the Volvo Masters tournament, is the jewel in its Andalusian crown for it is as tough as they come. The cork trees apart, however, one is hard pressed to find anything that distinguishes it from countless courses in the greater Florida swamp. The cork trees and the water hold little interest for many but for Alastair Forsyth and Darren Clarke they are features that are primary candidates for heavy plant machinery - and bulldozers in particular.

Darren Clarke started the event well. He was three under par in the second round and in joint leadership when the notorious 17th green took its toll, as it did too many others in the week. At the par five 17th he started off with a booming drive down the middle of the fairway. Time to light a cigar. However, clearly undecided about the lake in front of the green, he elected to lay up in front of the water to give himself a pitch-'n-putt opportunity for birdie. Now restraint is not something with which the big Ulsterman is familiar and his casually played second shot found a bunker about 100 yards short and to the right of the green. He was not in a desperate situation; hitting the green was not a problem but the water was a risk if the flag was attacked. Clarke hit the front of the green from the bunker and his ball rolled back into the pond. One suspects that it took some effort for him to muster a wry smile.

Dropping a ball at about 70 yards, he was about to play it when a mobile phone rang. He stepped away from the ball and, having determined that the phone was under control, he resumed his preparation for the shot. Clarke does not hang around when he is committed to the shot but even he does not move faster than the thumb on a recall button and, just as he was about to play, the phone rang again.

It says much for Clarke and his new found self-control that he restrained himself to asking the man to 'turn the bleepin' thing aff.' What he said to Billy Foster, his caddie, is a personal and private matter but there was a time when it would have been public and the man with the phone would have been lucky to leave the course without recourse to medical assistance.

Needless to say, when Clarke finally played the shot it was executed with sufficient backspin to suck it from some 10-feet past the hole all the way down the green to topple off the bank into the water. Without attempting a smile, wry or otherwise, Clarke marched stolidly 10-yards forward to drop another ball. This he put safely on the green before two-putting for a gross 11 -- a sextuple bogey that plummeted him from joint first place to tie for 27th on the day. Any chance he had of the Volvo title had gone in the time it takes for two rings of a mobile phone.

Alastair Forsyth's demise was altogether less dramatic and much less costly but equally as educative. After playing sterling golf through three rounds and much of the fourth, Forsyth let a tee shot leak under the cork trees. He was in a situation from which a well-seasoned, whiskered pro would have recovered as a priority and perhaps salvaged a par as a routine. He was, after all tied for the lead and playing on a course riddled with pitfalls where anything can happen to even the best. But the young man from Paisley never even contemplated the safe salvage back onto the fairway - neither did he reflect that much of the space through a stand of trees is occupied by tree trunks. He hit two of them before he finally got out of the woods and his ultimate shot to the green found the fiendish fringe around it. The last round at Valderrama doubtless taught Forsyth things that he is not likely to forget. After bogeying the first two holes of his final round his three shot lead evaporated as both Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia stole past him. His debacle in the trees at the 16th put paid to his tying the pair at 7 under par and excluded him from their play-off.

Ian Poulter famously won the play-off against Garcia at the first extra hole with a par in what was essentially an anti-climax to the event. With probably the two most charismatic players in Europe one anticipated a battle, but Garcia played indifferently and Poulter enjoyed yet another year with a tournament win. He pocketed £423,000 for his pains, leaving Sergio to bank £288,000 and Alastair the balm of £162,000. All of the top-60 players in the Volvo Order of Merit got a little something more than a goodie-bag for turning up at Valderrama and the end of season gravy train.

This is an event played at a place where the unlikely is always likely to happen and this year was no different. The guy with the mobile phone made a significant impression but the historical highlight will doubtless be the greenkeeping staff, who took advantage of a rain break to mow the greens before everyone had finished playing the third round.

©    1 - NOVEMBER 2004

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