Drudge has high hopes

WELSHMAN Bradley Dredge counts himself among 40 or 50 players he thinks could represent Europe in the Ryder Cup in September.

And if he goes on leaving Tiger Woods and Ernie Els trailing in his wake then the 30-year-old will surely be among the 12 who do.

A sparkling eight-under-par 64 on the fog-hit first day of the Dubai Desert Classic gave him a three-stroke lead over England's David Howell while Els had to be content with a 70 and Woods stood only level par for 12 holes when play was called off.

Dredge, who won the Madeira Island Open last year, was returning after a month-long break in which he had to sweep snow off the artificial putting green at his Cardiff home.

"There's a difference between hitting putts there and actually getting out and playing, so I'm surprised a bit," he said. "The biggest thing I thought I was going to struggle with would be the greens but I putted fantastically well."

A 30-footer for eagle on the 18th took him to the turn in a five-under 32 - with further birdies on the second, third and ninth. Dredge's last three rounds on tour have been 63, 76 and 64 so he is hoping that sequence does not continue.

Howell, a member of the Britain and Ireland side which beat Continental Europe in the Seve Trophy last November, and America in the amateur Walker Cup in 1995 (Woods was an opponent that week), wants to make it to Oakland Hills as well.

"I definitely feel I can," said the 28-year-old. "I'm playing a lot less bad golf than I used to and I'm waiting for the really good stuff to come out."

Howell, winner of the Australian PGA title in 1998 and the Desert Classic at Dubai Creek the following March, had six birdies and one bogey to lie second one ahead of Australian left-hander Richard Green, winner in 1997, and Scott Drummond, an English amateur international who now counts himself as Scottish.

Green was among those who finished after the two-an-a-half-hour delay, but Pádraig Harrington still has four to play and Drummond seven.

Woods, back from a trip to see US troops on the George Washington aircraft carrier in the Gulf, was poised to move up the leaderboard after turning in a two-under 33. But he carved a drive so badly off the 10th tee that he needed another ball.

He took a double-bogey seven and after hitting a spectator with another bad drive on the 550-yard 13th, he elected to stop.

Els, twice a winner, and runner-up to Robert-Jan Derksen last year, had three bogeys in his last seven holes but produced what Dredge called an "amazing" birdie on the long 18th.

The South African chose to hit a three-iron back down the 17th, then another over the lake on to the green.

Playing partner Lee Westwood saw the sense in it because of the danger of driving into water playing the conventional way.

Harrington is three under, but Colin Montgomerie only level par - while the threeball of Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and Ian Poulter failed to catch fire. Clarke had a 72, the other two one worse.

They managed only one birdie between them on the front nine, and Clarke said of Bjorn's putt at the eighth: "We almost held hands and did a dance round the green."

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