Latecomer outshines world's best

LATE invitee Boonchu Ruangkit gatecrashed Southeast Asia's biggest golfing extravaganza yesterday.

Less than a week after receiving an invitation to play in the US$850,000 Johnnie Walker Classic, the 37-year-old Thailand Open champion upstaged many of the world's finest golfers to claim a share of the first round lead.

On a day when just 11 players bettered par over the Singapore Island Country Club's Bukit Course, Boonchu's three under 67 put him level with world number one Nick Faldo, in-form Australian Peter Senior and Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke. ''I played well but I didn't expect to be so high up,'' said Boonchu, whose confidence has been boosted by back-to-back victories in the Thai PGA Championship and Singha Beer Open during the past fortnight.

It was while he was on his way to winning in Chiang Mai last week that the Thai number one learned of his addition to the entry list for the third leg of the 1993 PGA European Tour. Having finished as the leading Asian in last year's Classic in Bangkok, itwas a just reward for Boonchu.

While he is little-known in Europe, Boonchu has established himself as one of the region's best players over the past five years. And there are few courses he prefers more than the 6,642-yard, par-70 Bukit layout. As well as finishing high up in numerous Singapore Opens, he also had the distinction of winning the individual title in the 1989 Alfred Dunhill Cup World qualifying tournament here.

The omens for a good round began at the first hole where Boonchu's pitching wedge approach from 100 yards lipped out for an eagle two. He tapped in for a birdie and gained further shots at the second and third. He reached the turn in two under and needed abirdie at the last to tie for the lead. However, when he pulled his drive at the par-five 18th it appeared the best he could hope for was a par.

But digging into his bag of tricks, Boonchu hit a low, raking three-iron which hooked around the trees and rolled up just short of the green.

His eagle putt ran three feet by and he made no mistake with the one coming back. At the time Boonchu teed off soon after midday, Faldo had already escaped from the heat and humidity which hindered many of the European competitors and was back in the sanctuary of the clubhouse. Five birdies in a blistering front nine of 30 gave him a clear lead.

Although he dropped two shots coming in he was contented with his performance. ''I'm playing far better than I did last week (in the Dubai Desert Classic). I have changed a few things on my back swing and it is helping me,'' said Faldo, whose appearance attracted record crowds of more than 3,500 to the Bukit Course. The biggest galleries followed the afternoon threesome of Greg Norman, Ian Woosnam and Colin Montgomerie.

Despite a solid 68 from Scotsman Montgomerie, neither Welshman Woosnam nor Australian Norman fired on all cylinders, both returning 71s. Also on 71 was Spain's Seve Ballesteros with South African defending champion Ian Palmer on 72 and American world number two Fred Couples on 73. While many of the big-name overseas stars struggled, Asian players took advantage.

In addition to Boonchu's masterful display, Taiwan's Chen Tse-chung and South Korean Choi Sang-ho were in red figures with Frankie Minoza of the Philippines and Taiwan's Hsieh Chin-sheng on even-par.