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Leaney able to top year at Valderrama

Australia's Stephen Leaney is delighted to be playing in this week's Volvo Masters at Valderrama, thanks to his baby son Sebastian.

Leaney, who finished second behind Jim Furyk at the U.S. Open in June, had initially planned to miss the European Tour's lucrative season-ending event for the top 60 players on the order of merit.

But the 34-year-old Australian was forced to rejig his tournament schedule following the premature birth of his first child on September 19.

"Sebastian was actually due to be born today, but he arrived 5-1/2 weeks early," Leaney told Reuters on Tuesday. "He was only four pounds at birth but I guess now he's up to the weight he would have been when he was (expected to be) born.

"I was never playing here and I wasn't going to play the Match Play (at Wentworth two weeks ago) but instead I missed out on Germany (the German Masters), (the) Dunhill (Links Championship) and the AmEx (WGC-American Express Championship).

"But I would have missed out on anything to see the birth of my child, so it's all worked out fairly well."

The one regret for Leaney, who burst to prominence in Europe in 1998 with victories at the Moroccan and Dutch Opens, is less preparation time for the Presidents Cup competition between the United States and the Internationals next month in South Africa.

"I would like to have played more leading up to the Presidents Cup but then again this particular event (at Valderrama) was never actually going to be on my schedule," said Leaney.

"Still, at least I'll get four rounds here under my belt, and then the World Cup (at Kiawah Island, South Carolina) as well."

Leaney, who has won four European Tour titles since turning pro in 1992, will be playing in the Ryder Cup-style Presidents Cup for the first time.

The fifth edition of the biennial competition, which pits a team from the U.S. against a 12-man line-up of international players from nations outside Europe, will take place at Fancourt in George, South Africa from November 21-23.

Before then, Leaney will be bidding to win his first title of the year to put behind him a frustrating period of swing changes and disappointing finishes.

"I've had chances to play well and I've finished 20th about six to eight times this season," said the Western Australian, who has produced just three top-10 places on the 2003 European Tour.

"But I've been making a few swing changes this year and it's hard to put that into your game during a season. It's been a strange year. I've had two seconds but, apart from that, I haven't really done anything else.

"I guess one good week at the (U.S.) Open made it look like a good year."

Leaney is one of 57 players contesting the 16th Volvo Masters at par-72 Valderrama, with world number two Ernie Els, 2001 U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and Australia's Peter Lonard the sole absentees from Europe's top 60.

Els has already clinched the 2003 European order of merit, so the twin incentives for this week's elite field are a first prize of $690,256 and the prestige of clinching the European Tour's grand finale.

Seven-times European number one Colin Montgomerie, who shared last year's title with Bernhard Langer after they had squared the first two extra holes in gathering gloom, is back to defend, along with six other former winners.

Also teeing off in Thursday's first round are 2001 winner Padraig Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez (1999), Darren Clarke (1998), Lee Westwood (1997), Zimbabwe's Mark NcNulty (1996) and Englishman Nick Faldo, the inaugural champion in 1988.

Valderrama has been drenched by torrential rain since Saturday but local forecasts expect improving weather for the rest of the week.

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