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AS the ball sailed over the fairway, for a moment it looked as though it might actually land on the green.

But instead, seconds after it disappeared to my right, there was a splash and I realised I'd fallen foul of the 10th hole's water hazard.

"No, no, no," said a voice to my right. "Your grip's all wrong and your feet were miles out, miles out. Try slowing down your swing and next time follow through all the way."

While I've nothing against receiving a few friendly tips on the golf course, it's a little disconcerting when they come from an eight-year-old.

Fortunately, Thomas Bayliss is no ordinary young golfer. He holds the title of Europe's No.1 young golfer and is No.2 in the world rankings. He has a handicap of 24.

The little boy with the big swing is already being hailed as the next Tiger Woods.

And although my competition weighed just three-and-a-half stone, barely more than my clubs, he easily beat me on every hole apart from the last, and that, I suspect, was more an act of charity than a slip-up.

Our showdown was at the pounds 3,000-a-year London Golf Club near Brands Hatch, Kent. Walking up to the first tee, 4ft-tall Tom, from nearby Dartford, drew out his specially-shortened driver and casually swung a practice shot before stepping up to the ball.

"Watch this," whispered his dad Steve, a 39-year-old plasterer. Swinging the club back, Tom struck the ball with a clean thwack, sending it sailing through the air before landing bang in the middle of the fairway, easily covering half the 297-yard distance to the hole. Feeling under no pressure, I stepped up and knocked the ball into the rough just 50 yards away.

As Tom continued to chip and putt his way round the course, I managed to lose my fifth ball at the 10th and my only reprieve came on the 18th when Tom hit his ball into a bunker.

Comparing scores as we walked back to the clubhouse, it emerged that Tom had gone round in 91, just 19 shots above par. I trailed by a humiliating 24 shots.

His parents Steve and 36-year-old Sally, who have three other children, realised there was something special about their youngest son when he was just two and played with toy clubs.

Steve says: "When he was four, a friend said he had an exceptional swing and suggested I took him to the driving range.

"When he started hitting the balls, we knew something strange was going on. There were 20 people gawping."

While the walls of most of his friends' bedrooms are covered with pictures of pop stars, Tom's are crammed with photos of golfing heroes such as Woods, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros. And the shelves are packed with trophies.

Last year, Tom won the Wee Wonders Junior Championship in Surrey, and this year he came second.

Andrew Brookes, one of the pros at The London Golf Club says: "He's the best young golfer I've seen. I don't think there's any doubt he'll go a long way."

But while Tom's achievements have made him the talk of the golfing world, they were of scant comfort to me.

After our game, as he sat sipping hot chocolate, I asked him what it felt like to be dubbed the next Tiger Woods.

He smiled impishly and said: "People ask me that, but I don't want to be the new Tiger Woods. I just want to be the new Tom Bayliss."


TEE TIME: Tom Bayliss; FAIRWAY TO GO: Reporter David gets tips from Tom Bayliss on the green
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 14, 2002
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