BILLIARDS is mourning one of its top players.

Bob Close, 65, of Hartlepool, world-ranked in the top ten, died from cancer at the weekend. His funeral is tomorrow (10am) at St Thomas Mores, Hartlepool.

Close had played since he was 12, and won the national CIU title three times and the English Amateur twice before turning professional rather late in life.

Olive, his wife of 44 years, travelled the world with him and fondly recalled memories: "Billiards players are the gentlemen of the cue game. Bob's greatest rival and greatest friend was Norman Dagley (who died last year) and my greatest memory of Bob was when he beat Norman in Australia, then lost to Michael Ferreira in the semi-final of the world championship.

"I've cleaned all his cups for years. It takes me a week."

World champion Mike Russell, from Marske, said: "When I was a junior Bob was the yardstick. I used to go and watch him because he was such a good break-builder and a great player."

Alf Nolan, of Newcastle, the only man still alive to have won the English Amateur billiards and snooker titles, was a friend of Close's. "Bob, like me, was left-handed, and we gelled. We played in the Middlesbrough Western Club side that won the CIU team title three times.

"Bob was a good battler. He never gave up - a quality you need in any sport. The Western Club named a room after me, but they should have called it the Bob Close room."

Former world champion Peter Gilchrist, of Middlesbrough, said: "Bob was one of the best match players I've ever come across. He was the best one-shot player I've seen. If he needed to make a shot he'd do it."

l Flu forced former champion Alf Nolan, 74, to miss the regional round of the English Amateur billiards championship at Gateshead on Sunday. It was the first time in 53 years he hasn't played in it. "Not playing in the championship is like an alcoholic not getting a drink," he said.

The six qualifiers for the national last 32 were Tynesider Tony James and Teessiders Darren Kell, Lee Lagan, Allan Scott, Robin Wilson and Steve Best.

Scott hit a North-East record score of 956 in 90 minutes in his victory over Middlesbrough's John Hartley. His highest break was 121, but that was surpassed by Lagan, who had breaks of 236, 112, 107 and 100 in his 857-172 win over Michael Donnelly, of Middlesbrough.

l David Craggs, of Tow Law, beat Hemlington's Chris Jones 5-4 in the Newcastle Breweries invitation snooker event at Redcar WMC on Sunday, a 71 break giving him the deciding frame after trailing. Michael Rhodes of Coxhoe beat Redcar's David Beckett 5-0, mopping up the last frame with a 122 clearance.

Sunday's games: David Causier (who beat Australia's Robbie Foldvari to win the British billiards Open) v Les Burnett (Redcar) and Mike Dunn (Redcar) v Terry Singleton (Middlesbrough).

l An apology: Last week's report of the North-East snooker rankings tournament final was wrong. I, and tournament organiser Stan Chambers were fed fictitious information, which Chambers also published in another newspaper. Michael Rhodes, in fact, conceded a walk-over to Darren Thompson as he could not wait for the final because of the slowness of play in Thompson's half of the event. I would love to see a picture of the head of the informant on a plate