Golf: Confident Montgomerie makes move

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COLIN MONTGOMERIE'S air of quiet confidence at The Players Championship seemed to be justified when he moved towards the top of the leaderboard with a commanding start to his second round at the TPC of Sawgrass. The Scot began the day at level par, four off the lead, but had picked up five birdies without dropping a stroke after 12 holes. While the overnight leaders, Brian Watts and Bob Estes at four under, were late starters, Japan's Joe Ozaki scored a 68 to move to seven under.

Montgomerie, who was second in this event three years ago but missed the cut last time, described the Stadium Course as a combination of the US Open, thanks to the thick rough, and Augusta National, due to the hyper- rapid greens. "And that's not a combination you ever want," he added. Playing on a hot afternoon on Thursday, the Scot was happy with his 72. What made it even better was the fact that his two playing partners were a total of 20 over par.

Andrew Magee had an 81, including a nine at the par-three 13th where he went in the water three times, and John Daly an 83. Daly then withdrew complaining of a sore hip, leaving Montgomerie in a two-ball yesterday morning. Despite the constant waiting for the groups ahead, Montgomerie again maintained his concentration and hit his second at the 12th to tap-in range for his first birdie. The next came at the par-five 16th, where he got up and down from a greenside bunker and then after the turn he made three birdies in a row, including a chip-in from off the green at the third.

Montgomerie's sudden rise on the leaderboard came after Nick Faldo had departed the scene. However, even if Faldo's efforts on Thursday prove a false dawn, he has the backing of Europe's No 1 for the last six years for a 12th Ryder Cup appearance later this year. "Europe would have had a weaker team without Nick Faldo two years ago and we will have a weaker team this time without him," Montgomerie said. "Whenever we have lost players in the past, like Sandy Lyle and Seve Ballesteros, we have had a weaker team."

On a cool, overcast morning, when a little overnight rain had damped the fire in the greens - but not much - Faldo initially continued a revival dramatically set in motion the previous afternoon. After his first round of 71, on a day when Lee Westwood had a 73, Darren Clarke a 77, Jose Maria Olazabal a 78 and Ian Woosnam an 80, the 41-year-old Englishman teed off at the 10th and played the back nine in level par, three strokes fewer than he had managed on Thursday.

A 30-foot birdie putt from off the green at the 11th was negated by dropping a shot after visiting a greenside bunker at the 14th. But having made the turn, Faldo immediately birdied the first to move to one under for the day and two under for the tournament. It was at that point that he suffered major hiccup, bogeying the par-five second and then taking a double-bogey five at the short third. A tendency to push his iron shots caught up with Faldo at the latter, after which he left one chip virtually where he was and put the next over the green.

It was on the front nine on Thursday that Faldo suddenly vaulted back into awareness. Having returned to the putter with which he won three majors in 15 months in 1989-90, he was once again rolling in the 20-footers. Three birdies in a row from the seventh gave his a nine- hole total of 32, four under, the best of the day. "I was expecting a nice, quiet day," Faldo said, "but I suddenly threw myself into the deep end and it was good to be hitting shots again under pressure."

Without that intensity, the Faldo of recent times can look, in Mark McNulty's words, "like a 24-handicapper". But Peter Alliss's analysis that Faldo has lost his nerve is less accurate and once he senses his game coming together, the confidence can flood back quickly. That was why he was not disheartened by his back nine of 39, which included dropped shots at the last two holes.

"After my recent scores, I'll take a 71," he said. "This is a brute of a course. You need to control your approach shots. If you don't get them in the right landing area, these greens are like putting on the bonnet of a VW Beetle."