Golf: Garcia tracks Montgomerie

Irish Open: Carnoustie starts to loom as the big guns train their sights

THE IRISH Open marks the start of the run-up to the Open Championship, but the event would be the perfect precursor to the US Open.

The rough here in Co Wicklow is not quite as high as usual, but the need for accuracy in making the journey between tee and green has still been the highest priority.

These are conditions in which Colin Montgomerie feels mightily at home, and the club went even further before yesterday's third round by offering the Scot an honorary membership to go alongside those of Royal Troon, Loch Lomond and Wentworth.

With 18 holes to play, there is still the prospect of Montgomerie keeping his record of not being beaten over 72 holes at Druids Glen. The fact that it was the 73rd that was his undoing against David Carter a year ago cannot obliterate from the record books his victories of 1996 and 1997.

Dropping shots at the last two holes, however, made more difficult the task of overhauling the third-round leader Angel Cabrera. A level-par 71 left the Scot at seven under, while Cabrera's 66 took him to 11 under. Another problem may be the blooming genius of one of the players sharing second place, two behind the Argentine.

Alongside the Australian Jarrod Moseley on the leaderboard was Sergio Garcia, aged 19 and a pro for less than three months. He played the "best nine holes of my life" in his 67 and today will have a number of aims.

There is a top-10 finish to secure his tour card for next year; a top- three finish, as he achieved at the Byron Nelson Classic in America, virtually to guarantee a place in the Open; and, of course, a maiden professional victory.

"Even when I was an amateur, I always said I was here to win," Garcia said. "I am not surprised how I have done as a professional." After going to the turn in level par, Garcia eagled the 11th and 16th, where he hit a three-wood to four feet, birdied the 12th and 14th, should have birdied the 10th, 15th and 18th when he had chances from inside 10 feet, and bogeyed the 13th and 17th.

With three victories for Seve Ballesteros and one for Jose Maria Olazabal, Ireland has been good to Spain's leading players. Obviously, one person who will be closely monitoring Garcia's performance today will be Mark James, the Ryder Cup captain.

The youngster probably needs at least two wins to have a chance of qualifying automatically but being around the business end of tournaments might give him an advantage over another potential pick from the other end of the spectrum, Nick Faldo.

Nothing gives Montgomerie confidence like winning. Doing so close to a major championship, however, creates a catch-22 situation which Monty admits he has fallen into.

Others, as Mark O'Meara did with Tiger Woods last year, spend the warm- up period quietly playing links golf although quiet may not be the word as it seems every club in Ireland is on the alert for visiting Americans this week. Montgomerie thought long and hard about skipping the Loch Lomond Invitational tournament, which starts on Wednesday, but eventually decided against.

Carnoustie, as long as the wind is not gale force, will suit Montgomerie more than other Open venues and those who have paid an advance inspection report the rough is of caddie-losing proportions. If Monty needed any more mental reinforcement, it came yesterday from Des Smyth.

The veteran Irish Ryder Cup player showed he can still have patches of inspired golf and he was threatening Montgomerie's Druids Glen course record of 62 when he birdied eight of the first 12 holes but he dropped four shots coming in for a 67.

Smyth then made this statement: "From tee to green, Monty is the best player I have ever seen. My career has paralleled the likes of Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros and I've not seen anyone play like Monty. It is ridiculous how good he is. I hope he wins a Major soon to cap off his career."

It was perhaps inevitable that this demanding Druids Glen layout would eventually get to John Daly. Having made the cut with rounds of 69 and 72, the American's 81 yesterday left him nine over par.

The main damage was done with a pair of triple-bogeys at the fifth, where he drove out of bounds, and the 13th, where his second shot was lost, presumably up a tree.

Resigned and frustrated would sum up Daly's mood, but not the careless anger that has been his downfall in the past. "There was no give up," Daly said. "I've just got to keep plugging along - at least, I wasn't sitting on the couch watching the TV. Hopefully I can go out tomorrow and salvage something from the week.

"It was only two bad holes and a number of missed putts. That sums up the whole year. It gets frustrating when you hit good shots, play conservatively, play smart golf and still shoot 81. This is a very difficult course, if you spray one tee ball it's going to kill you."

The problem for Daly, and everyone else, is that it is not going to get any easier this week at Loch Lomond or the week after at Carnoustie.

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