Golf: Merit title quest hots up

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EUROPE'S TOP three golfers resume battle at the Linde German Masters today - with the Order of Merit title up for grabs. Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and the five-times winner, Colin Montgomerie, are separated by just pounds 22,000 at the top of the standings with only three events left.

But, with the winner at Gut Larchenhof, near Cologne, collecting pounds 166,660, a victory for any of the trio would make them the hot favourite to top the standings and collect the Vardon Trophy that has been in Montgomerie's possession since 1993.

The 35-year-old Scot has the most impressive recent record, with victory in the One2One British Masters plus 12th and 11th-place finishes in his last three events.

Montgomerie's run is all the more authoritative as it comes after missing the cut for a second successive week at the BMW International in Munich, the first time he has suffered such an ignominy since 1991. Since then he has gone back to working with his old coach, Bill Ferguson, and has begun to cure a destructive hook that had developed, and rediscover his highly consistent fade.

Clarke enjoyed a week off from competition last week and had the luxury of seeing his nearest competitors fail to make significant ground. Westwood, the Order of Merit leader, who has already earned pounds 615,651 this season, finished with a 79 at the Lancome Trophy last week to find himself joint last with Seve Ballesteros. Montgomerie fared better to finish 11th but is still third behind the Ulsterman, with just three events left which count towards the final standings.

This week also represents Justin Rose's last chance to earn enough money to avoid the trials and tribulations of the European Tour qualifying school.

Rose has yet to make the cut in any of his tournaments since turning professional after his extraordinary fourth-place finish in the Open at Royal Birkdale. The 18-year-old, who last week battled through pre-qualifying, needs to win around pounds 50,000 to earn his card for next season - and that means a top-four finish in Cologne.

The USPGA champion, Vijay Singh, is also in a high-quality field here, along with the defending champion, Bernhard Langer, and Europe's Ryder Cup captain, Mark James.