Golf: Montgomerie in comfort zone as Olazabal closes in

JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL proved earlier this year that he is capable of dramatic swings in form, confidence and humour. On the Friday night of the week before the US Masters, just after missing the cut in the BellSouth Classic, depressed was the only word to describe the Spaniard's outlook. Exactly a week later he was the half-way leader at Augusta and was soon to don a second Green Jacket.

Olazabal's recent form has been woeful for a twice major champion and depressing reading considering the 33-year-old will be Europe's most experienced campaigner in Boston. So yesterday's 68, three under par, in the first round of the Lancome Trophy, was encouraging. Ollie may have been four behind the leader, the German Alex Cejka after a 64, but only two adrift of those sharing second place, who inevitably included Colin Montgomerie.

Monty had vowed to be back on the leaderboard after losing the British Masters to Bob May at Woburn and duly obliged with a bogey-free 66. "Nick Faldo was right, I am in a comfort zone," the Scot said. "I feel more comfortable on the leaderboard than off it. There are a few people out here who are more comfortable off it than on it."

Faldo, quoted at the weekend as suggesting Montgomerie was more interested in "fat cheques than 10 claret jugs", phoned the Scot at his hotel to say there was "no animosity" and wishing Monty and the rest of the Ryder Cup team the best of luck in Boston.

Olazabal could do with some of it. Making the cut here would be a start, something he has not done since breaking his hand - it came into contact with a hotel room wall at vast velocity - at the US Open in June.

Ollie is among the worst three drivers of a golf ball on the European tour, the other two being the former Ryder Cup players Seve Ballesteros and Steve Richardson. Brookline will be a course where hitting the fairways will be at a premium and although Olazabal is not due to see his mentor, John Jacobs, he is confident of making an improvement. It will not be for the want of trying.

"My confidence is not very high but I hit a few more good shots today," he said. "I need to hit more fairways to get rid of the tension over the ball but I am not concerned about next week. It is a different format and the motivation will be very high. All of a sudden everything can change, as it did at the Masters, but if it doesn't you have to tell the captain and maybe you have to watch. I am sure whoever plays will do well."

Olazabal is taking nothing for granted about being paired with Sergio Garcia. Mark James may instead want Ollie to partner Miguel Angel Jimenez, the defending champion here, or even Jean Van de Velde, both of whom also had 68s.

Playing for the first time in France after his runner-up finish in the Open, Van de Velde enjoyed his home gallery's more animated response to his performance. "They used to follow me before but today they were really cheering," he said.

Van de Velde has been told by Ballesteros to enjoy himself at the Ryder Cup and there is no danger of the Frenchman doing otherwise. He is well liked in the locker-room and his reaction to the blunder of blunders at Carnoustie has impressed his team-mates.

"He seems to be coping very well and will be an asset to our team," Montgomerie said. "If I'd done that" - lost a three-shot lead on the last hole of the Open - "I'd have got very fit and taken up tennis."

While Sam Torrance, an assistant next week, played with Van de Velde and Jimenez, James had a close look at the Open champion, Paul Lawrie, who scored 72, as did Andrew Coltart and Jarmo Sandelin, who had a 70. The seven members of the team here met last night for dinner with James, Torrance and the Valderrama winning skipper, Ballesteros.

For Cejka, it is a case of don't mention the Cup. The Czech-born player was one of three Germans who narrowly missed out on the Ryder Cup team and yet the country has not been invited to the Dunhill Cup at St Andrews next month. Ernie Els, leading South Africa's charge for a hat-trick of titles at the event, had a 72, six shots behind Monty.

n Michael Jordan, the retired Chicago Bulls basketball phenomenon, shot an 84, 13 strokes over par, in the opening round of the Chicago Open, an event which he has entered as an amateur.

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