Golf: Montgomerie puts himself in contention

US Open: Stewart strides ahead as Westwood slips behind in the first round at Olympic Club
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COLIN MONTGOMERIE gave himself the start he wanted to the 98th US Open, a tournament where par golf is as precious as it is cheap on the regular tours. Montgomerie came in with a level-par 70 and though that left him four behind Payne Stewart's 66, the early play suggested scores under par would be few and far between.

Stewart, the 41-year-old former US Open and USPGA champion, has not won for three years and only made a sudden break for the rarefied air of four under par by claiming birdies at the last three holes. Even more of a surprise was the fact that the second man to record a score in the 60s was John Daly at one under, where he was joined by the Swede Jesper Parnevik.

Olympic Club, as ill-suited to his big-hitting style as it is to Tiger Woods', is, however, situated next to Daly City, where John Daly Boulevard is named after a dairy farmer who prospered in the area in the late 19th century. John Daly, the "Wild Thing" of golf, was playing the course for only the second time - his first was a practice round on Wednesday - and without his driver.

Daly left his favourite weapon out of the bag and it was his short game, in particular his ability to chip out of the thick rough, brought him home in 32, much to his own surprise. "This sucks," he said. "I hate it. I don't like it but it is challenging. Any time I can't hit my driver on any of the 18 holes it is no good for the fans but it is the only way I can get round this course."

Montgomerie also decided to leave the driver out of his bag - he is relying on his three-wood and is also carrying a seven-wood - countered his three bogeys with three birdies to tie the Masters champion, Mark O'Meara.

"I have got to be happy with that," Monty said. "I'm sure the winning score at the end of the week will be between level par and five under. You can't win it today, you can only lose it."

He knows all about that as his first round 65 a year ago broke the Congressional record and led after 18 holes. But he over-reacted the next day, scoring 11 shots worse, and this year he is determined to build slowly towards the weekend.

"I was patient and I never got over par," he said. "I limited my mistakes despite some scary pin positions. They weren't unfair but you couldn't believe where they put some of them."

Montgomerie teed off with David Duval and Jim Furyk, making a threesome of players on the list of next best players not to have won major championships, and his score compared favourably with the 75 and 74, respectively, of his playing partners. An early indication of the nature of the test to come arrived at the first when Monty's chip appeared to have come to a halt before it took off again and finished by the collar of rough on the far side of the green.

A good two-putt there followed by a six-footer for par at the second did wonders for his confidence on the greens. After another five pars through a stretch of the course named "Quake Corner", he holed from six feet at the short eighth for a birdie.

"The putt at the second was good because it is so important for the first move to be under par and not over par," Montgomerie said. "As soon as you go over par you are fighting to get it back."

Both Woods and Lee Westwood, playing together alongside Tom Watson, found that out. Woods scored a 74 after coming home in 39 but after bogeying three of the first six holes, Westwood's 72 was a triumph for sticking at the job in hand. Although two birdies around the turn were swiftly cast away, the leader of the European money list birdied the last to match Ian Woosnam and lie one behind Costantino Rocca and one ahead of Padraig Harrington.

Woods, concentrating on accuracy over power, hit superb approach shots to set up birdies at the fifth and sixth from eight and four feet. It seemed that Woods' time at Stanford University had been used well, at least in giving the 22-year-old a working knowledge of the Lake Course.

But aggressive putting led to him taking two three-putts and a four-putt at the ninth. In no time at all had fallen out of a share of the lead with a double-bogey six.

US OPEN (Olympic Club, San Francisco) Early first-round scores; US unless stated): 66 P Stewart. 69 J Daly; J Parnevik (Swe). 70 A Magee; C Montgomerie (GB); M O'Meara. 71 C Dimarco; C Rocca (It); L Roberts. 72 S Pate; P Lee; J Sluman; F Couples; L Westwood (GB); I Woosnam (GB). 73 O Browne; G Day; S Appleby (Aus); F Lickliter; T Watson; P Harrington (Irl); K Triplett; L Janzen; S Cink. 74 W Wood; C Perry; S Hoch; J Furyk; T Woods; S Verplank; M Calcavecchia; T Oh; R Goosen (SA); B Zabriski. 75 P Parker; M Brooks; C Rose; D Duval; J Cook; P Azinger; T Sipula; F Zoeller; B Fabel. 76 M Lonardi (Arg); J Green; P Stankowski; F Nobilo (NZ); P Moss; C Tidland; K Wentworth; M Small. 77 G Waite (NZ); J Gore; G Boros; C Strange; G Hallberg; P Tataurangi (NZ); J Thorsen. 78 D Hart; M Ozaki (Japan); D Love; C Beck. 79 H Twitty. 80 R Todd (Can); S Randolph; H Irwin. 81 P Jordan. 82 *R Palmer. 84 J Johnston. Retired: T Tolles. Withdrew: D Hart (after first round). *denotes amateur