GOLF: Montgomerie putts it right

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WITHOUT EVER suggesting he is at the top of his game, Colin Montgomerie's name made its inevitable way on to the leaderboard at the Murphy's Irish Open. Druids Glen has been good to the Scot, with two wins and a play- off place last year in three outings on the scenic course situated south of Dublin.

Birdies at three of his last five holes gave Montgomerie a 67 and at seven under he was in third place only three behind the early clubhouse leaders, Phil Price and Soren Hansen.

A breeze got up in the afternoon making scoring harder and threatening John Daly's attempt at making the cut. That was especially so after he took an unplayable shot from a bush at the 13th and fell to one over but he got back into red figures by eagling the 16th.

"I'm not hitting the ball straight but I'm putting well," is the exact opposite of Monty's usual post-round assessments. Over the past two days his putter has helped him out and can be used in evidence on any future occasion when he complains he is not a good putter.

But his long game was clearly a worry. Montgomerie spent an hour at the practice range on Thursday evening - "almost a season for me" - and returned there yesterday. "I know what I'm doing," he said, "but you have to get the confidence to take it on to the course."

One of things that separates the six-times European No 1 from everyone else is that he does not usually find that a problem. Price, a playing partners for the last two rounds, noticed another.

"There were a lot of cameras out there which were irritating him but he is just so focused over the ball," Price observed. "He always looks composed when he is about to play a shot. He never looks anxious like other players."

Montgomerie had noticed a change in the former Pontypridd man of the year. "I see a much more ambitious and self-confident player, someone who has much more self-belief than he once had," Monty said.

While Montgomerie has never lacked in that department, Price has had to work at boosting his self-confidence with his sports psychologist, Alan Fine. Many more rounds like his 65 and it will become easier.

"I'm a slow developer," Price said. "I'm 32 and I'd rather be a superstar but I've found things in the last few years which have helped. For 10 years Alan has been trying to get me to realise that I am a better player than I actually am."

Superstar is not quite word to associate with the softly-spoken player who makes up for what he lacks in length by accuracy and avoiding mistakes. "I have to question whether I have the machinery to be a Tiger Woods, but I want to be a really good player."

These are good times for Welsh golf, what with the 25-year-old David Park finishing second-first in his debut tour events. What disappoints Price is that Wales once again have not been selected to play in the Alfred Dunhill Cup. "It's the best week of the year," Price said. "The organisers might have changed their mind if they had waited to see what David has done."

The Danes also had a good day. Thomas Bjorn showed signs of a return to form with a 66 which included a hole-in-one at the 17th. But at the fifth, Bjorn hurt his wrist playing from the rough. Fortunately for the injury-prone player, it was not broken as he first thought.

But it was Hansen, 25 from Copenhagen and in his first year on tour, who produced the day's best round with a 63, one outside the course record. He got off to the perfect start by holing an eight-iron at the first for an eagle-two. He also eagled the 15th, to make up for a double bogey at the previous hole, and had six birdies.

Scores, Digest, page 31