Golf: Montgomerie sees the merit in a major assault

WHEN the prospect of Colin Montgomerie winning a sixth successive Order of Merit was raised in the wake of the Scot's victory in the Volvo PGA Championship, the man himself denied all knowledge.

"Who said the Order of Merit was back on? I didn't say that. I never mentioned it," Montgomerie spluttered. The fact is that despite playing in only three European Tour events so far this season, Monty is now fifth on the money list. What helps is that his results in those tournaments have been 10th, fifth and a highly timely first, given that a tour record pounds 200,000 was on offer on Bank Holiday Monday. "Yes, if I keep performing the way I am performing, yes the Order of Merit is on," Montgomerie conceded, "but I didn't mention it and I'd like that quoted."

Had Ernie Els, the world No 1, managed to pip the man he has beaten in two US Opens and a World Match Play final at Wentworth, then the South African would have had a sizeable lead at the top of the money list and rearranged his schedule to play more in Europe.

As it is, Els will probably only make limited appearances on this side of the Atlantic - though an Open victory might change matters - which should give others a chance to overtake him. Thomas Bjorn, who narrowly missed out on tying Els, Patrik Sjoland and Gary Orr in second place on Monday, is the South African's nearest challenger.

The Dane is pounds 62,000 adrift of Els, and is followed by Jose Maria Olazabal, Sjoland and Montgomerie, pounds 126,000 behind. But Monty is earning at a staggering rate of pounds 81,080 a tournament and this week could break the bank at the Deutsche Bank Open in Hamburg. The event, which starts on Friday, offers a first prize of pounds 183,333. Els is not playing there, nor next week at the English Open at Hanbury Manor.

Why Montgomerie is reluctant to commit himself to another race for the money title is simply because he has higher goals in mind. "I feel now is the time that I should be winning majors," he said. The US Open is only a month away. It is Montgomerie's favourite tournament, because the high rough and narrow fairways put a premium on his strength - driving the ball straight. No wonder that San Francisco, and the Olympic club on 18 to 21 June, is all he can think about.

"I'm only looking to maintain my form in the next two tournaments and if the opportunity to win comes a long, I'll take it. You know how much I look forward to the US Open and this win gives me confidence to go there. I really feel I'm improving as a golfer, mentally and technically, and I'm doing the right thing in going out to California a week early to practice and acclimatise properly. I feel I have every opportunity, if I beat certain players, obviously."

In particular, Montgomerie rates Els, Tiger Woods and Davis Love as the men to beat. They hold the top-three places on the world rankings and Monty will rise to fourth, ahead of the incapacitated Greg Norman, with a moderate performance this week.

It is to Montgomerie's credit that he is one of the few top-class sportsmen who can offer a genuine and accurate appraisal of another competitor's talent. "I know the game pretty well and I understand who's good and who has the mental approach and who has the technique," he said. "I reckon Els is the best player in the world and if you beat him you will usually win."

But if he can sometimes sound overawed, he believes the only time that might be true is with Woods at the Masters. Woods at the US Open, Montgomerie knows, is a different story and head-to-head wins against Els and Love in the Andersen Consulting World Championship was a "great way to start the year". So far, what has followed has lived up to it.

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