Golf: Monty counts on his level best

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THE object of any professional is to play their best golf on a Sunday afternoon. That is the time of the week that it matters most and the only proviso is that he or she has played well enough up to that point to be in the position for an inspired performance to bring the maximum reward.

Playing your best golf on a Tuesday morning, therefore, can be frustrating. It was on that day last week that Colin Montgomerie, in his first round since the US Masters last month, overwhelmed Darren Clarke in a practice match. The Scot shot a 63 and something similar today may be needed for Montgomerie to win the Benson and Hedges International.

If not, Clarke has the chance of revenge in the most satisfying way possible. He lost pounds 20 earlier in the week but the first prize on offer today is pounds 125,000. The pair are tied at 10-under par with the Italian Massimo Florioli and would have been joined on the same mark by Philip Price had the Welshman not found the water at the 17th and taken a triple bogey eight. Instead, Gary Evans and Patrik Sjoland are the nearest challengers, one stroke behind. Clarke and Montgomerie will contest the final pairing today with the five-time European No 1 rueing the putting tip he gave Clarke on Tuesday, as well as the more generous advice about his career he has offered in the past.

"Darren has improved mentally in the last two years," Monty said. "We get on well and tomorrow should be fun. I had the option at the Ryder Cup of playing with Darren or Thomas Bjorn. I chose Darren and Ian Woosnam chose Thomas and it worked out all right."

Montgomerie was not as accurate from tee to green as he had been earlier in the tournament but still only dropped one shot in his 69. Now all he has to do is improve his last round stroke average at the Oxfordshire - he has shot 84 and 81 in the past two years.

"The last two Sundays here have been horrific," he said. "But that will not be on my mind. If the weather stays as it is and I don't break 80 then there really will be something wrong."

But the Scot is not surprised at his fast return to form - a necessity given this week's Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth - after a four-week break. "This is my job and I am relatively good at it," he added. "I'm not stale. I am very fresh, my mind is at ease and I am thinking straight. Both this event and next week are tournaments I have not won, I want to win and probably should have won in the past."

The main activity in Clarke's round of 67 was compressed into seven holes, starting at the seventh. There his five-iron second shot crawled on to the front of the green at the par-five. By holing the putt, from 80 feet, it brought the Ulsterman an eagle three. Birdies followed at each of the next two holes from more modest distances of six and four feet but his only blemish occurred at the 10th. A poor drive left Clarke in the rough from where he got a flyer with his second shot. His first putt from 30 feet came up three feet short and he missed the par-saver.

Two more birdies at the 11th and 14th left Clarke happier with his round. "This is what I am looking for," he said. "I've been knocking on the door for some time but I want to keep challenging as often as possible." Last year, when the 29-year-old finished fourth on the order of merit, he had nine top-10 finishes but did not add to his two previous wins on the European tour.

During the US Masters, where he tied for eighth with Montgomerie, Tiger Woods and Justin Leonard, Clarke played with Gary Player, who later suggested he lost some weight. "It is something I am always careful about, even before he said that," Clarke said, before adding as an aside: "I am scared to get on the scales."

In contrast to his friend Clarke, a frustrated Lee Westwood was considering withdrawing last night due to an eye infection which has disrupted his tournament.

Westwood was stung on the left eye on Thursday and it was aggravated on Friday when a fly got trapped in the same eye. Yesterday the 25-year-old from Worksop was given eye drops before he started the round and he had to call for more at the 12th tee.

A double-bogey at the 14th hole was contained in his 77, dropping the Ryder Cup player to one over par, five shots adrift of the 17-year-old Walker Cup player Justin Rose, who scored a 72. "My vision was blurred and it is hard to concentrate when your head is throbbing," Westwood said. "I'm off to the doctor now. I couldn't see out of the left eye and that makes it quite difficult to play golf. Whenever I turn to the top of my backswing the ball is distorted. That makes it difficult to concentrate."

Jamie Spence, who had to give up his Cup Final ticket after making the cut, unveiled his Arsenal shirt after putting out on the 18th green. The first news he received of his team's first goal came just before he thinned his approach to the last green. "I couldn't calm down," he said. But he was finished in time to catch Nicolas Anelka's Wembley winner.