Golf: Monty feels the major force

The US Open: Duval, Woods and Els lie in wait as missing link drives on Europe's leading player; Andy Farrell studies a player timing his prime for Pinehurst
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The Independent Online
CHECKING IN at Heathrow for his flight to Raleigh Durham yesterday, Colin Montgomerie knew this week's US Open at Pinehurst represents his best chance of winning a major championship. Of course, something similar to that statement has been written before. At some point it will no longer be applicable, either because the Scot has finally broken his duck at the highest level, obviously Monty's preferred option and the sooner the better, or because his time has gone.

There were suggestions that the latter was the case following a 1998 season in which Montgomerie played some of his worst golf for years and a disappointing start to the current campaign. Throughout his spell in the States around the Masters in the spring he plodded along without the confidence and authority usually associated with the European No 1.

But back home over the last month the force has once more been with Monty. Having set himself the goal of winning twice in three weeks, he achieved the feat, taking victory in the Benson & Hedges International and then retaining his Volvo PGA title. He has probably never played better than in that last round of 64 at Wentworth. Suddenly the spotlight is right back on the man who will turn 36 a week on Wednesday. He has not exactly tried to step out of it. "I love that US Open," he said. "I'd love to win that one."

Montgomerie is suited to the second major of the year because the traditional set-up of the courses calls for one of his strengths, arrow-straight driving. He was third at Pebble Beach in 1992, lost in a play-off in 1994 at Oakmont, when Ernie Els finally beat Loren Roberts in sudden-death, and was defeated again by Els by just one stroke at Congressional in 1997.

"I'll go as one of the favourites and although favourites don't always come through in golf, I must admit I'm going there with even more confidence than Congressional two years ago. I'm going there with as much confidence as I con possibly have."

That confidence was not dented by a final round at Hanbury Manor last week in which he failed to push Darren Clarke in his attempt to win the Compass English Open in the way that John Bickerton did. "This is fine," he said. "I'm very happy with me right now."

But did he, perhaps, catch any of the final round of the Memorial last Sunday night? It made chilling watching, not just for the second successive victory of Tiger Woods. Vijay Singh, the US PGA champion, was tracking Woods at Muirfield Village while David Duval, the world No1, showed he was emerging from a quiet spell at the right moment and Els was also lurking.

Duval is in the same position as Montgomerie in that everyone is waiting for the 27-year-old from Florida to add to his many Tour wins with a major victory. Having won the two tournaments prior to the Masters, including The Players' Championship, Duval was not near enough to contend on the final day at Augusta. Since then he has been concentrating on resting and preparation rather than playing "tired" golf on tour. "I'm real close to having everything where I want it," Duval said after finishing third at Muirfield Village. "If I play as well as I did or even a little bit better, I'll be pretty pleased." However, he has since burnt his hand on a tea pot - an injury which, while not apparently threatening his chances of taking part, will certainly restrict his practise.

Woods, of course, already has a major to his name, and as fabulous as that 12-stroke win at Augusta in 1997 was there is still a feeling Tiger needs to prove himself on the great championship courses. Early in his career he overpowered the less challenging layouts to stunning effect. The win at Muirfield Village came on one of the more demanding tests and showed the work he has been doing with coach Butch Harmon to strengthen the foundations of his game may be paying off.

In his two US Opens as a professional Woods, who is still only 23, has finished 19th and 18th, good but not contending performances. "I'm starting to understand how to play the game," said Woods. "I'm better prepared for the US Open than I've ever been. I know how to shape shots. I know how to manage my emotions. No doubt about it. I'm better prepared."

Woods recently revealed he has filled out by 17lb to 177lb and has altered his swing accordingly. "My body's changed quite a bit," said Woods. "All my life I've had a lot of clubhead speed, but it was generated by the motion of my body. I can unwind my body faster than most players. That's how I got my distance. Now, I get clubhead speed and distance with my arms. That's a big difference that's going to make me more consistent. It comes from being stronger."

But it was his short game that secured the Memorial win, particularly the chip-in at the 14th for par, when he had fluffed his first attempt. Woods' imagination around the greens will come into play more at this US Open than usual, as the collars of rough circling the putting surfaces are not found at Pinehurst No 2. This will also help the Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal - oh, that the course had staged its first US Open when Seve Ballesteros was still in his prime - and Phil Mickelson.

The Donald Ross layout, like Augusta, has the severity of the greens as its main defence. High, precise approach shots with the irons will be the key so add Singh, who will partner Montgomerie in the first round, to the list of possibles. Other US Open specialists not to be forgotten include defending champion Lee Janzen, Davis Love and Tom Lehman, who has played in the last pairing on the last day for each of the last four years.

Pinehurst is a golfing Mecca in North Carolina, far from a metropolitan centre. Only true golfing fans will be making the trip, in the manner of pilgrims. For Montgomerie, who has suffered from crowd abuse in Washington and San Francisco in the last two years, that could be another positive factor in his attempt to become the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the event.

"It's incredible that one tournament has failed us when we've won 11 of the last 20 Masters," he said. "It would be nice to do it considering no one has done it for damn near 30 years."

FAMOUS FOUR WHO HAVE DASHED THE AMERICAN DREAM

GARY PLAYER

1965

English and Scottish born golfers won the US Open on 21 occasions between 1895 and 1927 but most were settled in the States, so Gary Player became the first foreign champion since Ted Ray in 1920. The South African led by three with three to play but took a five at Bellerive's par-three 16th and ended up tied with Kel Nagle. He won the 18-hole play-off 71-74, and then made a generous gesture. Of the $25,000 he received, he gave $5,000 to a cancer charity and $20,000 back to the USGA to promote junior golf.

TONY JACKLIN

1970

Like Player, Jacklin had acclimatised to American conditions by joining the US tour. He won the Jacksonville Open in 1968 but, more importantly, came back in 1969 to become the first home winner of the Open for 18 years. At Hazeltine, a new venue which Dave Hill suggested was a waste of a good farm and should have been ploughed up, Jacklin took a three-stroke lead on the first day by shooting 71 in bad conditions. He hung on for the next three rounds, winning by seven from Hill. He was the first Englishman to win for 50 years. Europe is still looking for its next champion.

DAVID GRAHAM

1981

Despite winning the USPGA in 1979, David Graham was seen as a journeyman who had travelled along a hard road. He left school in Melbourne at the age of 14 to turn professional, causing a rift with his family which was never healed. Jack Nicklaus once said Graham should give up golf and design clubs but he kept going and, in the last US Open played at Merion, was three behind George Burns with a round to play. Graham played the last five holes in two under to Burns's one over to win by three with the second lowest score ever of 273.

ERNIE ELS

1994, 1997

Ernie Els was in his third season in Europe when he played in his second US Open at Oakmont in 1994. "I have just played with the next god of golf," said Curtis Strange as Els made it into a three-way play- off. Colin Montgomerie departed after 18 holes but Loren Roberts lingered until the second sudden-death hole. Three years later, at Congressional, Montgomerie and Els battled again in the final round, with only a bogey at the 17th separating them as Els won by one to become the first overseas-born player to win a second US Open since Alex Smith in 1910.

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