Golf: The Open: Monty on the home straight

Andy Farrell says Royal Troon is ready to witness a major breakthrough
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The Independent Online
The portents are as good as they could be. Which is not to say the 126th Open Championship at Royal Troon will be a sure-fire, guaranteed classic, but the only advice is to fill the glass, put the feet up and settle back.

Not since 1993, at Royal St George's, have so many of the world's leading players arrived at the world's premier championship in such fine form. On that occasion, Greg Norman won from Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Nick Price, Corey Pavin and Fred Couples but needed a record low score to do so.

This week, as the players gather on the Ayrshire coast where the Open was born at Prestwick in 1860, the storylines are many and varied. Most intriguing are the Open debut as a professional of the world No 1, Tiger Woods, and the homecoming of the European No 1, Colin Montgomerie.

But there is so much more. Tom Lehman defends the title he won at Royal Lytham having narrowly lost out in the US Open, just as he had a year ago. Ernie Els, the vanquisher of Montgomerie and Lehman at Congressional, attempts to become the first winner of the US and British Opens in the same season since Tom Watson in 1982.

Norman, who set the course record of 64 in the final round of the 1989 Open at Troon, then handed the play-off to Mark Calcavecchia, returned to form by winning the St Jude Classic two weeks ago, and in typical Shark style by birdieing the last three holes. A young Nick Price threw away the 1982 Open to Watson by dropping four shots over the last six holes. Recently, he has been battling against a shoulder problem, as well as coming to terms with the death of his caddie, Jeff "Squeaky" Medlen, from leukaemia.

These players form the top six on the world rankings. Nick Faldo, fourth and 11th in two Opens at Troon, has slipped to 10th but remains the supreme links land golfer. The first Open he attended was at Troon in 1973, when he stayed in a tent with his father, wore his pyjamas under his clothes because it was so cold, saw Tom Weiskopf practising in his flat-soled street shoes and tipped him for the title. The American completed his only major victory.

Montgomerie is still seeking that elusive landmark. Just as Weiskopf was a four-time runner-up in the US Masters, Monty has largely been associated with the US Open, where he has been third once and second twice. On the theory that a major will come along when he is least expecting it, the silver claret jug could yet bear his name.

His record of having missed four of the last five cuts is appalling and he knows it is appalling. It is a record that would have a sports psychologist booking him in for a series of sessions on learning the techniques of relaxing under the fiercest pressure on the biggest occasions. After his scintillating last-round 62 at the Irish Open last Sunday, the 34-year- old admitted: "If I can be as relaxed as I was today, it is amazing how low I can score."

It was a performance that had his fellow competitors at Congressional take note. "If I take myself out of the equation," Lehman said, "Monty would be my pick. He knows the course, he's ready to play, and he's way overdue." Added Els: "He is playing the best golf of his career. For his sake, I hope he has not peaked too early."

While it might be in their interests to put the spotlight on the Scot, Brian Anderson has better reasoning than just wanting to see a local boy come good for putting his money on Montgomerie. A former pig farmer, Anderson has been the head pro at Troon for 26 years. This will be his fourth Open. "Colin is the straightest hitter in the world and that's what you need to be to win at Troon," he said.

Montgomerie was a member of Troon before he turned professional in 1987 and last year was made an honorary member. His father, James, has been the club's secretary for the last 10 years. One wonders how much the family connection came in to play when the club decided to install an irrigation system down the sides of the fairways. The result is more rough than could be seen in 1989, or last year at Lytham.

"The rough has really grown and the weather has helped that," said Anderson. "Some of the fairways are very narrow. The ninth is no more than 15 paces at the neck. It is not ridiculous. It's a fair test. We have had some rain, but the ground is firm underfoot. The greens are firming up all the time but will still hold a properly hit shot. The R & A have got the course just as they would want it."

And as Montgomerie should like. If it stays calm, he would like it even better. At Troon, where he has memories of winning the Duke of Portland Cup but also of pushing his opening tee shot on to the beach, he knows this is unlikely. "I have never won a tournament in the wind and it is something which I don't feel all that comfortable with," admitted Montgomerie, who despite his heritage learned his golf in Yorkshire and refined it at college in America.

Woods might say much the same. With a light zephyr, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that he could eagle five of the first six holes, while he is the best equipped of all to deal with a back nine of 3,650 yards and a par of 35. In a gale, however, it could be a different story. What the Masters champion, who is aiming to become the youngest winner this century, certainly needs to do is putt better than at Congressional, where his work on the greens was a pale shadow of his inspired putting at Augusta.

When he is in the mood, however, the putts inevitably seem to drop. "It's a little like the Seve [Ballesteros] era," Frank Nobilo, runner-up to Woods at the Western Open last week, said. "If Seve needed to eagle the last hole, he made eagle. If he was four behind, he made four birdies in a row. You get very few talented players in the world that are capable of doing that. In the short period of time that Tiger's been a professional, that's the one thing he seems to have shown. When he's in a position to win, he very rarely goes backward."