Montgomerie back to top form

By yesterday lunchtime there were some bewildered people wandering around the clubhouse here. And they were just the competitors in the Cisco World Match Play. Darren Clarke had already played 22 holes, both eagled and birdied the 18th and was still losing to Vijay Singh.

By yesterday lunchtime there were some bewildered people wandering around the clubhouse here. And they were just the competitors in the Cisco World Match Play. Darren Clarke had already played 22 holes, both eagled and birdied the 18th and was still losing to Vijay Singh.

Lee Westwood had shot an approximate 64 but seen a five-up lead over Sergio Garcia dwindle to one. And Padraig Harrington had won the first two holes against Colin Montgomerie, shot a 67 and was five down. Of course, Monty had a right to wonder why he was only that far ahead after a 61. "You tend to feel sorry for Padraig," the Scot admitted, "but this is a competition."

Montgomerie's 11 under score for 18 holes was the best in 36 years of the tournament and his victory was sealed with three holes to spare in the afternoon when Harrington found trouble off the 15th tee and conceded the match before either man had reached the green. His total of 15 under tied the tournament record of Sandy Lyle but he required four holes less than his compatriot.

Last year's winner now faces a semi-final today against Singh, who defeated Clarke 5 and 4. The pair met at the same stage in 1994, when Montgomerie won before losing to Ernie Els in the final. That was the first of the South African's three successive victories, a run ended by Singh in 1997. For only the third time, the semi-finals will be contested by the four top seeds, Els, who beat Retief Goosen 2 and 1, playing Westwood in the other.

Westwood gave the day off to the builders working on his new home to come and watch him and made it worth their while with 14 birdies. Garcia responded with 12 of his own but lost at the 35th. The Spaniard faced a huge task after Westwood went five in front at the seventh and four birdies in the next five holes only got him back to two down.

On the back nine in the morning and the front nine in the afternoon, the pair produced some exhilarating golf, with four of those holes halved in birdies. The Englishman would not be unhappy at facing Montgomerie in tomorrow's final. "That's fine by me," he said.

After winning his first 11 matches in a row in this tournament, Els had lost his last three, including to Westwood in the second round two years ago. "Lee is one of the hottest players in the world," Els said. "He is really on his game. There are no easy matches here."

After winning three consecutive PGA titles over the West Course, Montgomerie says he feels "one up" on the first tee. "But 20 minutes later I was two down," he said. In cool conditions, Harrington smashed a drive and a five-wood to eight feet at the first and also birdied the short second by hitting an eight-iron to four feet.

Montgomerie said: "I thought, 'Okay, maybe I'm too confident'. He was playing well. I respect him as a player. He's confident and I'm sure he will be a great asset to the Ryder Cup team. He has matured into a very good player and a good competitor. I thought if I could get to the 18th one up I'd be happy. I didn't know what was about to happen. And nor did he. Eleven under for 16 holes is as good as I've ever done."

The greens were soft, there was no wind and there were preferred lies on the fairways; ideal scoring conditions in other words. But what followed was a magnificent exhibition of iron play. He holed plenty of putts, too, but missed a four-footer and a seven-footer, although he was also conceded a four-footer at the fifth. "I gave it to myself," he said. "I wouldn't have missed it."

Montgomerie lost his swing in the summer after losing weight rapidly. He is determined to keep the pounds off - "my self-esteem has risen greatly" - and fit his swing around his slimline self. To that end, he has taken the unusual step, for him, of actually practising and was on the range at Wisley until darkness on Thursday. "The standard has risen behind me and I need to go along with it," said the seven-time European No 1.

It was a long day for Clarke, who had resumed against Nick Faldo at dawn, but not as long as the Irishman would have liked. Singh, who is still taking painkillers for a bruised forearm injured in a boating accident in August, finished off their match quickly when he won four holes out of five from the 10th.

After their first-round match was held over from Thursday, Clarke and Faldo went on for four more holes, equalling the longest ever match.

Faldo holed from 25 feet on the 17th to continue the match, and then from nine feet for a birdie at the last. But Clarke had struck his three-wood approach to five feet and, unlike on Thursday evening, did not miss this time.

"It was pure matchplay," Clarke said. "I wouldn't have expected any less from Nick the way he kept in there."

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