Montgomerie burns up course with hot putter

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The Independent Online

Colin Montgomerie has featured on so many US Open leaderboards that it must make his majorless misery that much more difficult to stomach. But that has never, and will never, stop the big Scot from tucking in, as he did yesterday with his customary gusto to gobble up the clubhouse lead.

His one-under-par 69 was looking a mighty worthwhile one, too, as the names beneath included Phil Mickelson, the American aiming to become the third golfer in history to hold three majors at the same time. Mickelson was happy enough with his 70, although even his legendary smile could not rival Montgomerie's all-too-rare one.

"Obviously I'm delighted to be back in contention for the first time since '97," he said. "That was a good score under any circumstances, but especially today's."

The 42-year-old's round was built on his traditional strengths of fairways hit, greens located but made so much the prettier by a display with the putter that belied his recent woes during which last year's eighth Order of Merit title had begun to resemble a flash from a burnt-out old pan.

Denis Pugh, his faithful coach, revealed yesterday that the pair had been working on correcting his obvious deceleration through the ball and the result was a few long holings, capped off with a dead-weight 35-footer off the vicious break on the 17th for his second birdie on the back nine. True, there was a missed seven-footer for a third on the last, but so what? "After being two over after three holes, I would have taken this I can tell you," he said.

However, even if Europe were ecstatic to see their evergreen standard-bearer on top - and at the very least threatening to raise a challenge to end the 36-year drought that stretches back to Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine - then their joy was still inevitably drowned out by Mamaroneck's Mickelson mania. If there is a bigger cheer to come than that which greeted the 35-year-old's curling, twirling 30-footer for birdie on the 18th hole (his ninth) then it will have to be a genuine lungburster. It was not even 10.30am but already the New York galleries, which have long had a love affair with their adopted Californian, were acting as if it was 4pm on a Sunday.

But then Mickelson, like Tiger Woods, has that ability to make you believe you are witnessing an inexorable march to the winner's circle even when the steps are as tentative as they are early. And they were necessarily cautious, too, chiefly because the driver that is supposedly designed for accuracy and not length mischievously located the merciless rough with such frequency that he could hit only eight greens in regulation. This was therefore no day for Mickelson to attack but rather scramble and poach the odd birdie and he did both with ominous skill and poise by conjuring a whole series of up-and-downers. "I hung in there," he said. "I'm where I want to be."

As he said it Woods was on the range, preparing for his afternoon tee-off. Awaiting him was a drying course that had been "tough but fair" according to Graeme McDowell, but then the Ulsterman was high up on the scoreboard himself with a 71, as were the US Open debutants, Ashington's Kenny Ferrie, who also was on the one-over mark, and Warrington's Phillip Archer, the unheralded European Tour journeyman who valiantly kept his emotions from spiralling with a 72.

All three wore expressions of men who had just tiptoed past a giant, although not everyone did it so adroitly. Nobody had felt the sharpness of the Winged Foot claws any more painfully than Luke Donald. Coming in, the Englishman was an automatic choice for the "five to follow" lists, what with his renowned control, but if anyone is following him then it will likely to be all the way to his front gate after the 28-year-old's tournament-wrecking 78.

A bogey at the second hinted at disaster, eight bogeys thereafter emphatically confirmed it, although the statistic that will worry him most of all is the 10 greens he missed in the first 12 holes. "Nowhere near good enough," said a thoroughly disgusted Donald. Over to Monty. Again.

* Severiano Ballesteros has entered to play in the French Open in two weeks. Yesterday his name was listed by the European Tour for the tournament which takes place at the Golf National in Versailles from 29 June to 2 July. Ballesteros has won the tournament four times. The 49-year-old Spaniard has not played an official tour event since the Madrid Open in October last year.

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