Montgomerie magic has Open rivals spellbound

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The Independent Online

Banishing 11 years of Open angst, Colin Montgomerie exploded into the lead after the first round of the 130th Championship. Any score under the Royal Lytham par of 71 would have been a new best for Montgomerie in the opening round, such have been his feeble efforts in past years, but yesterday he produced a brilliant 65, six under par, for a three-stroke lead.

The 38-year-old Scot has often appeared inhibited on these occasions, but here he was magnificent. Only Brad Faxon, in the morning, and his fellow American Chris DiMarco, who led the Masters earlier this year, and Finland's Mikko Ilonen, late in the evening, could get to three under. Ilonen, 21, has been on national service since winning the Amateur Championship at Hoylake last year and turned professional only after playing in the Masters.

Conditions were not easy, though the wind was reduced from the gales of the previous days to a stiff breeze, and Tiger Woods, the defending champion, was happy to be no worse than a level-par 71. The world No 1 avoided losing the tournament before it had really got going, as he almost did in the US Open last month, but Woods could not get anything going on the greens.

By contrast, Montgomerie, who often despairs of his putting, holed virtually everything he looked at. He made his first putt of the day, from 20 feet at the first hole, and his 24th, from 40 feet at the last in front of the packed grandstands. "The noise when I holed that putt was quite fantastic," Monty said. "I felt the crowd were very supportive and to have them behind me is a huge bonus. I had a feeling for the pace of the greens and when I have that I'm OK."

Dinner in the Montgomerie household will have been conducted in a far more relaxed fashion than on the Thursday nights of previous Opens. But then he has made a deliberate attempt to prick the tension that has crippled his previous displays in the oldest of the major championships.

"Starting here not one of the key favourites did take a bit of pressure off," he said. "The whole psyche of the championship changes for me now. It has always been catch-up in the past. Tomorrow, I will be standing on the first tee a lot more confident than I was this morning. It is a game of confidence. If you think you are going to do something, you are halfway to achieving it." Only a quarter of the way through the 72 holes of this championship, Montgomerie was keen to keep his performance in perspective. "You don't dream about Thursdays at the Open," he said. "I've dreamt about Sundays a couple of times but I don't want to even think about the weekend at this stage.

"All this is, is a good start. It's the best start I've ever made in an Open and it is nice to at last be in contention here. But there is an awfully long way to go. I will start out tomorrow as if nothing had happened. I am more experienced and better equipped for whatever is going to happen over the next three days."

Montgomerie, who won the Irish Open from the front three weeks ago, has not contended in a major since he lost the US Open at Congressional in 1997 to Ernie Els. It was the third time he had finished second in a major in America. Monty opened then with a 65, but followed it with a 76 on the second day. "The jet-lag hit me on the Friday but I shouldn't have that problem this time. I learnt a lot from that because that is the round of golf that has stopped me winning a major. You always have to look for the positives. If you think about the negatives too much, you might as well pack it in."

Montgomerie has been talking almost daily to Hugh Mantle, a sports psychologist from Liverpool who has not only been helping him to cope with the pressure of the game's biggest occasions but played a role in repairing his marriage after a separation last summer.

The Scot played with tears in his eyes at times at St Andrews last year and quickly lost three stones in weight, which affected the timing of his swing. Having regained his natural stature, the start for Monty was crucial. He had birdies at the first two holes and, after dropping a shot at the fifth, chipped in for an eagle at the sixth.

Three birdies in a row followed from the eighth and then he took on the traditional Lytham challenge of defending his score on the way home. A momentary loss of concentration led to a three-putt at the 14th, but then he single-putted the last four holes, claiming three vital pars before the closing birdie.

Darren Clarke, whose links credentials surpass those of Montgomerie, got off to a ghastly start when he was bunkered at the first. He took a double-bogey but, maintaining the patience he sometimes finds elusive, birdied the last two for a 70. Woods went down the Monty route with a birdie at the first but was not entirely happy with his game. "It was definitely not an easy round," the defending champion said. "I grinded my way around the course and did not put myself out of the tournament."

Faxon, 39, has been critical in the past of American players who have not come over for the Open. Last year, he had to qualify and just missed out before flying home and defending his title at the BC Open.

He is one of the best putters on the US Tour and has given Montgomerie lessons in the past. A number of big names were lurking at two under, including Jesper Parnevik, Jose Maria Olazabal and David Duval. Phil Mickelson had back-to-back eagles at the sixth and seventh in his 70, the same mark as Sergio Garcia and the 1998 champion, Mark O'Meara.

Montgomerie has often quoted the example of O'Meara, who won the Masters and the Open at the age of 41, as someone for whom major success came late in his career. Keeping to that belief may have its reward over the next few days.