Monty not quite out of the Woods

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The Independent Online

Colin Montgomerie dreams of one day being the world number one. But with Tiger Woods around he knows it may have to remain the stuff of dreams.

Colin Montgomerie dreams of one day being the world number one. But with Tiger Woods around he knows it may have to remain the stuff of dreams.

Fresh from his eighth victory of the season and 17th of his three-year professional career, Woods flew to Spain today for the American Express World Championship starting at Valderrama on Thursday.

The £3million event may be lacking some of golf's big names - world number two David Duval, Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples, Steve Stricker and Jumbo Ozaki - but it unquestionably has the biggest of them all.

Woods' win in the Tour Championship in Houston, a tournament inevitably overshadowed by the tragic death last Monday of US Open champion Payne Stewart, clinched him his second US money list title.

It took his 1999 earnings crashing through the five million dollar mark and his career earnings to more than 10 million. And this two months short of his 24th birthday.

His seven wins on the US Tour alone - his other came in Germany in May - is the most since Johnny Miller lifted eight trophies in 1974.

Woods has triumphed on his last four starts (plus being part of the winning American Ryder Cup side) and, quite amazingly, has won the last 11 times he has taken a lead into the final round.

Now he is keen to try to take his revenge on a course where he won just one of five games in America's Ryder Cup defeat two years ago.

"I'm looking forward to having another go at that course, he said. "I feel very comfortable with my golf swing.

"It's taken since the middle of 1997 to this May before I felt really good. It's a tough process playing with a swing which you know was not good enough to win out here, but now my game is where I want it to be."

Montgomerie, who has much happier memories of Valderrama, conceded: "Tiger is so far ahead of anybody else in the world of golf right now and good luck to him.

"He is going to be difficult to catch and the way he is performing he is dangerous anywhere. Confidence is what it's all about and I'll be very surprised if he's not a hot favourite this week."

And for once Montgomerie will have cause to celebrate himself if Woods does indeed win again. It would hand him the European number one spot for a magnificent seventh straight year.

Although he leads by over £410,000 with only this week's tournament to come, Montgomerie is not yet safe because first prize on Sunday is £609,421.

But Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and South African Retief Goosen - the only three players who can overtake him - all have to win and with Woods in the field their task is undeniably much harder.

However, if Garcia or Westwood do win, Montgomerie would have to finish second on his own to extend a reign which began in 1993. If Goosen wins, the 36-year-old Scot's target is eighth place.

Montgomerie, Europe's Ryder Cup hero on the course two years ago and winner of the 1993 Volvo Masters there, is not surprised about Duval and the other absentees.

Duval cites tiredness - "the Ryder Cup took what little I had left out of me," he said before taking himself off to Idaho for some fishing and hunting.

Montgomerie commented: "David Duval has had a tough year. He can't catch Tiger on their money list now, so I can understand it.

"It's just one of these things - I think if this week's event was in America you would have a different view. But it happens to be in Spain after a long year.

"It's great we can play for this money, but second place in the Tour Championship was worth more than it is this week, so why come to Spain for it?

"It just proves how strong the US Tour is."

Australian Greg Norman, who kick-started the idea of the World Championships with a proposed breakaway World Tour five years ago (it fell through), announced he was not going to play either, but has fallen to 51st in the latest world rankings and would therefore have qualified only if the name of the late Payne Stewart is deleted from the list, which it has not been yet.

Montgomerie predicts that the number of stay-aways at the World Championship series started this year could become even greater.

The Andersen Consulting match play event won by Jeff Maggert in California in February is scheduled for Melbourne on January 3-7 in 2001 and Montgomerie said: "That's unreal. It's just got to change."

Sixteen Europeans are in this week's elite field, each with hopes of that gigantic winner's cheque - more than 10 of them have earned all year.

Montgomerie, Garcia and Westwood will be the centre of attention along with Woods, though.

Nineteen-year-old Garcia moved back ahead of Westwood in second place in the Order of Merit by finishing joint fifth in the Volvo Masters yesterday - Montgomerie was 16th and Westwood 30th.

For the young Spaniard, runner-up to Woods in the US PGA championship in August, to have a chance of finishing his rookie season as Europe's number one is nothing short of phenomenal.

Garcia did not turn professional until April after finishing top amateur at the Masters and has won over £858,000 in just 11 starts. Montgomerie and Westwood have played nine more than that.

Westwood, the 26-year-old from Worksop, admits he needs to sort out a putting problem if he is to be a factor this week.

"I tried about six different grips in the final round of the Volvo Masters. The first five obviously didn't work and the sixth wasn't very good either," he said.

"But Valderrama is a proper course. It requires you to hit it straight and it won't be just a putting tournament."

Another Ryder Cup Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jimenez, won at Montecastillo, shooting a closing 65 to beat Goosen, Dubliner Padraig Harrington and German Bernhard Langer.