Monty closes in on missing links

Peter Corrigan studies the strengths of the top contenders for this week's Open
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The Independent Online
Our Long wait to see the name of Colin Montgomerie fastened to the plinth of a major championship trophy is becoming tedious only because it is such a distraction when weighing up the prospects of an approaching tournament. To suggest that the patient vigil will come to an end at Royal Lytham & St Annes this week, therefore, carries an element of wishful thinking that the frustrations of this talented player can finally be soothed, for our sake as well as his.

Until it happens, his attempts to achieve the final consummation of his ambition will continue to have a magnetic fascin- ation. It is like watching a series of abortive attempts to fuel a jet- bomber in mid-air or, as older readers might appreciate, waiting for the pandas An-An and Chi-Chi to mate at London Zoo in the 1960s. Get the connection right and we can all relax.

The pandas never did get it together but we have to believe that Montgomerie, much less like a panda himself these days, will do it eventually. It is tempting to think that his chances would be improved if we weren't observing him so intently, but his demeanour does not make it easy to turn away. He is usually blasting off at something or other. If he's not kicking sand, he is bellyaching about the state of the course or threatening dire consequences to camera-clicking Irish spectators.

It's all to do with PMT - Pre-Major Tension - and that dispiriting title of being the best player in the world never to have won a grand slam event. It is a label we have freely pinned on him on this side of the Atlantic but he may not be credited with it in the United States. Corey Pavin was its last undisputed holder and when he won the US Open at Shinnecock Hills last year most Americans would have passed it on to Davis Love III.

Montgomerie has a higher place in the Sony world rankings - second to Greg Norman, in fact, while Love is 14th - but their records this year are about the same. Montgomerie is top of the European prize money while Love is fifth in the US money list and if the American has won marginally more it is only because of the extra thickness of the gravy over there.

Love is nine months younger than the Scot but has been a professional for two years longer. If you take the most recent major form into account, Love was joint second to Steve Jones in the US Open last month - after missing a three-foot putt that would have earned him a play-off - while Montgomerie tied for 10th position. Love has been knocking on the door of the majors a trifle the harder recently. In his last six he has been second twice, fourth and seventh.

Montgomerie has been edged out in two play-offs, the 1994 US Open and last year's USPGA, and was famously third in the 1992 US Open. The Open has not witnessed his best in recent years but his ability to hit the ball straight is likely to be suited by Royal Lytham more than it is by most Open courses. The back nine, particularly, calls for stringent accuracy and this may give him the edge over the longer- hitting Love.

Depending on the faith you place on the law of averages, Love may or may not be favoured by the fact that no American professional has ever won the Open at this venue. Bobby Jones did it in 1926 but he was an amateur. In fact, Lytham has been largely a home and colonial course. It was the scene of Tony Jacklin's sensational Open in 1969 and has accommodated South Africa's Bobby Locke (1952) and Gary Player (1974), Australia's Peter Thomson (1958) and New Zealand's Bob Charles (1963).

It may be longest remembered as the site of two of Seve Ballesteros's three Opens. The first, in 1979 when he was 22, was the occasion of the Spaniard's historic sand-wedge from the car-park adjacent to the 16th hole. The second, in 1988, saw him defeat Nick Price in a tournament dogged by torrential rain.

Seve's four-round total of 273 was the lowest ever recorded in an Open at Lytham and he regards his final round of 65, still the course record, as the round of his life. We have long awaited a Ballesteros revival and men have been inspired by memories less inspirational than that.

Price, 41st in the US money list, does not appear to have the form to measure up to Lytham's demands this time but, at least, he has an Open under his belt after Turnberry in 1994. There are two established stars who have yet to acquire that honour. Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam have an unrequited ambition that can't be discounted. Langer has been troubled with a recurrence of his former putting problems but although his early challenge in the Irish Open fell away his ability to grind out consistent rounds may allow him to mount a realistic challenge on a daunting course like this.

The absence of an Open triumph from Langer's CV might be even more glaring than the shortfall in Montgomerie's list of achievements. And, while we are on the subject of shortfalls, we can no longer neglect the claims for consideration of Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. Normally, Faldo's name would be the first to be discussed. After his dramatic overtaking of Norman to win the US Masters, many felt excited by the prospect this gave him of a tilt at the Grand Slam. But the US Open proved beyond him and he has not been at the forefront of attention since.

For this relief he will be most thankful and, perhaps, even more dangerous. He has spent the past week tuning in quietly on a links course somewhere around the coast of Britain and the bookmakers are just as wary of him as ever. They put him at 9-1 favourite with Montgomerie at tens. It is difficult to think about Faldo this summer without thinking also of Norman and it may be the week when the great white shark tires of hanging upside down on the quayside.

Many of the main contenders opted for a lonely preparation; a fact that caused a few curled lips at Carnoustie where those playing in the Scottish Open felt that it was better to have their game honed by a real battle. By Friday, Carnoustie had treated them so horrendously the theory seemed to have backfired and there was every prospect of them making the journey to Lytham in a fleet of padded ambulances.

One of their number was Ernie Els, another of whom more has been expected than delivered. Els is wandering around between coaches with a swing he doesn't trust and can't be viewed with any confidence. The same sleeping dog impression is being transmitted by a score of players capable of a sudden resurgence. A few are old dogs like Jack Nicklaus, who can be relied upon for a least one surge on to the leaderboard, and Tom Watson who recently broke back into the winning vein.

John Daly, the reigning Open champion, has not had a good year but his career has been so bereft of the orthodox his chances can't be weighed in the same scales as others. But Lytham won't be as tolerant as St Andrews proved last year and it is difficult to see him operating successfully in such confined surroundings. There are almost 200 bunkers and and 80 of them are on the last six holes. The 17th and 18th are particularly infested which is why accuracy and patience are so important. For all the imbalance of these qualities in Montgomerie's nature, it is to him that we return as the most likely to triumph.

Oddly enough a hurricane called Big Bertha has been lashing America over the past week. Montgomerie is not called Big Bertha, although one could think of less appropriate names, but his clubs are of that brand and, properly wielded, could put him and his country out of their misery.

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