- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England Monty is finally back in the major mix.

For the first time in more than four years, Scotland's Colin Montgomerie finds himself atop a Grand Slam leader board. The oft-surly Scot was all smiles yesterday after riding a white-hot putter around blustery Lytham & St. Annes in 65 strokes, leaving him three clear of the field after the first round of the 130th British Open.

"It is really very pleasing that I can still perform 'round links courses and lead in majors, because I have not performed in a major championship properly since 1997, when I lost to Ernie [Els in the U.S. Open] at Congressional," said the 38-year-old Montgomerie, who recorded four top-three finishes in Slams between 1992 and 1997 but has been remarkably silent since. "I realize it's only a good start… . At the same time, I know I am playing well. I have a feel for the greens now. I have a feel for the place. And the crowds are behind me, which is a huge, huge bonus I have here."

Support is a luxury Monty certainly has never enjoyed in the United States, where galleries have delighted in riling the thin-skinned Scot with heckles like "Mon-ty" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Unfortunately, majors in the States (particularly the U.S. Open and PGA) always have been the best fit for his game, which is predicated on marvelous accuracy off the tee. That strength has translated poorly to the British Open, where foul-weather warriors with marvelous touch and the imagination required by links golf usually have prevailed. But with its tangled stand of rough, profusion of head-high bunkers and comparably soft fairways and greens, Lytham seems to require a more Monty-like set of skills.

Yesterday that theory played out. He broke 70 for the first time in an opening round at the British Open, a tournament in which he has just one top-10 finish in 11 starts.

"I've been miserable in previous Opens, but I guess this course does suit me quite well because I have confidence in my ability off the tee, which is critical around here," Montgomerie said. "Plus, I putted well today. Whenever I putt well, I have a chance."

When Montgomerie putts like he did yesterday, he's the most dangerous player this side of Tiger Woods (71). If both the setup and the crowd gave Monty an unaccustomed major boost, nothing about his performance yesterday was as startling as his superb exhibition with the short stick.

For years, Monty has languished in a category of great ball strikers who couldn't look more hapless on the greens if they were wielding a hockey stick (see also Nick Price, Vijay Singh, Scott Hoch and Hal Sutton). Montgomerie probably still has nightmares about the 7-foot par putt he missed on the 71st hole at Congressional. But over the last month, Monty seems finally to have found an effective stroke.

Yesterday he one-putted 11 greens and holed out a chip at No. 6 for eagle, using just 24 putts around the 6,905-yard, par-71 layout. His best work with the blade came over the last four holes. After three-putting the 14th, a lapse in concentration he blamed on watching his good friend and fellow Paul Marchand pupil Fred Couples flail his way to a bunker-ridden triple-bogey, Monty responded with a round-saving string of one-putts. The Scot dropped home par saves of 15, 12 and 10 feet on Nos. 15, 16 and 17, then completed his brilliant first round with a dead-center 40 footer for birdie at the last.

"I had the pace of the greens very early on," said Montgomerie, who began his day with a pair of midrange birdie bombs. "My putting has come good since I won the Irish Open three weeks ago. I putted particularly well then. In fact, I led the putting stats for the first time ever in a European Tour event… . I always believed that pace is 80 percent of the putt and line is only 20 percent. I had the pace of the putt today, and that was key for me."

Nobody on the property could match Monty's pace either on the greens or the leader board; he closed the day with a comfortable cushion over a trio of less formidable players (Brad Faxon, Chris DiMarco and Finland's Mikko Ilonen) clustered at 3 under. But the Scot, who coincidentally dropped out of the top 10 in the world rankings this week for the first time since 1994, wouldn't allow himself to glory in the moment too much or to discuss the possibility of claiming his first major in front of adoring fans in his beloved British Isles.

"I have a bit of experience in these majors, and I realize all this is is a good start," Montgomerie said. "I did not dream of any Thursdays at the British Open [as a boy]. But I have dreamed a couple of times of Sundays."

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