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Mongomerie aiming for No.1 spot again

Colin Montgomerie can go top of the Order of Merit with a win in the Murphy’s Irish Open, which starts today at Fota Island Golf Club in County Cork.

Top two Retief Goosen and Ernie Els do not return to Europe until next month’s Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, so defending champion Montgomerie will take over the No1 spot if he collects the winner’s cheque for £266,666.

The Scottish player is in a rich vein of form in Europe - having finished equal third, second, equal second and fourth in his last four starts.

A missed cut in the US Open at Bethpage was the only blot on his copybook, and after a week off he returns to action at one of his favourite events.

Victory at Fota Island last year was Montgomerie’s fourth in Ireland, after he had previously completed back-to-back wins at Druid’s Glen in 1996 and 1997.

An opening-day 63 put him in the driver’s seat, and he had five shots in hand at the finish as he claimed his first win in 13 months.

That success saw Montgomerie equal the record of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer, who have won three Irish Opens each.

Faldo and Langer are absentees this week, but Ballesteros returns to action after a break. While a win this year has so far proved elusive, Montgomerie is a cumulative under par for those four events and is clearly the man to beat.

Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington, who tied for second last year alongside Sweden’s Niclas Fasth, head the home challenge, and both have shown good form of late.

Clarke picked up his first win of the season in convincing style at The Compass Group English Open three weeks ago - and, although he was never a threat at Bethpage, he still finished in the top 30.

The Dungannon man needed a birdie at the 36th hole just to make the cut at Fota Island last year before blistering weekend rounds of 65 and 64 saw him jump through the field into second place.

Clarke went one better the following week when his victory at the Smurfit European Open was the first by an Irishman on home soil for 19 years.

Harrington, whose father hails from Cork, certainly will not be lacking in support if he is in contention on Sunday. He has finished in the top ten in both majors this year, although he was disappointed to fade to joint seventh at Bethpage.

Like Clarke, Harrington also took a week off after his exertions in the United States. He finished second in both the Murphy’s Irish Open and Smurfit European Open last year - two of seven runners-up finishes before his long overdue win at the Volvo Masters.

Ireland’s third Ryder Cup player, Paul McGinley, has had a lean time of it of late. Having missed just one cut last season, McGinley has missed four in his last six starts.

Along with Langer, former winners Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal are absentees, but the tournament has attracted a number of interesting players from overseas.

American veteran Fred Funk, who has won five times on the PGA Tour and has career earnings in excess of $9 million, makes his first competitive appearance in Ireland. The 46-year old is also in the field for Loch Lomond, where he will be hoping to secure a place in the Open at Muirfield.

Former Walker Cup team-mates Michael Hoey and Graham McDowell have also received sponsors’ invitations. McDowell missed the cut in his professional debut at the Great North Open last week, but his pedigree is beyond question.

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