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Montgomerie starts season earlier than usual

Colin Montgomerie is renowned as a player who generally eschews practice and he and early season starts have traditionally mixed like oil and water.

This year, however, is a Ryder Cup year and therefore a very special case for the 40-year-old Briton.

The seven-times European number one is determined to claim his first title in Europe for more than 14 months and, even more importantly, book himself an automatic berth on the European team to take on the U.S. at Oakland Hills this September.

Instead of delaying his playing schedule until at least March for the high-profile Dubai Desert Classic, Montgomerie will be teeing off at this week's South African Open, the European Tour's first event of the year.

For the big Scot, and for several other European hopefuls, the 35th Ryder Cup will be uppermost in his mind over the next eight months.

"Last year was not a good year at all by my standards and I was very disappointed that my world ranking dropped so much," Montgomerie told Reuters at the weekend.

"I was quite inconsistent, though I definitely showed some return to form, winning the Macau Open at the end of the season.

"This season, I feel a bit like a rookie having worked hard on my game and fitness over the winter, changed my clubs to Yonex and I also have a new caddie on my new bag.

"I am starting earlier to get my world ranking back up and also Ryder Cup points, which go hand in hand.

"I really want to make it into the Ryder Cup team on my own merit and I have been working, and will continue to work, very hard to ensure that this is the case."

Montgomerie was a talismanic figure for Europe in the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry and set the tone as the hosts dominated the last-day singles to beat the United States by 15-1/2 points to 12-1/2.

Sent out first by captain Sam Torrance, he relentlessly eased to a 5 & 4 victory over Scott Hoch and ended the week with a record-equalling 4-1/2 points overall.

Montgomerie, also a key figure for Europe in the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline where he collected 3-1/2 points, will have already been inked in for Oakland Hills in Michigan by new captain Bernhard Langer.

Both Montgomerie and Langer would far prefer it, though, if the inspirational Scot can claim his place in the European team for the September 17-19 event on merit.

If Europe's 2004 team was to be selected this week, based entirely on the Ryder Cup world points list, the 12-man lineup would comprise: Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Fredrik Jacobson, Padraig Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Maarten Lafeber, Carlos Rodiles, Ian Poulter, Brian Davis, Raphael Jacquelin, Thomas Bjorn and Paul Casey.

Of those, Westwood, Jimenez, Lafeber, Rodiles, Poulter and Jacquelin are all playing in this week's event at Erinvale Golf Club at Somerset West outside Cape Town.

In reality, captain Langer's team will be determined by the leading five players in the above list as of August 23, plus the leading five, not otherwise qualified, in the European Ryder Cup points standings as of August 29.

Langer will then add two wildcard selections to complete his lineup.

Although those occupying the top 12 spots in this week's Ryder Cup world points list would in no way let Europe down against the U.S. this September, the team would be unquestionably strengthened with five amendments.

A combination of Clarke, Westwood, Jacobson, Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie, Alex Cejka, Poulter, Paul McGinley, Niclas Fasth, Bjorn and Casey might include four rookies, but it exudes an ideal blend of experience and class.

Others who could come into the Ryder Cup equation by late August include Britons Luke Donald, Justin Rose and David Howell, Sweden's Mathias Gronberg, Spaniard Ignacio Garrido and Denmark's Anders Hansen.

The high-pressure cauldron of a Ryder Cup frequently provides the highlight of a professional's playing career and, for a rookie, it is often an intoxicating, if nerve-racking, experience.

Should Colin Montgomerie earn his place on the European team for this September entirely on merit, the 35th Ryder Cup could well provide the highpoint of his already impressive career.

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