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Top Europeans head to South African Open

Britain's Colin Montgomerie makes an unusually early start to his season in the South African Open beginning on Thursday.

The second event of the 2003-04 European Tour season boasts a strong field, with resurgent Briton Lee Westwood also among the favourites.

"It is not necessarily an earlier start because it is a Ryder Cup year," said Montgomerie, the seven-times European number one.

"I think I have taken too long off in the past to be honest. I am about a month and a half earlier than usual. I normally begin in the first week of March.

"Because I didn't play at Sun City last year or at Tiger's (Woods) event in Los Angeles, I finished around about three weeks earlier. So I'm just starting where I would have done although it happens to be backed up a bit.

"I look forward to going to Bangkok in two weeks time and over to Asia. This is a good start to the year for me as it is an easy flight with only a two-hour time difference."

Westwood ended a massive slump in 2003 when he claimed the BMW International in August and followed up with victory at the Dunhill Links Championship.

He has continued to work hard both in the gym and on the practice range and was quietly confident before the tournament.

"Just after Christmas I started doing a bit of gym work," Westwood said. "I wanted to come out this year a little bit fitter than I have been and I'm just trying to eat the right things.

"There is no real downside to being fitter and I spent three days with coach David Leadbetter in early January.

"I did a lot of work there, I probably hit 2000 balls. It was just about building on what we had done last year and introducing a few other things that we are going to work on this year."

Montgomerie, who has not won in 14 months on the European Tour, is not only making an early start but also playing with new clubs and a new caddie in a part of the world he has never visited.

"I have new irons and woods from Yonex and I'm looking forward to testing them out in competition," Montgomerie said after the pro-am, played in windy conditions at the Erinvale Golf Club.

"I have only used them on the range so far so hopefully in competition they will come up to scratch. It was windy today so it is very difficult to judge new clubs because it is difficult to get the distances right.

"I also have a new caddie in Andy Forsyth, who worked with Mark McNulty for three and a half years."

South Africa's Trevor Immelman defends the title he won 12 months ago, his maiden victory on the European Tour launching a superb year culminating in victory at the World Cup of Golf with compatriot Rory Sabbatini.

"It is exciting to be back and I got a lot of confidence from winning my last tournament of the year in 2003," Immelman said.

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