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Leading European golfers chase bigger prizes in 1999

LONDON - Colin Montgomerie leads Europe's golfers on the chase for even bigger pots of gold this year with the addition of three stunningly lucrative global events to their tour.

The world championship series -- Greg Norman's dream for many years -- has finally become a reality. The three new tournaments offer purses of $5 million with cheques of $1 million to the winners.

The events are the Andersen Consulting Match Play championship in Carlsbad, California, in February, the NEC Invitational in Akron, Ohio, in August and the Stroke Play championship at Valderrama, Spain in November.

Entry to all three will be restricted. The top 64 players in the world contest the Match Play, members of the last Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams qualify for the NEC and the Stroke Play will include the top 50 on the world rankings.

Just reaching those fields will exercise the minds and the talents of European number one Montgomerie and the other leading players as they battle through a Tour schedule that begins with the South African PGA championship in Johannesburg on Thursday.

But all of them will be ready to play for nothing when Europe face the Americans in pursuit of a third successive Ryder Cup victory at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, in September.

The biennial match, with its gut-wrenching pressure on the players and mesmeric appeal for spectators, has been the target for Europe's professionals ever since they began to challenge the Americans' vaunted supremacy back in 1983.

Despite double major winner Mark O'Meara's insistence that Ryder Cup players should -- if not paid directly -- at least have a say in the destiny of the vast income generated by the match, no Europeans have yet jumped on that bandwagon.

They seem content with the status quo and are already deemed favourites to retain the trophy.

The Americans, surprisingly beaten 14-1/2 to 13-1/2 at Oak Hill, New York, when the cup was last played at home in 1995 and by precisely the same score at Valderrama two years later, may still be reeling from their comprehensive 20-1/2 to 11-1/2 Presidents Cup defeat by the Internationals in Melbourne last month.

They have sought a less contentious, less competitive atmosphere in recent team matches. Patently it has not worked for them and and they may have to find a way to rekindle the fires that carried them to past victories.

The European team will be captained by Mark James and spearheaded by the trio who battled for the Order of Merit title in 1998 -- winner Montgomerie, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke.

The old stagers who illuminated so many past European teams, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Seve Ballesteros, will all be bidding for places again.

And there could be several new faces, with impressive Swede Patrik Sjoland the most likely to make his debut.

His compatriot Robert Karlsson, German Sven Struever and veteran Spaniard Miguel Jimenez are also in contention after three months of qualifying tournaments.

Montgomerie will not begin to target a seventh successive Order of Merit crown until much later in the year.

"Winning a major title remains my number one goal," said the Scot, who, despite numerous achievements, has not won a Grand Slam event.

Nor has Westwood, but the Englishman is Montgomerie's junior by 10 years and so has time on his side.

After a year in which he won seven titles, including four in Europe, Westwood may be more ready than Montgomerie to join the ranks of major winners.

The Tour has two events in South Africa, one in Australia and one in Malaysia before switching to the Middle East for the Dubai Desert Classic in mid-February. That is when Montgomerie is expected to make his start to thwe season and where O'Meara will be in the field.

The Tour arrives on mainland Europe in March and stays there for the rest of the season.

July's British Open will be staged on the tough Scottish layout of Carnoustie for the first time since Tom Watson won there in 1975.

 

TW 14/1/99