Monty has point to prove in Masters

COLIN MONTGOMERIE is an odds-on favourite to top the European Tour order of merit for the eighth time at Valderrama this week.

But he had better do so by more than the 22,000 points he was credited with in the Indonesian Open if there isn't to be an outcry of protest by his fellow professionals.

Even though he acknowledged he had infringed the rules in Indonesia last January and handed his prize cheque over to charity, the far more important bundle of ranking points stood to Monty's credit enabling him to get into both the US and British Open Championships which in turn helped him to soar back to the top of the order of merit with a series of outstanding performances.

He goes into the Volvo Masters beginning at Valderrama on Thursday with a total of 2,587,556, some 153,487 ahead of Michael Campbell who in turn has 172,858 to spare over third placed Retief Goosen.

The winner this week receives 666,666 points so Monty is very much in the driving seat heading for the south of Spain. However, should he have a bad week, then any number of possibilities open up and one very clearly makes it possible for Montgomerie to claim the order of title by an amount the same as or less than he collected in Indonesia.

And if that happens, many of those who confined their reaction to Monty's antics in Jakarta to the committee room or discussed it only with close friends, will go public and in a manner that is certain to be a source of serious embarrassment to the Scot.

Nobody disputes he is a golfer of the highest quality and that his record speaks very much for itself. Trouble is that there have been other occasions when he was in trouble with the

authorities, most notably in the Volvo Masters of 2002 when he vehemently denied that his ball had moved at address on the 10th green on the final afternoon after a great many people believed otherwise.

Sky's cameras caught him heatedly arguing the point in the scorer's caravan; he not only won his point but also got his way when insisting there was no need for himself and Bernhard Langer to play off to decide the winner of the Tour's decisive season-ending championship! Suffice to say that a lot of people have been waiting in the long grass since. They have neither forgiven nor forgotten.

However, there is so much to play for over the four days not least the massive amount of Ryder Cup points at stake that the other 59 players in the elite field will be concentrating exclusively on their own golf. Ireland has never had more than four players in the Volvo Masters and Ronan Rafferty won the order of merit in 1989. This time, however, we have six contenders for the title, its own indication of the strength of the professional game in the country at the moment.

Damien McGrane, the former Wexford club professional now domiciled back in his native Co Meath, picked up 6,600 for a share of 48th place in Majorca on Sunday and that was sufficient to move him up from 62nd to 60th, the last available spot at Valderrama. It's been an ambition of McGrane throughout his professional life to qualify for the Volvo Masters but now having done so, he fears he won't have the reserves of physical and mental stamina required to tackle such a difficult golf course.

"I don't know if I'll be able to do myself justice," he mused before craftily adding: "At least it's another week's work and another paycheque." A perfectly understandable sentiment given that McGrane is still not one of the super rich and not in a position to comment, as so many do nowadays, that "the money doesn't matter."

Nevertheless, he seems to have made a wise move in quitting his club job at Wexford, having banked 385,781 so far this year. Nor have the other five Irishmen bound for Valderrama anything to complain about from a financial perspective. Paul McGinley is best off in sixth spot with a total of 1,629,762 and is followed by Darren Clarke, 19th with 955,330; Padraig Harrington, 33rd on 599,515; Graeme McDowell 36th with 545,089, and Peter Lawrie in 52nd spot with 419,455.

LAWRIE, like McGrane, is a Valderrama debutant and arrives refreshed after a few weeks off to celebrate with wife Philippa the arrival of their first child, Jessica.

McGinley ruefully acknowledges that he has never done well at Valderrama but is so desperate for a win before the end of 2005 that he cannot be discounted and his recent form has been outstanding. Disappointingly, the same could not be said of Harrington whose year has been a combination of the very good (wins in America in the Honda and Buick Classics) and the downright poor (failure to make the cut in the US Open and Masters).

He is far better placed on the US Tour (12th with $2,406,106) than on the corresponding list in Europe. The uncertainty about his father's health followed by his death had an understandably unsettling effect and McGinley wasn't far from the truth when he remarked recently that "Padraig won't be sorry to see the end of 2005 and will be fresh to start all over again in 2006."

Harrington himself wouldn't necessarily disagree although he has quite a busy schedule to fulfil. After Valderrama, he contests the US Tour Championship at East Lake, Atlanta, before moving on to China for the new HSBC tournament that also contains Tiger Woods among its elite field. He then returns to Europe to partner McGinley in the World Cup of Golf at Villamoura before Tiger's Target Challenge in Los Angeles in December winds down the campaign. The present plan is to then take his customary nine-week break although he could resume in the Dubai Classic which has now been moved forward to the first week in February.

All the time, there are Ryder Cup and World Cup ranking points to be played for and in this regard only McGinley can be pleased with progress to date. Furthermore, they all have a bit of work to do where the world points are concerned. Harrington, sixth after the Buick, has slipped out to 14th, Clarke is stuck around 18th spot and McDowell is 49th and in grave danger of slipping out of the all-important top 50. McGinley, on the other hand, began the year in 66th place but is now a very healthy 27th.

Valderrama and the Volvo Masters present all six Irishmen with a golden opportunity to improve their lot in all sorts of ways.

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