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Golf: THE EARLY BIRDIE; GOLF: SOUTH AFRICAN OPEN STARTS TODAY Monty cuts short winter break as he goes all out for glory.

Byline: LEE WEST

COLIN Montgomerie will today break with his traditional routine by starting his season six weeks earlier than usual.

The seven-times European number one lines up in the South African Open at the Erinvale Golf Club near Cape Town after recharging his batteries over the winter break.

And the 40-year-old Scot insisted that he is raring to get back into the fray at an event which opens a Ryder Cup year and launches the new European Tour season.

Montgomerie, who will be bidding to record his first win in 14 months on the European circuit said: "It's not necessarily an earlier start because it is a Ryder Cup year.

"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.''

Monty and the 155 other competitors who will be battling it out for the world's second oldest Open title were greeted by gusty winds and inclement weather in their practice rounds yesterday.

And they will be hoping that the infamous Cape Doctor - the wind which blows in these parts - lies low for the next four days.

Montgomerie, who has never visited this part of the world before, will be playing with new clubs at Erinvale and a new caddie, Andy Forsyth.

Monty changed caddies three times last year and also abandoned a spell with the belly putter.

"I have new irons and woods from Ynex and I'm looking forward to testing them out in competition.'' Montgomerie said after yesterday's pro-am.

"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.''

Montgomerie will face tough opposition as he bids to make a winning start to the year with resurgent Englishman Lee Westwood among the favourites.

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

And after working hard both in the gym and on the practice range over the break he was bullish about his chances of continuing the form he showed at the tail-end of 2003.

Westwood said: "Just after Christmas I started doing a bit of gym work, working with Steve Hampson, who has worked with Darren Clarke - although I am not trying to shift as much weight as Darren has lost.

"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.

"It is a continual process and we are not going to do anything dramatically different, but there are a few things that we are going to be working on - the shaping of my shots to give me a bit more distance, things like that."

Title

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

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

CAPTION(S):

BACK IN THE SWING: Monty, main pic, and Lee Westwood left, line up in the SAA Open; CASHING IN: Vijay Singh
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 15, 2004
Words:722
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