Monty Keeping Busy in Offseason

Thursday, December 9th 2004, 8:15 pm

By: News On 6

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) _ Colin Montgomerie has played in the Target World Challenge twice before, just not under these circumstances.

``I believe I'm the world's worst-ranked player here,'' he said.

Tournament host Tiger Woods gave him one of the four sponsor's exemptions in October, and Montgomerie made the most of it Thursday with a 4-under 67 that left him atop the leaderboard with Woods and Jim Furyk.

A victory this week would not change Montgomerie's record of never having won in the United States because the 16-man tournament is unofficial. The money is great _ $1.25 million for the winner is the largest payoff in America _ although that's not why he is happy to be playing.

This has been a year to forget, and he wants to stay busy to keep his mind off personal matters.

Montgomerie went through a very public divorce this summer, which became official the week before the British Open at his home course of Royal Troon. The holidays are approaching, which Monty says will be a ``nightmare.''

Since the European tour season ended in November, he already has played in the UBS Cup and the Casio World Open in Japan, anything to keep his mind occupied.

He also has dropped to No. 79 in the world _ one spot behind Youn-Eun Yang of South Korea _ and is desperate to get that number back where he feels it belongs.

``It's been a crap year, and I'm getting my game back again to a certain degree,'' he said. ``I'm looking forward to the start of 2005. I've kept busy for a reason. I'm very fortunate to be able to travel and go different places and get away from things. It's been a benefit the last six months.''

When asked what has caused his slide in the world rankings _ he was No. 10 when he played the Target World Challenge two years ago _ Montgomerie bristled.

``The primary cause for me sliding down the Order of Merit was getting divorced, OK?'' he said. ``Obviously, you don't have that emotion in your game. But when you are playing out in public, it's very, very difficult to concentrate on what one's doing. So that's why I've dropped 40 spots in the world, and I intend to get that back in a hurry.''

Thursday was a start, even if it doesn't count.

Montgomerie surged into the lead with a 5-wood from 241 yards that stopped 8 feet away for an eagle on No. 16, then he gave back his one shot of the round by hitting into the side of the hill on the par-3 17th.

``I played quite well,'' Montgomerie said. ``Anytime you can equal Tiger Woods, well, that's OK.''

Woods and Furyk didn't do anything quite so dramatic. They just kept out of trouble and avoided the kind of mistakes that knocked Chris DiMarco out of the lead twice and sent Vijay Singh to a 3-over 74, matching the worst round on a pristine day at Sherwood Country Club.

Fred Couples had a 69, tied with Miguel Angel Jimenez and Padraig Harrington. It would be Couples' second win in the silly season, having beaten Woods at the Skins Game two weeks ago.

Woods overcame a sluggish start with a 5-iron out of the damp rough and under a tree that came within inches of going into the hole at No. 4. That left him a tap-in birdie.

Furyk was among three players who had the outright lead on the back nine until he missed the 18th green, chipped to 12 feet and watched his par putt turn away just at the end.

Woods failed to win a stroke-play event on the PGA Tour for the first time in his career and lost his No. 1 ranking to Singh, but recently said his swing changes were coming together. He won in Japan last month, and sees this tournament as another building block for next year.

``I'm making some great strides,'' he said.

Furyk had surgery on his left wrist in March, missed the first half of the season and failed to win on the PGA Tour for the first time since 1997. Not even a victory at Target or the $1.25 million check _ the largest in the United States _ can make up for that.

``Whether I play poorly or great, that's not going to change my outlook on this year or next year,'' Furyk said. ``I just want to stay sharp.''

DiMarco and Singh had a couple of lapses, and it cost them.

DiMarco surged into the lead with three straight birdies, the last one from 15 feet on No. 14 to get to 6 under for a three-shot lead. It disappeared on one hole.

He dumped his tee shot into the water on the par-3 15th, and his next shot caught the collar of the green. DiMarco tried to chip with a fairway metal and came up 4 feet short, then missed that to take triple bogey. He bounced back with a birdie, then went over the 18th green and three-putted for double bogey and a 69.

The real turnaround belonged to Singh.

He was 4 under on his first four holes until his nemesis _ putting _ knocked him down.

Singh took double bogey on the par-5 fifth, missed two pars putts and was back to even at the turn. It looked as if he would turn it around when he hit a flip wedge to 4 feet for birdie on No. 10, but he three-putted for bogey. He ended his round with a double bogey on the 18th for a 74.

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