Colin Montgomerie backs Scots to bridge the Ryder gap

MARTIN Laird and Stephen Gallacher, who are flying the Saltire in this week's US Open at Congressional, are also at the top of Colin Montgomerie's list as the players most likely to spare Scotland from going three Ryder Cups in a row without a representative on the European team.

Compared to the halcyon days of Brian Barnes beating Jack Nicklaus twice in the same day, Sam Torrance holing the winning putt and Montgomerie himself compiling an impressive record in the head-to-head encounters with the Americans, the last two matches in the biennial fixture have been a huge disappointment from a playing perspective for the home of golf. The 2008 match at Valhalla was the first without a Scot since 1937 and there was no need for the Saltire to be raised at last year's opening ceremony at Celtic Manor either, though that, of course, proved a memorable occasion for Montgomerie as the eight-time player also became a winning captain in Wales.

On current form, his hopes of earning a place in the record books by becoming the first European to play in the match after serving as skipper appear to be slim, but the 47-year-old believes both Laird and Gallacher can use the second major of the season this week to prove they could be contenders for Jose Maria Olazabal's team for the match at Medinah next September.

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"If I was to pick the two Scots who I'd say would play in the next one at Medinah you would put them at No 1 and No 2, definitely. They are the favourites right now," said Montgomerie of Laird, who heads into the event in Maryland as the world No 24 and Gallacher, his 82nd-ranked compatriot. "Martin is ahead at this stage, having won in America (he chalked up his second win on the PGA Tour in the Bay Hill Invitational in March) and also due to his world ranking. But, at the same time, Stevie would definitely be (a contender to be] the second player.

"I played with Stevie in Barcelona (in last month's Spanish Open) and was very impressed the way he strikes the golf ball. He just has to have the belief on the greens that he needs to contend. I also think Martin is an extremely good golfer. He proved that at Bay Hill and I think he could well contend (this week] along with a number of other European players. It is exciting and I will be watching their scores with interest."

While Arizona-based Laird is making his fifth US Open appearance in a row, Gallacher is a relative novice, the 36-year-old having played in the event just once before - at Pinehurst in 2005.

But, having come second himself on his debut in the event, Montgomerie is confident the former Dunhill Links champion can give account of himself this week, urging both his fellow Scots to remain patient on the same course where he finished second to Ernie Els in the event 14 years ago.

"Apart from the Ryder Cup in 1991, my first event in America was the US Open in 1992 and I nearly won it. So there's no reason why Stevie Gallacher, the way he hits the golf ball, can't compete at Congressional," added Montgomerie. "As always, the greens will be very severe and very quick and as long as he doesn't lose the confidence in the greens he could well contend. The only thing stopping him is if he doesn't get the putter going.

"My advice to both of them would just be patient. I know it is an awful word to use in any walk of life but it's the key thing this week. In US Opens you will make mistakes, you will make bogeys. But everyone else is doing the same thing. I don't think you will find any score under par. It is extremely difficult, it was 14 years ago and they've put 300 yards on it since then. They've put in ten new tees and the last hole, oh my God, it's over 500 yards and is a par-4."

Twelve months after Graeme McDowell held off Frenchman Gregory Havret to become the first Northern Irishman to win the event, Montgomerie, who will be part of the Sky Sports commentary team this week, having cut his teeth in the role for the satellite broadcaster at The Masters earlier in the year, is predicting another strong showing from European players.

He conceded, however, that it might not be a bad thing for golf in an American came out on top, giving the game on the other side of Atlantic the same sort of boost it was badly needing when Paul Azinger's team ended a run of three straight European wins with victory in the aforementioned Ryder Cup match in Kentucky in 2008.

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"I hate to say it but I think that was good for the game," said the Scot. "So, at a time when they are not holding a major for the first time ever, I think it is important for America for their players to do well this week. Okay, they've lost their No 1 in Tiger Woods (not playing due to injury) but they still have a lot of great players, as I witnessed at the Ryder Cup.

"They have a number of under-rated players and you would expect them to be contending this week. But, out of the top five, I expect three of them to be Europeans. I'm not saying the others will be Americans either because look at the top three at The Masters - we had a South African (Charl Schwartzel) and two Australians (Jason Day and Adam Scott).

"It would certainly be good for the US in their own Open for Americans to be contending but whether they do or not is another matter. What I know for certain is that we go there with a lot of positives and a lot of strengths in European golf with Nos 1, 2 and 3 in the world.

"And I think that without Woods there the door is now wide open for our top European players to walk through. The likes of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood especially, the ones who haven't won majors yet. I would suggest they'd be the favourites on that list that also includes Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Rory McIlroy." The last-named, of course, led The Masters with nine holes to go before imploding at Augusta National and, while full of admiration for the way the young Ulsterman has bounced back from that disappointment, Montgomerie said the test facing McIlroy this week is entirely different from the first major of the year. "There will be a lot of press and media attention on him. I think he'll be okay with that. Whether the course suits him the way Augusta did, I'm not sure. This is a different test. It's like a clay court game to a grass court game. This US Open style is a different form of golf to what we saw at The Masters. There it was a fast-running test. This is a slower game and a more patient game is required here. It will be interesting to see how he is mentally."Asked if he still bore mental scars from the last US Open at Congressional - he was pipped by Ernie Els for the second time in four years - Montgomerie insisted: "The only disappointment for me that week was that I went from fourth to second in the world when a win would have made me No 1. I played great golf so overall it was a good week."