18 July 2004

The form of `Troon’s Own’ golfer seems to change as quickly as the weather during the third round of the Open Championship

The tide was going out and so, for a time, was he. Standing beside the table-top fifth green in the sheeting rain with a Montgomerie par putt sliding past for the second bogey of the round it seemed a long time since Colin’s warm, sunny optimism at the start.

Meteorological metaphors maybe, but there was no avoiding them yesterday as we braced ourselves through the squall and then he and we began to get our belief back almost as quickly as the sun came out to warm the sodden blue sweater across Monty’s ample back. The clouds did not come back until he was walking cap-less between the cheering galleries at the 18th, his score back to four-under but the not-so-cheery prospect of his ball in the bunker for the fifth time during the afternoon.

As in all previous occasions, including the notorious `Coffin Bunker’ at the Postage Stamp, he got out brilliantly. But the putt somehow slid past. The rain spattered down, red clouds of anger and exhaustion welled up in the Montgomerie face. He walked past us, head down at almost 45 degrees, suddenly looking all of his 41 years. He’s a big, powerful man with that surprisingly doughy, teddy-bear softness about him. Cries of “throw us the ball Monty” were as useless as tossing pebbles on the beach. The question of whether Colin Montgomerie is a figure of pride or pathos remained unanswered.

He still looked so disconsolate as he came out of the Recorder’s Hut that his manager, Guy Kimmings, took him round the back and, for a good three minutes, the weary golfer was given what appeared to be a ferocious pep talk by the short, squat-nosed figure in front of him. Eventually Colin gave a great shrug and came over to do a series of interviews with an easy, smiling, articulate grace which was as surprising as the sun which suddenly teased its way back into play.

“Anyone who says this is fun is joking,” he said wryly. “It’s a job, at times it can be a horrible job. There were times today when I was really scrambling. I think I did well to get up on 12, and 14 and 15 and I don’t know how that last putt did not go in. But maybe at the end of tomorrow I will be able to look back and think of the good parts. In 1997, young Justin Leonard came from five behind. I have to make a good start. To be at least two under after four holes. But it has to be possible.”

All week, hope had swelled. At first, in slightly pitying sympathy, as Monty bared his soul about his marital problems and explained how he would be 50 the next time the Open came to his home course of Troon, and how pitching himself into golf was an escape he could try without great expectation. But after those two calm and canny 69s of the opening two days, hope had grown into a mighty tree by the time “Troon’s Own” was being announced by Ivor Robson at 2.50pm just three shots behind the unlikely leader.

In many ways it is absurd to invest so much importance in the idiosyncracies of a scuttling white ball but, in both his achievements and his personality, Montgomerie has sought to be ranked among the greats and take a place in our national sporting pantheon. With his Ryder Cup heroics and his seven consecutive European Titles, no one can deny that he is a wonderfully proficient golfer. But he remains impaled on the old adage “Not all winners of the Open are great players, but truly great players have always won the Open.”

His failure to win any Major has meant that each July brings the added `can this be Monty’s year?’ pressure. The idea that it was at Troon, where he knows and we know that he knows more about the course than any other player in the field, should have given him the edge – until we had the much-publicised family drama. Suddenly we have got `Henmania’ with marriage trouble added on.

The trouble is that he is hard to fit into an easily accepted pattern. He has a big springy step and a warm smile when the mood takes. Yet he is too special, too wound up too pernickety ever to be a real man of the people. He folds great hands over the putter, but first scuffs off an imagined piece of fluff with almost feminine delicacy. He is an educated, well-traveled man who addressed the Golf Writers’ Dinner with considerable style last Tuesday. But on a bad day he can become a scowling scold to all and sundry.

He is a millionaire, a world figure in his chosen sport but for these last few days he has subjected himself to the most exacting demands that the game can give him. This has meant unprecedented press attention and as he walked back in the sunshine you had to say that he at last seemed to be warming to it. At the 14th he could even have a laugh.

His round of scrambling, interrupted by a wonderful long birdie putt at the 7th had landed him in the bunker again. It was one of those impossibly high-sided troughs that make the ordinary golfer just want to take an extra ball. Yet again Monty conjured a cloud of sand with a flag seeking ball in its midst. Only this time he overbalanced and fell backwards on his amply cushioned backside.

Laughs have not always been his speciality but the Montgomerie ledger is surely in credit this week. The tide may have stretched the beach out low last night. But the hope has to linger that for Monty the Open dream could still come in on the flood.

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