On a day when the midges were out in force, Colin Montgomerie showed his game still has some bite as the 53-year-old – the oldest player in the field – passed the test at Gailes Links in one of the qualifiers for the 145th Open Championship.
In securing third spot behind Swede Oskar Arvidsson and Spaniard Scott Fernandez, the big Scot earned a dream return to golf’s oldest major after a six-year absence at Royal Troon, his home club, in a fortnight’s time.
“This was my last opprtunity to play in The Open on my own course, so it is very special,” admitted Montgomerie after surviving an agonising two-hour wait in his car before discovering he’d pipped fellow Scot Jack Doherty for the third and final spot at the Ayrshire venue.
Having posted rounds of 66 and 71, Montgomerie could only hang on in hope to see if his five-under-par total would be good enough. Doherty, a tall Ayrshireman, was level with four to play before dropping a shot at the 15th. A long birdie putt at the 17th to get back on level terms hit the hole but stayed out.
“I was sitting in my car biting one’s fingernails hoping that it was good enough,” added Montgomerie, who played in 21 consecutive Open Championships after making his debut in the event in 1990 and finished second to Tiger Woods at St Andrews in 2005.
Three years ago, at Gullane, Montgomerie’s bid failed after a lack of preparation, having made a mad dash home from Champions Tour commitments to make that attempt. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake this time, having turned up at Gailes to start getting himself ready last Thursday and spending time there, either on the range or out on the course, to ensure he was giving it his best shot.
That preparation instantly paid dividends as he started with a birdie from close range. “This game is easy,” he said, smiling, on his way to the second tee, his mere presence having already attracted a sizeable crowd at just after 8am and that grew as the day went on, even though it wasn’t exactly one that seemed like summer. In the group two matches behind, Scott Henry was wearing his winter mitts at the start.
Still sitting at one under with six holes to play, it looked as though Montgomerie had a cold putter in his hand but it turned red hot over the closing stretch. The pick of four birdies in that period was a monster close to 50 feet at the 16th. Just as pleasing as he tucked into lunch was a six-footer that saved par at the last for a 66. Helped by starting with an eagle, only Arvidsson beat that, with his 64.
Montgomerie’s afternoon effort was more of a grind. He opened with another birdie before reeling off 10 pars in a row. He then went bogey-birdie-par-bogey. The latter was the result of finding a terrible lie in the front bunker, from where he was unable to keep his ball on the green. “That was a brilliant shot to get to the back of the green there as it was the worst lie of the year,” he said afterwards.
A birdie over the last three holes would have prevented an uncomfortable wait, but he didn’t complain about it proving out of his reach. “It was three good pars to finish because they’re not particularly easy holes, 16 and 18 are particularly long,” he said.
Arvidsson, a 25-year-old from near Gothenburg, defied his lowly world ranking of 1,418th with rounds of 64 and 68, finishing four clear of Fernandez, a 23-year-old from Grenada with a mother who hails from Kidderminster.