On and off the course, Colin Montgomerie continues to deliver golden nuggets. Last week, he let his clubs do the talking by qualifying for an Open Championship on home turf at Royal Troon at the age of 53. Yesterday, at a press conference on the eve of his appearance in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, he was swinging just as freely as he aired his views on golf’s return to the Olympics falling apart at the seams, at least as far as the men’s event in Rio is concerned.
At the last count, 13 male golfers, including Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen, had all opted out of competing in Brazil due to concerns over the Zika virus. The condition has been linked to brain defects in newborn babies, yet, in contrast, only one female player, South African Lee Anne Pace, has made the same decision.
Having been part of the high-powered delegation – it also included former women’s world No 1 Annika Sorenstam – that went to Lausanne in Switzerland in 2009 to promote golf’s bid to get back in the Olympics for the first time since 1904, no one can surely argue that Montgomerie deserves to offer an opinion on the situation and he duly did.
“It is disappointing, there’s no question,” he admitted. “First time we’re back in the Olympics since 1904 and we don’t show up. It is a shame that a number of top players have decided not to go. If there were as many ladies not going as I thought it was a disease that affected women more than it did men, you might have thought that was OK. But it’s not. I’d have gone and I would be honoured to go. Having presented in front of the committee for golf to get into the Olympics, the least I could do is turn up. I think Ernie Els has said the same thing. He’s next up to qualify for the South Africans, I believe, and he’s said he’s going.”
While golf’s place in the 2020 Games in Tokyo have already been guaranteed, Montgomerie believes damage may already have been done in terms of the sport being part of the Olympics beyond that. Asked if he was worried about the events of the past few weeks, the eight-time European No 1 replied: “Yes, I am, very much so. The IOC will have a good look at this and think, hang on a minute, what’s happened here. They’ve had to spend multi-millions to buy land then build a golf course and then find [top players] not showing up. If I was in charge, I’d have a second look at it – of course you would – and there must be questions asked when the IOC have their inquest into every sport after the Olympic Games.”
While trying to ensure the leading lights are there in Japan in four years’ time will obviously be the priority, the intervening period will give the IOC and International Golf Federation time to reflect on whether the decision to host two separate 72-hole stroke-play events, as per Rio, is the best format on a calendar already jam-packed with such tournaments.
“Personally, I would have preferred a match-play event whereby the final would have been the gold and silver medal and the third and fourth would play-off for the bronze medal,” said Montgomerie. “But the IOC wanted stroke-play after Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott all went out in the first round of the WGC Match Play when the decision was being made. They were saying, ‘we want Tiger playing on Sunday’.”
For Montgomerie, winning at Castle Stuart on Sunday, which would see him repeat his triumph in the Scottish Open’s forerunner, the Standard Life Loch Lomond, in 1999, would feel just like claiming a gold medal. “If I was to manage to win one of these (a regular European Tour event), it would mean everything,” he said, admitting he’s taken encouragement from Vijay Singh, a fellow 53-year-old, finishing second in a recent PGA Tour event.
You suspect, though, that, deep down, he is really content to be using this event as preparation for that first Open Championship since 2010 next week. “Yeah, very much the back of my mind,” he said, with tongue firmly in cheek of the proposition of perhaps making one final appearance in the game’s oldest major on his home course. “How the hell can somebody say ‘just another event’? Nonsense.”
Among 16 Scots teeing up in today’s £3.25million event on the outskirts of Inverness, Montgomerie is confident he can defy his official current position in the global game. “I just qualified for the Open and it says world No 1,200-something (which is mainly due to Champions Tour events not carrying world ranking points). I thought, that’s rubbish. I’m better than that.”