COLIN Montgomerie was surrounded by two lots of drama on his over-50s debut on British soil but heaved a sigh of relief after neither of the incidents involved him in the opening round of the Senior Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
As the eight-times European No 1 carded a two-over-par 72 to sit five off the lead in Southport, his two playing partners, Mark O’Meara and Fred Couples, both had unsettling experiences with spectators on the Lancashire links. O’Meara, winner of the 1998 Open Championship on the same course, hit a female fan in the face with a shot out of thick rough at the second hole, smashing two of her teeth.
Then, later in the round, defending champion Couples reacted angrily to another woman spectator shouting abuse at him for no apparent reason at the 15th. “If you don’t cut it out, I’ll have you f****** ejected,” roared the American.
Asked about the incidents, Montgomerie, no stranger to controversy in his colourful career, said: “Yes, it appeared Freddie had an altercation.
“I heard it but I don’t know why or how. I asked Mark about it, but he didn’t know either, so I can’t say anything more.
“Mark was very rattled by what happened with him on the second, anybody would. We heard the noise, the poor lady.
“My word, I hope she’s okay, but Mark has her address and I’m sure flowers will be sent her way because you just hate that to happen.”
Trying to add a bit of humour to the situation, the Scot added: “Usually it’s me who’s involved in these things. I’m actually disappointed, but don’t worry, I’m bound to give you something this week as there are still three rounds to go.”
On a day when only nine players in a 144-strong field broke a tough par of 70 – the course is playing at 7,082 yards and only has two par-5s – American Gene Sauers carded a splendid three-under 67 in the tougher afternoon conditions to set the pace.
The 50-year-old, who has overcome a potentially deadly skin illness to resurrect his career after a five-year absence from the game, is one ahead of 2010 winner Bernhard Langer, South African David Frost, Australian Peter Senior and Frankie Minoza from the Philippines.
Also out in the afternoon, when the wind picked up, Montgomerie started with nine straight pars, dropped three shots in a row from the tenth but rallied to cover his last six holes in one-under.
“I was nervous on the first tee,” he admitted. “With [official starter] Ivor [Robson] there, it felt like it was a major championship, which was good for me and good for the tournament.
“You don’t win it today obviously but you can throw it away with a 77, which I didn’t do, and 72 is not a disaster – it’s something to build on. I’m joint-37th so have a lot to do over the next three days.
“But Phil Mickelson came from five behind with a round to go and won (the Open Championship at Muirfield) not a week ago and I’m five behind with three rounds to go, so it’s game on, definitely.”
Montgomerie, who has played in two over-50s majors in the United States in the past month, beat both Couples and O’Meara by two shots as they each signed for 76.
“It was difficult out there as the wind picked up in the afternoon,” added the Scot, who is chasing his first win since the European Open at The K Club in 2007.
“I had silly bogeys at 10 and 11 as they were easy up and downs, but I didn’t commit to the shots at all. The 12th is a difficult hole at the best of times and I couldn’t get up and down after getting a bad lie in the bunker there.”
Despite a “duffed” tee shot that only went 230 yards, he stopped the rot with a par at the 13th before bagging his only birdie of the day with a 3 at the 16th.
“I was quite happy, really,” he said. “I just messed up 10, 11 and 12, which hopefully I won’t do tomorrow. Expectations are high for me to win again and, now into my third tournament, I feel I belong here and can compete at this level.”