COLIN Montgomerie believes Tiger Woods can easily turn from a hacker back into a major winner again this week, but also reckons a struggling Rory McIlroy could “flick the switch” to land a second US Open title in three years.
Preparing for a role in the Sky Sports commentary box at Merion, Montgomerie picked out Graeme McDowell, the 2010 champion, as his idea of a likely winner on a course that measures just under 7,000 yards and is playing host to the season’s second major for the first time since 1981.
“I really don’t think you’ll find Bubba [Watson] or Dustin Johnson competing at this type of course,” he observed. “I think you’ll find the likes of Graeme McDowell, especially the confidence he’s in, will be licking his lips at this one, or a Luke Donald back to playing a bit better than he did in the first round of the PGA [at Wentworth].”
Donald’s hopes of matching Montgomerie’s feat of winning the European Tour’s flagship event three years in a row were undone by an opening 78 that was as big a shock to the Scot as Woods, the world No 1, limping to the turn in 44 en route to a seven-over 79 in the third round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village ten days ago.
“That was like a No 1 tennis player serving a whole set of double faults – it just doesn’t happen,” said Montgomerie of an error-strewn nine holes that led to Woods matching the second worst score of his career.
“Okay, the conditions were quite breezy, but not to that degree. Players were still scoring 69. Tiger said he hit a bad shot at the wrong time and got a gust and it was exaggerated. But eight-over-par for nine holes, that’s a hell of a lot.”
However, Montgomerie wouldn’t be surprised to see Woods back in the form this week that has landed him four wins already this year, including the Players’ Championship, as he bids to secure a first major title since his US Open triumph at Torrey Pines in 2008 and kick-start the chase to toppleJack Nicklaus as the game’s greatest player.
Explaining why he wasn’t ruling out Woods along with the other big-hitters on a course where accuracy is key, the eight-time European No 1 said: “Tiger seems to adapt very, very well to courses that aren’t supposed to suit him. TPC [Sawgrass] doesn’t suit him, Hoylake didn’t suit him, remember 2007 [in The Open], he used his 4-iron and won.
“I think he’ll be anxious to get over the disappointment of what happened at Memorial last week. Is he trying too hard in majors at the moment? I could subscribe to that fully, as he’s winning everything bar a major, isn’t he?
“Everyone says he’s back, but no-one will say he’s truly back until he wins another one and it’s very difficult for him. There is more pressure on him than ever before. If he wins one this year, I think Nicklaus’ record could be back on again. But this year is vital – he’s got to win one this year.”
Winning has become elusive full stop for McIlroy since the 24-year-old changed his clubs at the start of the year, but Montgomerie insisted it would be foolish for anyone to write off a player who has used his immense natural talent to turn two majors over the past two years – the 2011 US Open at Congressional and the 2012 USPGA Championship at Kiawah Island – into last-day processions.
“It’s not great, is it?” said the 49-year-old of McIlroy’s form. “He missed a cut at Wentworth and he finished low down the field at Memorial, a course that really suits Rory very well. This is a course that possibly won’t suit him the way Congressional did, but due to the talent of the man, anything could happen and he’s got something to prove.
“I think his eye was taken off the ball in a sense when he was No 1 in the world and everything was going swimmingly well, the new Nike deal and all the other stuff.
“He’s now back to No 2 and, if there’s ever a time when Rory wants to try and get back and prove himself, this is the start. He’s won a couple of majors already by eight shots a pair and now I think that it’s time that he stood up to the plate and said, ‘right Tiger, I’m with you here, I really am with you and I’ve got to go with you here’.
“It’s a huge incentive for Rory because we’re all thinking he’s not really performing and now is the time for him to say right, ‘here I am, I’m back on’. So Thursday for Rory is very important. He’s so talented, [there’s] a feeling there’s a switch that can be flicked and he goes from third gear into fifth gear and he can win. There is so much talent there that it just needs something to click and it’s all done, the way it did at Congressional, the way it did at Kiawah.”
While it surely wouldn’t be harsh to suggest the pair had too much in common, Montgomerie offered warm words of support for Chris Doak, the former Tartan Tour No 1 who is getting his first taste of a major this week after qualifying at Walton Heath last month to earn a spot alongside three of his compatriots – Paul Lawrie, Martin Laird and Russell Knox.
“Chris is a lovely guy and under-rated player and I wish him well,” said Montgomerie. “He’s a very relaxed guy on the Tour and I just hope he does his normal thing. It’s easy to say, difficult to achieve, but if he plays his own game Chris can compete here, I tell you, because he’s very good.”
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