“You should all have been in the land of Johnny Nod,” reporters were told by a beaming Colin Montgomerie as he jovially reflected on his crack-of-dawn start to the Open yesterday, which went on to result in a more than satisfactory level- par 71.
It is an indisputable truth that pre-5am alarms are more suited to those delivering the papers than those tasked with filling them. Yet it proved well worth rising at such an ungodly hour for the sizeable media pack and large crowd of punters who followed the opening group after the local hero had got the 145th staging of the Championship up and running with the opening blow in front of a packed first tee grandstand at 6.35am.
With Royal Troon looking an absolute picture in glorious sunshine, the subsequent four hours or so unfolded as a compelling spectacle which could be filed away in the folder marked “Classic Monty”.
Everything was there – early disaster repelled by a thrilling comeback, the odd flashes of his trademark irritability, one debate with the rules referee, not to mention some majestic shot-making and mighty putting which rewarded a truly dogged display by the 53-year-old veteran.
His exploits were fuelled by fire in the belly rather than anything else as he later revealed: “You don’t really want to eat at five in the morning but I could smell the bacon out there.
“There’s one place on the left of the seventh that’s annoying and you want to stop. The smell is fantastic.”
By the time he’d reached the seventh he was on a roll himself. Luke Donald and Marc Leishman joined the Scot in an attractive grouping but there is no doubt who the centre of attention was. While there was a couple of cries of “Luuuuuuuuke” and a warm reception for the likeable Australian – both of whom struggled a bit and finished two and three shots behind their older companion respectively – it really was all about Monty. At points during the round the marshals had to call for greenside spectators to stay put as they would often set off en masse for the next tee following Montgomerie’s putt, oblivious to the fact that Donald or Leishman still had business to complete.
After battling through qualifying to take his place in the field at the club where his father James was secretary and he himself is an honorary member, this was Montgomerie’s first Open since 2010 and he freely admitted in the build-up that it could well be his last. Things couldn’t have got off to a worse start on what is deemed the easiest par 4 on the course. Hitting the first shot was “a great honour” but “the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth shots weren’t so good for me,” he winced.
His tee shot had strayed left and the second found the greenside bunker, prompting the first ‘Monty Glare’ in the direction of the stands. “Sometimes people aren’t quite ready for the opening shots,” he rued. “There was a guy at the top of the stand opening up wi-fi or something with a sort of carry bag that was keeping it dry overnight, and he wasn’t quite aware of what was directly below him, which was me.”
The lie in the bunker was a shocker and it took him two attempts to get out en route to a spirit-sapping 6, though he later reflected: “The best shot I hit, probably one of the best shots of my life, was the fourth shot out of the bunker away from the hole. It was amazing how that ball came out.
“If there is such a thing [as a good double bogey], that’s it, believe me.”
With Donald and Leishman making easy birdies, Montgomerie was three behind heading to the second tee and you could sense the fear that the fairytale could quickly turn into a nightmare. However, the man himself had other ideas and reeled off five birdies in the next eight holes to, remarkably, reach the turn in a share of the lead for the, admittedly still fledgling, championship.
Will his name ever top an Open leaderboard again? If not then he at least had the pleasure of seeing it. “I had a quick look, and I was number one, so I thought that was all right,” he said with a grin.
Fittingly, the putt which took him to three under, came at his beloved Postage Stamp when he nailed his tee shot off the edge of the dreaded “coffin bunker” then rolled in a lovely putt for 2.
The back nine is where Royal Troon bites but couldn’t fully get its teeth into Monty, who held things together admirably.
A sensational 50-foot putt saved par at 13 and a dabble with the edge of the burn at 16, which saw the referee refuse him a drop, was contained to just one shot lost.
Bogeying the last never sits well with Montgomerie, and he came perilously close, but pulled it out of the fire with a lovely 15-footer which saw him bound off to the scorer’s hut with a spring in his step.
“A lot better players than me, top 10 in the world, would have taken 71 after being two over at the first,” said Montgomerie, who is off at 11.36am today. A more civilised start time but expected to be in less favourable conditions. Dark clouds may yet gather but yesterday the Troon son was smiling.