SEVEN years after his last appearance in the US Open – the major that hurt him most – Colin Montgomerie will be the kid in the sweetie shop at the age of 51 this week. First and foremost, he is delighted to be back at the season’s second major in a playing capacity, having had to be content with a commentary role for Sky Sports after failing to qualify in four attempts since he last teed up in the event at Torrey Pines in 2008.
He will still be offering his views on air after rounds this week and believes it will be particularly insightful to have a competitor in the commentary box at a venue – Chambers Bay in Washington – that has divided opinion in the build-up to the event. However, the day job will come first for the Scot and, though he knows it’s a long shot, he will head into the first round on Thursday believing it’s not impossible to wipe away the pain this event more than any other inflicted in his fruitless bid to win a regular major.
Asked if it was “madness” to think he could finally get his hands on a trophy that he had been tantalisingly close to picking up four times, he insisted: “No it’s not. Bernhard Langer, who I respect wholly, is going to St Andrews to try and win (the Open Championship) at 58. It’s one of those courses he says would suit him because it runs, and so he can reach the par-4s and get the ball round.
“Chambers Bay, the way that it is set up, links aside, it gives me more of an opportunity than it would if it were a wet, damp 7,500-yard course. So is it a possibility? Of course it’s a possibility, of course it is. Realistic? Possibly not, but if I can be a couple under or something like that at the turn in the first round, I can get the bit between my teeth and that can get the juices flowing again.”
They have been flooding since he joined the over-50s ranks and this week’s welcome opportunity was earned through him winning the US Senior Open in Oklahoma last July. Recently, the eight-times European No 1 successfully defended his US Senior PGA title and, according to his caddie, Alastair McLean, that performance at French Lick was as good as any Montgomerie produced at the peak of his career.
“As we drove up to Chicago from Indiana, Alastair said to me that he thought Congressional in ’97 was the best I’d ever played for four days but that was right behind it,” Montgomerie, who visited a hospital with chest pains before playing his final round in the Senior Players Championship in Massachusetts yesterday, revealed. “Coming from a caddie who understands and, I like to think, would give a fair appraisal, that’s very encouraging. I work on confidence. If I’m confident of doing something, I usually do it and I think that for him to say that, gives me confidence for the rest of the year.”
Third behind Tom Kite on his US Open debut in 1992, Montgomerie finished runner-up on three occasions – losing to Ernie Els in a play-off at Oakmont in 1994, being pipped by the South African again at Congressional three years later then, in 2006, taking a double-bogey 6 at the last at Winged Foot to finish a shot behind Geoff Ogilvy.
Recalling those near misses, he said: “2006 was the only one really I felt I left out there. In ’94 I did okay to get to the play-off. I was still very young at that stage and inexperienced and I let the play-off slip. Okay, fine, these things happen. I played very well in ’97, but I just didn’t hole the putts, unfortunately, over the weekend and you have to have all aspects of the game working to win a major. Then, in 2006, a 4 at the last would have won it and it was almost too easy. The pin was located on the right-hand side of the green (perfect for his fade) and it was almost easier to have birdied the hole than it was to double-bogey it. From where I was off the tee, I think I won ‘Shot of the Month’ and I didn’t win anything for the second. Oh dear!”
It was a stronger expression Montgomerie used to describe his relationship with American fans in the past, but it is more likely to be Sergio Garcia or Ian Poulter that are the targets of the Budweiser-fuelled brigade at Chambers Bay.
“It doesn’t help,” said the former Ryder Cup captain of Poulter being heckled during last month’s Players’ Championship at Sawgrass. “Ian would tell you, ‘oh it just spurs me on’ but it doesn’t help, no, no. You hear it, of course you do, and it doesn’t help. He’s got to put that behind him and get on with the job and win, as I was always told to, especially by Phil Mickelson. It’s a backhanded compliment, to be honest, Americans giving Ian Poulter a little bit of gyp right now.
“Although it didn’t feel that way at the time, I was told that it was because of the fact that they wouldn’t bother with you if you weren’t any good or a threat – and Ian’s both of them.”
Rory McIlroy has been treated with nothing but respect by American fans since he turned the 2011 US Open into a procession at Congressional. There is no doubt, however, that the home fans will be in the opposite corner if he is slugging it out with Jordan Spieth, the Masters champion, down the stretch on Sunday night. McIlroy heads into the event hoping to recapture the sparkling form that preceded back-to-back cuts in the BMW PGA Championship and US Open while Spieth, in contrast, has bounced back from a missed cut in the Players’ Championship by finishing second and third in two of his last three outings.
“However old you are and however fit you are, winning takes it out of you, no question,” opined Montgomerie of McIlroy coming back down to earth with a bump. “Winning the WGC Match Play was a very tiring week for him and then walking into Wentworth as defending champion and all that comes with that, and then walking into the Irish Open, which is presented by the Rory Foundation, made it two weeks that were quite difficult to cope with.
“But I wouldn’t say there was any concern about Rory. I think he’ll get to Chambers Bay and be in contention off the bat, I really do. I think the rest that he’s had will be good for him and I think he’ll bounce back in a hurry. But Jordan is playing well again and Rickie Fowler is also confident after his TPC. He wants to get back onto the major trail again and there are a lot of others too, a lot of others. I think this could be a great US Open played on a unique course. I was reading that it’s the first course the USGA have held the event on that is under 50 years old, which is amazing for a US Open. So all credit to them for branching out and looking for new venues and we’ll see how this one goes. I’m sure that it will be very competitive at that top end.”
The fairytale, of course, would be Phil Mickelson, a six-times runner-up, finally winning his first US Open to complete a career Grand Slam. “Amazing isn’t it,” admitted Montgomerie, “and you almost want to give him this title really, having won the other three and then not being able to do it in the US Open. It is becoming harder and harder for him. “He’s not getting any younger, but there is nobody starts a US Open with the sort of passion that he has. There’s nobody feels for the US Open as he does. My locker will be close to him this week due to them being in alphabetical order and I’ll see him and I’ll wish him well. To win all four majors is something very special in someone’s career and not many have done it. I think he would be a deserving candidate.”
As for Tiger Woods, the winner when Montgomerie made his last appearance in the event, the Scot believes he has to start playing more to give himself the best possible chance of ending his “struggles”, though, laughing, he admitted that the 14-times major winner at 33-1 was still probably the better bet than him at 1000-1 for someone looking for an each-way bet. “I’d like to think if I play as well as I did at French Lick, I have a chance of doing reasonably well,” concluded Montgomerie. “What reasonably well means, I’ve no idea. But I have a chance of doing okay if I play that way. It’s great to be playing in the US Open again and also to commentate for Sky at the same time. It gives them something different to go with on the commentary, someone having actually played the shots and had a putt from that position.”