Return to Lytham sparks bitter-sweet memory for Colin Montgomerie

Eighteen years after only being able to get a job half done at Royal Lytham, he is now hoping it can be the “Full Monty”. “I wish it had only been 36 holes and not 72,” said Colin Montgomerie, laughing, as he recalled leading the 2001 Open Championship after starting with rounds of 65-70 at the Lancashire venue before having ?to settle for a tie for 13th behind ?David Duval.

The scoreboard shows Colin Montgomerie is the early leader as the Scot is applauded by the gallery on his way to the 18th green during the first day of the Open at Royal Lytham in 2001. Picture: AFP/Getty

As was the case four years later, when he got himself in the mix again at St Andrews and eventually finished runner-up to Tiger Woods, Montgomerie was loudly cheered on to every tee and every green on the back of that fast start as the British golfing public sensed it was his big opportunity to land that elusive major.

“It was good, wasn’t it?” he said of that reception. “I think they were all thinking, ‘is he going to win his major?’ I’m not saying anyone deserves anything in this game, but it would have been nice to have achieved it that week. I just didn’t play well enough over the weekend, unfortunately, while a number of others played better than me. But it was fantastic support, especially on the Friday after my opening 65. I will never forget it.”

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A repeat of that 65 would do nicely as he starts out in the Senior Open Championship back at the same venue today. Three senior majors have fallen to the Scot since he turned 50 just over six years ago, but this is the one he wants. “I like it here,” he said. “I still drive the ball quite straight and that’s what you have got to do here as there are 197 bloody bunkers. There’s a bunker around every corner and you have to stay out of them. Alastair [McLean, his trusty caddie] also knows the course well, so we should be okay.”

One of six Scots in the Lytham line-up, Montgomerie is hoping to take up in this Claret Jug event where his young compatriot, Bob MacIntyre, left off in the main one at Royal Portrush last weekend. In tying for sixth on his debut, the 22-year-old from Oban became the first Scot to record a top-ten finish in the event since Montgomerie in that 2005 edition.

“When Ewen Murray in his commentary for Sky Sports said, ‘Well done Rob MacIntyre for finishing in the top ten – the first top ten Scotland have had since 2005’, I went ‘what?’ ” said Montgomerie, below. “That isn’t a good stat, is it? There’s something not right there. Okay, it was great for Rob himself, fantastic, but 14 years since Scotland had a top ten in The Open? I thought, come on, what the hell has gone wrong here, something isn’t right.

“We had been treading water for too long so I am glad we are seeing someone very quickly become a world star. He’s a young man with a lot of confidence and comes across as a lovely guy. I’ve never met him. I sent him a tweet at the weekend, saying ‘well done’ and he replied saying ‘thanks Monty’ and I wish him well.”

What advice would he give to MacIntyre? “Patience, patience,” he replied. “Even at 56, 34 years down the road from when I was 22, we are still trying to be patient and figure this bloody game out. It will happen, so be patient and don’t force it.”

In his sixth appearance in this event, Montgomerie is being joined by a number of notable debutants, including Paul Lawrie, Darren Clarke, Michael Campbell and Retief Goosen, who claimed his Champions Tour title with an impressive victory in the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship earlier this month.

“Confidence-wise, he is definitely the man to beat this week,” said Montgomere of the South African, “but you’ve got to think of the strategists as well. You’ve got to think of Bernhard Langer, while Freddie Couples strikes the ball as well as anyone.”

Having finished runner-up to Duval in that 2001 Open after sharing the lead heading into the final round, Langer is aiming to go one better and claim a fourth title triumph in this event in ten years. “I’ve played well in this championship,” acknowledged the 61-year-old German. “I love links golf, so I look forward to it. It’s always a challenge for me to play every shot under demanding conditions and pretty much any of the holes here can grab you.”

The field also includes Tom Lehman, who won the 1996 Open here and enjoyed watching highlights of that lone major victory for the first time earlier this week. “When we got back from the Rolex dinner for the pro-am last night, my two sons were in the kitchen watching it,” said the American, who made an emotional farewell to the event at Royal Portrush. “I was like, wow, I’ve never watched it. I’ve never seen it, so I just sat down. They ended up going down [to bed], but I watched the whole thing till the very end, which was cool.”

Steve Stricker, runaway winner of last month’s US Senior Open, is a notable absentee in the $2 million event, in which Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez will defend the title he claimed for the first time at St Andrews 12 months ago. His compatriot, Jose Maria Olazabal, could be a contender this time around after coming close to a maiden win on the Staysure Tour, the European over-50s circuit, in Germany on Sunday.

The event’s first visit to Lytham since American Tom Wargo triumphed in 1994 has already been a week to remember for Geoff Nicholas after the Australian amputee secured a spot in the field through one of the local qualifiers on Monday. “It’s brilliant,” said Nicholas, who lost his right leg at a young age due to a deformity caused by the morning sickness drug Thalidomide. “Just to qualify for a major, is terrific. This field is some of the old legends. It’s just great to be here.”