Colin Montgomerie: The chorus of approval that Monty found so moving

It will be his seventh Ryder Cup - but his first as a wild card. Andy Farrell speaks to a proud player whose game will rise with his self-esteem
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The Independent Online

Aged 41, just divorced, coming off a missed cut at the German Masters, yet, despite all that, this Ryder Cup has come exactly at the right time for Colin Montgomerie.

Aged 41, just divorced, coming off a missed cut at the German Masters, yet, despite all that, this Ryder Cup has come exactly at the right time for Colin Montgomerie. Even if he has not got a date for the Gala Dinner. A couple of months ago it would have been too early. He played well for three days during an emotional week on home ground at Royal Troon but, still coming to terms with the break-up of his 14-year marriage to Eimear, he was never a contender for the Claret Jug.

At the High Court on Friday, the "quickie" divorce came through, his "unreasonable behaviour" recorded for posterity. A new life has already begun, however. Since The Open he has lost 34 pounds following a new diet and fitness regime, while making a seventh appearance in the Ryder Cup became his goal.

Both campaigns have brought positive feedback to bolster his self-esteem. He enjoys the compliments his appearance has brought, but he has had no more important conversation of late than when Bernhard Langer, the Ryder Cup captain, asked to see the Scot following the last qualifying event in Munich two weeks ago and offered him a wild-card place for Oakland Hills this week. "When Bernhard told me I was obviously thrilled," he said.

"But what was more thrilling was what he said to me after that. He said he asked all the players on the team about me and they all said that they wanted me to play. In a way that means more to me than being picked in the first place. To have the approval of everyone on the team is very satisfying. It's not about sentiment, the players don't think like that, they wanted me for what I can do, not what I have done in the past.

"Being a wild card is a new experience for me. I qualified every time before, so when you look at the list and see I wasn't close to qualifying, and that Bernhard had to go a long way down to find me, that means a lot."

Two years ago at The Belfry, when Montgomerie won four-and-a-half points out of five, Sam Torrance, the captain, knew that while he did not want to treat any one player as the star of the team, subtly reinforcing his fellow Scot's self-esteem was the key to getting the best out of him. The build-up to the match had been difficult, Montgomerie suffering from back problems that almost caused to him to pull out.

His form in practice was less than impressive, but all that changed once the match actually started. Leading off the singles order on Sunday was the most obvious way in which Torrance emphasised Montgomerie's role as "King of the Castle". But at the opening ceremony there was a small but significant moment when Torrance, introducing his players, announced him simply, informally but affectionately, as "Monty" to the roars of the crowd.

So despite everything - his form in Germany was shrugged off with a "nothing much wrong, just a bit of timing with the driver, not to worry" - the former European No 1 is resolutely positive and cheerful. "I can't speak for the rookies, but even going into this for the seventh time, after 14 bloody years of this, there is still excitement and anticipation, of course there is. When you put on the team uniform and go to the airport on Monday you feel very honoured indeed, and that should never change and never will."

As an intelligent man, Montgomerie is fully aware of the absurdities of professional sport and the behaviour it can induce in him. But there are times when certainty, and denial, are important characteristics for a sportsman. Hence his observation that "form goes out the window at the Ryder Cup. On the Friday morning, on the first tee, it's not how's your form but whether you can stand up".

So how would he like to hit the first shot, as he did at Oak Hill in '95? "If that's the case, it would be an honour. You won't sleep for a couple of nights. I didn't at Oak Hill, I didn't think it was an honour then, more like hell." Will he be playing five times, as he has done in the last five matches? "If it helps the team, then yes. If there is any reason why not, then I'll talk to Bernard and I'll be the first to say so."

What about Padraig Harrington, the leading European player on the world rankings, saying he did not feel it was his job to lead the team, that was for Monty? "I believe that is still my role, but at the same time if he wants to help by getting a few points that would be great. He's not a junior member of the team. He has an important part to play, along with everyone else."

Montgomerie has emphasised to the five rookies in the team that the more questions they ask the better. But the experience is one that everyone has to go through for themselves. "You can't explain it. You have to go through it. You'd be surprised if the rookies aren't nervous. Ian Poulter tells a good story, but I won't want to find him 10 minutes before his tee-off.

"We all suffer, of course we do. You try and talk it up to give yourself confidence but, my goodness, it's hard work."

It was even harder five years ago at Brookline, when vile, personal abuse was directed at the Scot by the American gallery. It was the worst thing they could have done as he finished the match as the top points-scorer, as he has in each of the last three matches.

"It started on the sixth hole on the first morning and it annoyed me to the extent that I took Paul Lawrie aside for a chat on the seventh tee. Paul had never experienced anything like it. I was annoyed to the extent that I didn't want to lose. So I didn't. No one likes playing under those circumstances.

"My first memory of that match is actually of Payne Stewart," Montgomerie added. He carries in his business folder a photograph of the pair of them from the singles. Stewart died a month later in a plane crash. "But my second memory is the atmosphere that week, and that I never want to have to go through it again. It doesn't make it any easier for anyone. Let's hope this time it goes off without a bang and people are talking about who won and who did what. But you have to be prepared - it's like matchplay itself. You have to expect the other guy to hole everything, so when he doesn't it's a bonus."

Montgomerie has the best percentage rating of any European who has played in at least three Ryder Cups. Since 1997 he has lost only two games. It is obvious the Ryder Cup brings out the best in him, like Seve Ballesteros and others before, but not everyone has the record in the team event that their credentials in individual strokeplay competition suggest. Tiger Woods, for example.

Is there an art to imposing yourself on an 18-hole game of matchplay? "You start birdie, birdie, birdie. That's what you do, that's how you impose yourself. You birdie the first hole and go one up, that's what I did against Scott Hoch [in the singles at The Belfry].

"Of course, if you go behind, and you press, you can go further behind, and it can all be over in two hours. It is a peculiar sort of thing; 18-hole matchplay is a very quick game. The only way to impose yourself is to hole a few putts and get ahead." At The Belfry, in all five matches, Montgomerie was never behind once.

Then, for the first three matches, Monty was paired with Langer. Now, after 10 appearances himself, the German is the man in charge. How is his old partner doing as captain? "It's too early to say, really, we haven't got on the plane yet. Afterwards, you take stock and see how the captain has done. But so far he has been exactly as I expected. Knowing him as I do, probably better than anyone on the team, he's been exactly as I expected. At the team dinner the other night, he had answers for all the questions he was asked, and if he didn't then there was someone from the European Tour who did.

"A lot of it was simple stuff, logistics and transportation and stuff, but it was good that the rookies felt able to speak up in the team room, in the team environment, before we even get there. Nothing has surprised anyone about Bernhard and nothing will.

"He is very regimented and structured, but that is the man. He will have everything worked out. He will have every contingency plan beforehand, which is important, because things are not going to go to plan. We'll have to chop and change, but we have a team that goes all the way down this time so that will help us. Don't worry, Bernhard will have everything worked out."

There may be many worries on Montgomerie's mind, but golf, and the Ryder Cup, are not among them.

Biography

Colin Montgomerie MBE

Born: 23 June 1963 in Glasgow.

Ryder Cup record: 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2002. Played 28 matches, won 16, lost 7, halved 5.

Career victories: (37). European Tour (28): selected: Portuguese Open (1989). Scandinavian Masters (1991, 1999, 2001). Dutch Open (1993), English Open (1994), German Open (1994, 1995). Dubai Desert Classic (1996), Irish Open (1996, 1997, 2001). Volvo PGA Championship (1998, 1999, 2000). Other (9): selected: Million Dollar Challenge (1996). World Match Play Championship (1999).

Also: in 1999 claimed his seventh successive European Order of Merit title. Three times a runner-up in majors.

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