Golf: Bulldog with a bark worse than his bite: In the past Colin Montgomerie might have snapped but now the Scot makes sure it is his snappy game that counts. Tim Glover reports

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The Independent Online
SCOTT HASTINGS was forewarned and disarmed. 'He was absolutely brilliant,' the Scotland and Lions centre said. 'I was very impressed with the guy.' Some people might consider that playing golf with Colin Montgomerie was the result of taking possession of a very short straw, but not Hastings.

He was in Montgomerie's team in the pro-am (this is where the good and the great realise they are neither when it comes to playing golf) at the Bell's Scottish Open at Gleneagles. 'I'd heard about his hot-headedness but I'd never met him before,' Hastings said. 'He has pulled his socks up and has recognised that in the past he let himself down. It's all part and parcel of being in a pressure situation. A parallel with the heat he faced in the US Open could be drawn with Ireland in the World Cup, and look at how Jack Charlton reacted. We discussed the media during the round and he has now learned to get them on his side.'

Almost at a stroke, it seems that Big Bad Monty - who had a well-earned reputation for throwing teddy out of the pram when a shot missed a fairway or a putt missed the hole or his egg was not quite soft enough - has gone from pantomime villain to jolly pink giant. The complexion, never white, never brown, but a sort of lobsterish pink, is now enhanced by a smile that could launch a thousand ships on a countenance that has looked as if it has eaten a thousand chips.

This is the man once described by a fellow professional as having a face like a bulldog. In a three-ball with Montgomerie and Howard Clark, the third party likened it to playing with Dame Edna and Charles Manson. Montgomerie has often been in trouble with Ken Schofield, the executive director of the European Tour, and nobody has paid more in fines.

On the other hand, nobody has made such excellent progress. Since turning professional in 1987, after a thorough grounding in the amateur game, his record in the Order of Merit is: 164th, 52nd, 25th, 14th, 4th, 3rd, 1st. All that remains is for him to win a major and change his personality. On two occasions, he has come very close to the former. As for the latter, there is new evidence that he could teach Max Clifford a thing or two.

'I was born with a fantastic gift to play golf and it is because I am so good my temperament has been highlighted,' Montgomerie said. 'If I was ranked 50th rather than first nobody would give a damn. I feel I have done as well as anybody in the world in the last three years but I also feel I have been given a raw deal. There are players a lot worse than me out there. I have not helped myself on occasions and a lot of the stuff written and said about me has stuck. That will change. I admit I'm a naturally volatile person and that is what makes me a competitor and a winner. I'm a very quick learner at golf but not so quick at learning the concentration and psychological skills required at the very highest level. Deep down I'm not a bad person.'

How has the reformation come about? His wife, Eimear, has helped. 'It hurts me and her, it hurts the whole family when I'm in such a public position and don't behave in a public way. It has embarrassed us both, especially me. I'm the one out there doing it.'

Montgomerie, born in Glasgow and educated at Strathallan in Perthshire and Houston Baptist University, where he gained a degree in business and law in between playing golf, was third in a gale in the US Open at Pebble Beach two years ago and joint second in the extraordinary heat at Oakmont earlier this month. Jose-Maria Olazabal, the Masters champion, missed the cut. Olazabal has always managed to keep one step ahead of Montgomerie since defeating him in the final of the Amateur Championship in 1984. Nick Faldo, the player most admired by Montgomerie, missed the cut.

Montgomerie got into a play-off, finishing bravely over the closing holes, and shot 78 the following day, leaving the stage to Ernie Els and Loren Roberts. When he missed a fairway by a matter of inches, it cost him a double bogey. All the ingredients were there for teddy to go into orbit, but Montgomerie was eloquent, gracious. He was physically sick, but he did not use it as an excuse. Schofield was proud of him and told him so. 'The US Open was big for me on and off the course,' Montgomerie said. 'I'm more mature and at 31 it's about time. Nobody beat me over four rounds on the most demanding course we've played in 30 years. The USGA attempted to find the best driver, the best chipper, the best putter. I'm happy with what I achieved. Only Nick and myself have gone close in the last 20 years. I'm a better, more complete golfer. I can handle it. I've been there now.'

When he returned home he discovered he had been savaged by a leading Scottish tabloid: Els and Roberts showed a lot more guts, if a lot less gut, than Monty . . .he collapsed with a powder-puff 78 etc. 'Before, that sort of thing really worried him,' his caddie, Alastair McLean, said, 'but now he doesn't read it or if he does he doesn't care. He's taken a lot of stick that he's not deserved. There's so much rubbish written and papers are always publishing pictures of him scowling.'

McLean, who graduated from Dundee University with an honours degree in modern history, is now in his third year as Montgomerie's bag man after being head-hunted. 'The whole lifestyle of caddying is a gamble and I took it on because I know Monty is always going to make money,' McLean said. 'He's a bloody good player and when he's putting well he's brilliant. Neither of us is stupid and we always talk about what we are going to do on the course. Monty lives and plays for the moment. He gets cross, but he can change like that. His ability to focus again is incredible.'

McLean is a useful player himself (handicap of three) and when he returned from America, he played in the East of Scotland Amateur Championship. He shot 73, 71 and then slept through two alarm calls, missed his tee time and was disqualified.

McLean - he gets 10 per cent of the prize-money if his man wins - enjoys more than a boss-employee relationship. He frequently stays at Montgomerie's home in Surrey and after the US Open, the golfer bought the caddie a ticket for Concorde. In the event, they took an earlier flight but Montgomerie still paid for McLean to travel first class. 'A lot of players wouldn't dream of doing that,' McLean said.

When Monty, who has two Mercedes and a Porsche, won a Volvo for a hole in one at the Murphy's Irish Open last week, he offered it to McLean. The caddie, who drives a BMW, declined. 'I had no need of it and there was no way I was going to cash it in for the money,' McLean said. 'If I ever want anything he'll always do something about it . . .always.'

Montgomerie, virtually uncoached and self-contained in a swing renowned for its accuracy, is ranked ninth in the world and is closing on the four - Faldo, Greg Norman, Bernhard Langer and Nick Price - he regards as perhaps being 10 per cent better than him. 'I've never gone backwards,' Montgomerie said. 'Seve's had a slump, Sandy's had a slump and people ask when is Monty's slump going to happen. I don't know.'

At present, there is no hint. Montgomerie, who is known to wear the cross of St Andrews on his chest, carried Scottish hopes at Gleneagles and will do so again in the Open at Turnberry next week.

John McHenry, who played with Montgomerie in the Walker Cup, was paired with him in the Irish Open. 'I would never have said he would go as far as he has,' McHenry observed, 'but in Ireland I realised he has a fantastic attitude and a tremendous self-belief. Apart from that, his game is rock solid.'

(Photograph omitted)