Golf: Montgomerie yearns for the noise of battle

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The Independent Online
The Ryder Cup, the most intense golf tournament of them all, begins on Friday when Europe take on the Americans at Valderrama in Spain. Colin Montgomerie, Europe's leading player, is ready for the fray and ready to show the world that maturity has curbed a tendency for on-course collisions with

over-enthusiastic spectators.

The Ryder Cup does strange things to golfing men. It threatens to remove the juices from the stomachs of hardened professionals, gives them the same feeling in their hands as the Venus di Milo on the putting green, and generally makes the globe's leading players behave abnormally.

Colin Montgomerie, for one, has been acting rather erratically in the build-up to Valderrama. Europe's perennial No 1 and legendary diva of golfing etiquette has actually suggested that the galleries following him should be both substantial and vociferous. The medical services have been alerted.

If there is one characteristic that distinguishes Montgomerie above his quite outstanding ability, it is his penchant for moaning about on-course noise. The sad news for those who care to believe there is other life in the cosmos is that it cannot exist, otherwise Monty would have heard it by now as he stood over a drive.

In normal circumstances, Montgomerie would like tournaments to be played from tee-to-green inside a great vacuum and then the putting down a runner in the British Library. This week is different, however, and so is his attitude. "Everyone I've spoken to seems to be going to Valderrama and I hope they all make it," he said. "We want them all there making as much noise as possible because that's what happens to us in America. Support from the galleries can be worth a shot and that could be the one shot we need."

If the promotion for the Ryder Cup has a familiar theme about it (Uncle Sam is on the way over to kick Europe's butts), then so has Montgomerie's response. "It's a great challenge to play a team that is slightly better than us on paper," he said, "but, we're not playing it on paper, we're playing it on a very good golf course, a golf course we know very well.

"Valderrama gives us quite an advantage. We have been there for nine years and Langer's had a 62 and I've had a 65 and that sure as hell wasn't after practising for three days, which is all the Americans will get.

"And let's say you've got myself paired with Clarke, Westwood and Faldo, Woosnam and Rocca, with Olazabal to throw into the pot somewhere and suddenly it doesn't look so bad after all. I think our team is very strong. We know the course very well and we have a good chance of winning, especially if we are ahead by Saturday night. It's difficult to come back if you're down going into the singles."

Whatever the pairings, it seems inevitable that Montgomerie's alliance with Nick Faldo will now be severed. "It looks as if I might have to start taking on a rookie, and the partnership of myself and Faldo is at an end," he said. "I will have to take a more supporting role and I'm happier to do so now as I'm more mature as a person and more comfortable with the position I hold in Europe.

"I needed a lot of help myself as a rookie and the best bit of advice I was given was to remember that, no matter what he looked like, the other fellow was just as nervous as I was. It's time for me to help now, because I'm more in charge of my game, more mature and more respected."

Faldo then may be gone from Montgomerie's side, but admiration for the man will never leave the Scot. "It's important for Europe that Nick Faldo is playing. The team would have been weaker without him," he said. "I'd take Faldo at 70 per cent, which is probably what he's firing on right now, because Faldo's poor form is better than a lot of people's good form. I've played enough in the Ryder Cup with Nick Faldo to know what it means to him, which is one hell of a lot."

Men like Faldo and Montgomerie will not be distressed when the conveyor belt of blazers comes down the steps from the Americans' jet. There will be smiles and New World confidence, but at some stage the visitors will have to hit a golf ball. "Let's face it, 99 per cent of the Ryder Cup is mental and supposed superiority doesn't mean a lot," Montgomerie said. "It's down to who can cope with the pressure, which is so intense it's almost a joke.

"If it was a choice for me between holing a four-footer for a Major or the Ryder Cup, the Ryder Cup putt would make me feel 10 times worse inside. If I lose a Major all I have done is let down myself and my family, and we're used to that by now, but if I lose the Ryder Cup I've also let down my team-mates and the whole of Europe."

Many of those who have trudged the fairways with Montgomerie, however, believe he lets himself down most with his golfing comportment. He is a man of two masks and the one he takes out to the golf course all too often has the corners of its mouth turned down.

It is the perfectionist in Montgomerie which makes him such a great player, but may also be an enemy in the camp. According to the official rankings, he is the fourth best player in the world behind Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Ernie Els. But not according to Monty. He believes that when everything is in place he is unbeatable.

To this end Montgomerie is not just a golfer, but a team designed to produce the ultimate player. Monty has a full-time caddie, his fellow graduate Alastair McLean, a commercial manager, fitness and technique coaches, and has also employed someone to train his mind, Hugh Mantle, a senior lecturer in psychology at Liverpool's John Moores University.

"With him it was a little bit of fitness - fit of body, fit of mind sort of thing - and focusing properly and practising different types of breathing," Montgomerie said. "I think you need a team if you are to achieve anything and I'm very lucky in the support that I receive.

"It's all about getting me to the first tee ready to produce the perfect performance. Everything is taken care of so I'm not worrying about whether I've paid the gas bill that morning before I tee off."

While this credo insists that Montgomerie demands the very best from himself he also asks for the same commitment elsewhere in his sport. Thus, he expects galleries to be mute, courses to be in perfect condition and even the weather to be permanently benign. Golf, however, is not like that. As anyone who has ever felt like throwing their clubs in a skip will tell you, it is not a game for the hard-done-by. Golf is a nasty sport, but it is not uniquely nasty to one person, a fact which Montgomerie is only gradually coming to terms with.

"I think people have cottoned on to the idea that I like a little more quiet than some players," he said. "Because of me and because of the groups they tend to put me in there is usually more interest and more cameras about.

"But I think my reaction tends to be blown up a bit these days. It used to be a lot worse than it is now. I know what's going on more now, I'm more mature as a person. It's just the maturity that comes naturally in a sportsman's career."

Our meeting was an example of Monty's roaming disposition. I had not officially arranged an interview, which was a bad start with this most organised of sportsmen. The initial interaction terminated swiftly with the feeling that he would rather gargle with a bunker than talk to your correspondent; the second left the scribbler in a cloud of dust as the big man sped off in a jeep. "My family always comes first," he said, with a suggestion that the man from the Independent was not among the placings.

Yet when Montgomerie said yes he became the most delightful of interviewees, intelligent, responsive and humourous. When Monty smiles (and he does this far more often than television viewers might appreciate) he reveals a phalanx of gleaming choppers. The effect is rather like a fridge door opening.

This look of Burt Lancaster as he is vaulting up the rigging is unlikely to be seen as much in Europe next year as Montgomerie sets about rectifying the one notable omission in his career. "My whole schedule next year has got to be based on the Majors," he said. "One option is to stay here, another is to play in America and I suppose there is a third option of doing a bit of both. But you'd have to say that no one has really held both cards and done it successfully.

"If I'd won one [a Major] playing from here, then everything would be fine. I've been bloody close, but the bottom line is that I haven't won one. That seems to suggest to me that I've been doing something wrong.

"I've got a choice to make immediately after the Volvo Masters in November, because within four days of that there is a deadline for the American Tour. Playing a little more in America early season might help for the Masters and the US Open. I'm sure there will be plenty of golfers here willing to pay for a seat on a plane to get rid of me."

It is Montgomerie's greatest achievement that has made the Order of Merit a monotonous competition. He stands on the threshold of being Europe's leading golfer for a record fifth consecutive occasion. "Wherever my career takes me and whatever I do next year I'll always be able to look back and say I've gone out at the top," he said. "If I can do five in a row that will even impress me, which is difficult.

"It may look as though I've been standing still for the last five years because I've been No 1 in the Order of Merit, but the reality is that I've had to improve to stay there. There is so much more competition these days, so many more people out there who can win tournaments."

The time has come, though, to impress other audiences and it is Montgomerie's desire to make himself as much a monolith in the United States as he is in Europe. This aspiration makes him a formidable Ryder Cup opponent and on Sunday, at the climax of his fourth Ryder Cup, he will take an unblemished record into the singles. "I've a great hatred of losing at anything," he said. "I don't like losing at tiddlywinks and I don't like losing at golf, especially in a Ryder Cup." Do not expect Colin Montgomerie to be too disappointed at Valderrama this week.