His round of 74 yesterday was good enough in substance and gritty enough in style to put him in contention for the trophy that means more to him than anything.
Montgomerie's failure to win a major tournament is one of the curiosities of professional golf. In nine appearances at the Open Championship his highest finish is eighth, five years ago at Turnberry. Otherwise he has not finished inside the top 20, and has missed five cuts. So the outcome of yesterday's battle was of particular importance.
He holds the course record here, a 64 in the Scottish Open in 1995. But that round bore as much resemblance to yesterday's effort as a drive down Bond Street would to the Monte Carlo Rally. Courage, he said afterwards, had been more important than skill, particularly when he found himself three down after eight holes, the encouragement of a birdie into the wind at the fourth quickly expunged by a bogey at the fifth, a double-bogey at the sixth and a further shot dropped at the eighth when he found himself with barely a foothold for a bunker shot and thinned the effort across the green into the gallery.
At that juncture he could have folded. Instead he stiffened his sinews and, taking his cue from the calmly effective play of his partner for the day, Brian Watts, last year's runner-up, he went about the business of making sure he covered the remainer of the course in regulation figures.
He had begun the way he was to continue, missing the fairway. Only four times in the round did he find the target from the tee, a vivid testimony to the narrowness and difficulty of the course. But most of the rough he found was of the short variety, and when that led him into further difficulty he was able to manufacture the shots that got him out of really meaningful trouble.
Montgomerie may be a Scot, but he is not a natural links golfer. Target golf is his metier, the sort of game that calls for a smooth swing and immaculate judgement in stable conditions. Yesterday he faced an alien environment and came out with a creditable result.
Would he have settled for 74 before the start of the day's play? "Oh yes. I'll take my 74 and run. In fact I'll take four of them. Plus 12 after four rounds. It seems crazy, I know. But if the breeze stays as it is, I think that could be very close to a winning score. It doesn't really matter this week what par is. It's the chap who finishes one stroke ahead of the rest, that's all that matters."
At the fourth, Montgomerie's group was going up the fairway when a puff of sand from a bunker announced the presence of Sergio Garcia going down the 15th in all sorts of trouble. "I looked across at the board and saw he was 12 over," Montgomerie said. "But this is the most demanding course we've ever played in a major tournament. Some of the shots that have to be played, can't be. No one is that good."
He had words of praise for the pin settings, which were mostly in the middle of the greens - even at the fifth, a green so deviously warped in all three dimensions that it might have been designed by Salvador Dali in a particularly sadistic mood. "The pin positions were very fair today," Montgomerie remarked. "They gave us an opportunity. Last night I'd said to some of the people that this is one course that doesn't need tricked- up positions, and today they weren't. Let's hope they remain so."
There had been a change in the character of the course since his first practice round on Monday. "The wind has dried it out. On Monday it wasn't really playing like a links course. It is now. It's dried up a lot and the ball is beginning to bounce in certain directions - usually the wrong ones."
He had taken out his driver only three times during the round - at the second, the sixth and the 17th, where he used it again for a marvellous second shot of about 250 yards to the back of the green. Otherwise he relied on a three wood to cope with the doglegs and the frequent requirement to lay up short of the bunkers which crowd the necks of the fairways like leeches on a wounded snake.
His victory at Loch Lomond last week, albeit in entirely different conditions, had helped his mental approach to the week. "I think the win has relaxed me and helped me to enjoy this championship more than in previous years. I hope that will prove itself in the scores over the next three days."
The problems he had encountered on the outward half began to recede at the 14th and 15th, where he took advantage of a following wind to knock in convincing birdies. A seven-iron at the 14th, taking him from the middle of the fairway almost 200 yards over mounds and traps to within 40 feet of the pin, was a shot of real courage and flair, rivalled by his eight- iron approach at the 15th, which left him a straightforward 15-foot putt.
On the 18th green, however, a combination of wind and slope caused him to miss a 20-footer. "The slope's going one way, and the wind is going the other. Which do you allow for? By the time you've worked it out, you've hit the shot."
But on this particular day there were compensations. "The only thing you can think," he said, "is that it's the same for everybody. That's the thought that keeps you going. If you try to do too much, instead of taking your punishment and coming out sideways, you can really get into trouble. So I've done OK today. I haven't thrown it away. I haven't won it, but I haven't lost it."