A survivor on the edge: Relaxed, calm, happy. The new faces of the maturing Monty

Winged Foot near miss would have broken many, but Europe's leading man is a player apart. James Corrigan talks to him
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It was once said about Colin Montgomerie that if he saw eight people waiting at a bus stop he would stop and give a press conference, although golf writers advise that such a willingness to pour forth occurs mainly on a Wednesday and rarely on a Sunday.

Well, last Wednesday was classic Monty, teeth flashing, quips snapping, giggles exploding. And they said the US Open would be the end of him. If this virtuoso performance was anything to go by, Winged Foot will be remembered only for its new beginnings.

There is no sportsman in the world who could have turned disaster into triumph so quickly and so publicly. The contradiction of Montgomerie has always been one of the more interesting curiosities in modern sport, but since that simple seven-iron from the 18th fairway went short and right into throat-tightening infamy, the enigma has only fogged still further.

Who is he? A real champion or a major bottler? A has-been or a still-to-be? A friend of the fans or a petulant prima donna? A discarded loner or the grinning socialite pictured at Wimbledon with a blonde model?

In truth, he is probably most of these things. But what does appear certain is that he is at last learning to accept being Monty and all that that entails. Winged Foot has finally made him under-stand his own celebrity.

"I am a personality," he tells you in a quiet corner of Loch Lomond. "People want to know about me and not necessarily the golfer."

In short, he is the European Tiger Woods. There might be 10 majors between them, 13 years and a few instances of personal frostiness, but come Thursday morning at Royal Liverpool, theirs will be the two names most ringed on the drawsheets. Sure, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Luke Donald and Darren Clarke will all have their galleries. But Woods and Montgomerie will command the spotlight and be expected to appear in it, whether for a few laps of honour or for a car crash.

"How do I cope with that?" asks Montgomerie, more to himself than any specific questioner. "Well, last year at St Andrews I learnt a lot playing with Tiger; how to get round with all that is going on around you, how to react to certain situations. He does very well because there's a huge press invasion on him. We are in the same management team and I've spoken to Mark Steinberg, his manager, about it, as well as Guy [Kinnings, his own manager]. I have come to understand a little bit more about Tiger Woods and the whole phenomenon."

It is perfectly understandable that Montgomerie has been in the dark for so long - fame must have baffled him. As the unarguable European No 1 of the Nineties he was a staple of the back pages, but it was only when he became the No 2 in a dissolving marriage that he was hauled up front. Naturally, such a private upheaval precipitated a professional slump, but the difference was that his had to be played out in full glare until he found the wherewithal to withstand it. "Obviously I have had a bit of intrusion over the last few years and it sometimes can hinder, did hinder," he admits. "But, in fact, I have managed to come out of it on the positive side and that's been good. I don't mind it at all now. In fact, I've got to the stage of enjoying it."

It is an interesting theory that Montgomerie is keen to promote. The notoriety which threatened to destroy him has actually been employed to reinvigorate him as he finds that surviving on the edge can give him an edge.

"After the US Open and yes, after Wimbledon, I tend to get recognised a little bit more, but that's fine. It has not impacted on my golf at all. In fact, it's made me more relaxed possibly, and that's very important. Take The Open next week. I will drive up on Tuesday morning feeling very relaxed, I will go to my apartment feeling very relaxed and I will go to the course feeling relaxed. And I know if I'm relaxed on that first tee I'm already one up on a lot of the field, who plainly won't be because it's The Open and all that. If you took a heart-rate monitor on to that first tee you would be amazed how high the average was. Mine would be one of the lowest. On the first hole anyway. On the 72nd it might be a bit different."

Montgomerie laughed as he said it; he is not always credited as doing so, but when the time is right he can laugh at himself quite endearingly. But the time does not seem quite right yet, not with the biggest missed chance in his career still burning bright, if more in other people's eyes than in his.

"You know, it's incredible how many players have come out and said they thought that US Open was mine. I played with Tom Lehman [the American Ryder Cup captain] the first two days last week and he told me he was watching it with his wife on telly and when I hit the fairway at the 18th he turned to his her and said, 'Darling, this tournament's over'.

"That's what I thought, too, and I see that even Tiger said the same last week: that he had more faith in me winning than Phil Mickelson. With all respect to Phil, that's my game. I hit more fairways than he does, and if there was a chance of either of us parring that particular hole most would probably have given it to me before him. I couldn't have walked up the fairway and placed it any better in a five-foot square. No wonder everyone thought it was done and dusted. Retief [Goosen] said he thought so. Even Phil must have."

Phil was probably the only one - other than the eventual winner, Geoff Ogilvy, of course - not focusing solely on Colin's cock-up. And so the whispers of "choker" and "forever the bridesmaid" began.

"You all tend to be going on about the loss of the US Open when out of 156 people only one chap managed to beat me - so it's not that bad. Remember I came second at last year's Open too, so that's twice in the last four majors. It's like getting to the final of Wimbledon and losing 10-8 in the final set - twice in the last year. Some people are getting away from that. Some are taking it as a negative that I have five major runner-up placings and one third to my name, which is the best anyone has ever had without winning one. Well, I take that as a positive."

But in the autumn of his career, as he saw another major slip through his fingers as tantalisingly as a dead leaf caught on a chilly breeze, didn't this 43-year-old even for one moment think, "That's it, there's my last chance gone"?

"Never. Not once. I still feel that I'm capable, that I'm fit enough. I believe I can still contend for a number of years to come. I've got say 20 majors left, which is what, five years? I'm standing here feeling like I'm 18 and that's because I don't have any ailments or injuries and I haven't beaten balls for hours and hours in my career. D'you know, at Winged Foot some poor so-and-so from Sky was sent out to count how many shots Vijay Singh hit on the Thursday, including his 70 or 71 out on the course.

"If I tell you that I would have hit around 150 - a couple of chips and putts, a round of 69 and some shots and putts afterwards - how many do you think he hit? I'll tell you - just short of 1,000 in the day. That included 400 putts after he finished his round. That's 700 to 800 balls' difference in a day. You multiply that by six days a week. And he's older than me by four months. But then Vijay is unique."

And so in many ways is Montgomerie, not only in his perceived lack of application to remain near the top but also in his ceaseless desire for victory. What- ever any of them will claim, no other European will be going into Hoylake with such an appetite, and that worries Montgomerie. "The money involved now is sometimes making the others think that third, fourth, fifth is good - 'that's a great living, go home'. I've never been content with that, and neither should they. The amount of money we play for now is exceptional, we're very lucky, but it does cause its own problems in that do people really want to win or have to win?

"They don't have to win now because the value in finishing fourth is worth as much as a win was five years ago. I always come away having finished second, fourth or whatever thinking, 'Damn, that's one that got away', not, 'Oh great, I've just earned so and so'. I will not be coming away from Hoylake happy with anything else but a W."

He swears this is not just a personal quest either, as he feels Europe's seven-year majorless itch as madly as anyone. "I'm sick of it, I want it to end. And if it's not me to end it then I think [Padraig] Harrington is most likely to do so. You might think that's strange because of Luke [Donald], [David] Howell, [Sergio] Garcia, [Darren] Clarke and [Jose Maria] Olazabal and the others, but I think Harrington has the best overall game. He's very, very good."

But in truth, Montgomerie only has eyes for Montgomerie and, when it comes, for the first round. And on the 18th time in succession he competes in an Open Championship he will be doing so with more confidence than on 16 of those occasions. "This is the second best I've played coming into an Open. Only in 1999, when I had come third at the Irish Open and won here at Loch Lomond, did I fancy my chances more. I have learnt how to play links golf over the years and feel very comfortable going to Hoylake. I don't know it that well, but then, does anybody? I've played it twice in the last few weeks and that's probably twice more than most.

"Put it this way, by next Sunday afternoon I'll know it well enough to win, and I hope that should the door open again, I'll be able to walk through it. It's important that there's been another major come around so quickly so I can get it all out of my system. I can forget Winged Foot and think Hoylake. It's vital I get in the mix early for that very fact. I'm playing well enough to do so."

He will be supported well enough, too. Such is his burgeoning popularity that he is already the bookmakers' favourite for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year, although he is not counting any votes yet in that regard. "In 1999 I was flying home from America when the show was on and I was sitting in the cockpit with a live feed. That year I had won six times, four of which had been on the BBC and I was hopeful of a placing. And when they said, 'And in third, comes Colin M...' I thought 'Perfect, that'll do nicely' But then they said 'Colin M...cRae'. That's it, I thought, I give up, I really felt that if I wasn't going to get a mention then I never would. So it's nice to be in the running again. If I think I might be involved this year, I'll make sure I'm not on a plane and shame them into it."

Should he prevail on the Wirral this week he would not need to; he would be an absolute shoo-in, a proven winner eventually proving himself in a big one just as Roberto de Vicenzo did 37 years ago.

"Do I believe in destiny?" says Montgomerie. "I have started to in the last few years, yes. I'm not going to answer if I think that it's my destiny to win a major. I know what I believe, but I am not going to say it.

"Like I have always said, in golf you can't expect to do anything, you can only hope. I expected to win the US Open when I was stood over that seven-iron and look what happened. Let's just say I hope to win one. I hope quite strongly, as it happens."

Monty's Open: Mighty days, unkind cuts, one close call

1990 ST ANDREWS: Tied for 48th in first Open, finishing two under par as Nick Faldo won by five shots in a record 270, 18 under.

1991 ROYAL BIRKDALE: Finished joint 26th, 10 shots behind Ian Baker-Finch, who shot last-round 66 to win by two shots in 272.

1992 MUIRFIELD: Missed cut after ending up four over par after two rounds as Nick Faldo won his third Open by one shot.

1993 ROYAL ST GEORGE'S: Missed cut, again at four over, as Greg Norman scored last-round 64 to overhaul Faldo by two shots.

1994 TURNBERRY: Tied for eighth and banked £30,000 with five-under 275 in low-scoring Open won by Nick Price by one stroke.

1995 ST ANDREWS: Two-round total of 150 meant a missed cut before John Daly's play-off win over Costantino Rocca.

1996 ROYAL LYTHAM & ST ANNES: Missed cut again, with five-over 147, as Tom Lehman became first American to lift the Claret Jug since Bobby Jones in 1926.

1997 ROYAL TROON: Tied for 24th with, among others, Tiger Woods. Justin Leonard's last-round 65, with only 25 putts, ensured victory by three shots.

1998 ROYAL BIRKDALE: Opening 73 against the leaders' 65s was too much to make up; one more missed cut. Mark O'Meara won.

1999 CARNOUSTIE: Joint fifth after first-round 74, three over, on a day when only one player made par, but subsided to a tie for 15th and 12 over, six behind play-off winner Paul Lawrie.

2000 ST ANDREWS: No match for Woods, who won by eight strokes with the Scot 14 behind in joint 26th place, five under.

2001 ROYAL LYTHAM & ST ANNES: Led by three strokes after first-round 65, by one stroke after 70 on Friday, before fading to tie for 13th, six behind David Duval.

2002 MUIRFIELD: Second-round 64 included an eagle and five birdies... followed by 84, 75 and 13-over 82nd place. Ernie Els won.

2003 ROYAL ST GEORGE'S: Hand injury forced retirement on first day. Ben Curtis went on to win the first major he entered.

2004 ROYAL TROON: Fifth at half-way before bunker trouble provoked slide to 25th by the end. Todd Hamilton won after play-off.

2005 ST ANDREWS: Closest yet; but dreams of glory faded after dropped shot at short 11th on final day meant the end of challenge and salver for second, five shots behind Woods.

Simon Redfern