Countdown to the Open Championship: Major Monty

At 42, Colin Montgomerie has an unshakeable belief that he can still win oe of 'tHE big ones'

A prayer, among other things, for redemption, for an old feeling that he could do anything he wanted on a golf course, and that here - in the centre of the old universe of his sport - it might just be the time and place for it to come again.

Montgomerie says that he has "loads" of chances left to win his first major - maybe as many as six opportunities to take the Open which at the peak of his seven years of European dominance seemed as likely to fall to his virtuoso game as a leaf in autumn. But these are not days of conquest for a man who for two years now has been fighting to reshape both his game and his life.

These are the days when he has to hang on to at least a little of what he had, which was the overriding belief that through all the pain and disappointment one day he would indeed win one of the big ones.

Last evening, as the sweltering heat on the shore of the Fife coast began to cool, Montgomerie declared that he had never been in such battling mode. But, a sceptical world of golf was bound to ask, was it not heavily touched by denial?

Montgomery was asked whether the controversy around charges that he cheated in the Indonesian Open earlier this year had been put to bed - along with suggestions that he had lost much of the respect in the locker -room he once enjoyed as Europe's finest player - and he countered quickly, nervily, rather as he might dart too quickly at a putt when the pressure was at its highest. "That was months ago and it was put to bed months ago." It was a claim Montgomerie desperately needs to believe is true, just as he spins out the possibility of a final triumph in one of the majors.

He says: "As long as I'm flexible and fit, I've got a load of chances. Now I''ve got myself back into order, if you like, I think I've got five or six opportunities to do well in this tournament. And one of these years I'll be in contention, hopefully, and it just might work. It might be in five days time, you never know. But I've got a few chances. I'm physically OK. I'm fit and flexible, and as long as that remains I'll be OK. The nerves are still there."

The nerves are intact, he says - and so is the game. "I'm just confident in every aspect of my game, eight out of 10, which is as good as it has ever been, really. So I'm quite confident in that way. In the end it's all about keeping mistakes off the card by trying to two-putt instead of three, and getting down in two if you have to. I'm doing that a little better than I was over the last year. So that gives me a bit of confidence. And playing in front of a Scottish crowd has to give me confidence as well."

Montgomerie has come through a most painful divorce, a glorious performance in last autumn's Ryder Cup and now he wants closure, as much as he has ever wanted anything in or around a golf course, on that Indonesian episode.

However, as Montgomerie talks, inevitably you are drawn back the central drama and question of his career and his life - can he indeed ever convert his talent into the moment of certainty that he can win just one of the majors? Has that possibility simply blown away?

The question has to be asked. Did he exaggerate his own need to win a major back when he ruled Europe so profoundly? Did he make it too much of a crippling issue?

"Hell," he says, "if I stop here and don't win a major - and the odds are going against it, we have to be realistic here, I'll look back on the years I was No 1 in Europe and the seven Ryder Cups I've played in and think, OK, well, that was quite successful, thank you very much. And the fact that a few golfers played very, very well, against me and came in and did remarkable things to beat me in majors, all credit to them. And I'll go away from this game thinking, well, I've been highly successful at something I want to be good at. The major championship at this stage would be a huge bonus to me, but it wouldn't alter the way I feel about my career."

For Montgomerie there has always been the agony of missing those prizes which were for so long assumed to be comfortably within his grasp, and this gave a certain poignancy to his anticipation of Jack Nicklaus's march down the high road to history here either on Friday or Sunday afternoon.

Said Montgomerie: "It will be some scene on Friday - but let's hope it's Sunday. Everyone is saying Friday afternoon, so let's hope he can prove everyone wrong and turn Friday afternoon into Sunday afternoon. It will be fantastic if he can do that.

"If it's Friday afternoon I'll be on the 13th green when he comes to the bridge and makes that scene, and we'll get slowed up no doubt coming in. But all credit to him for coming over and making this his last one, because this is the home of golf. He understands that."

Montgomerie talked about Nicklaus's 18 titles and Tiger Woods' nine and if there was a wistful tone to his voice, he also said that, who knew, he too might know what it was to win on Scottish soil, coming in with the certainty that at last he could be a winner of the prize that has haunted him for the best part of 20 years.

Certainly, there was more than a touch of irony when he was asked if he might just be the first British winner for a number of years?

"That's a very good question. I would love to be, OK? Especially here. This is a unique event, in many ways and every way. And this would cap off a fantastic career of mine. So yes, I come here full of hope - as I do every year for an Open. And this year is slightly different - I come here on quite good form - and I look forward to it in every way."

No one ever said Colin Montgomerie ran away from the big issue and even now he is refusing to put aside the greatest challenge of his life. He says that his chances continue to stretch out into the distance and, of course, he may be right. He may also be stretching out the prayer beyond the boundaries of reality. But what else does he do? There is, after all, only one alternative and it is still not acceptable. Plainly, he is still not ready to walk away after admitting defeat.

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