Countdown to the Ryder Cup: Monty's magic turns Mr Grumpy into Europe's popular pied piper

Europe's No 1 competitor relishes his biennial role as leader of the pack
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The Independent Online

It did not take long for the Ryder ringmaster to do what he always maintains he does not intend to do and turn this into the Monty Cup here yesterday. One shot actually. Or two, if anyone still required confirmation.

Colin Montgomerie plonked his ball down on to the practice green some 20 feet away from the nearest hole. As he lined it up he laughed and joked with the hundreds of fans, pointing at his black trousers with pink trims and saying: "Don't I look like Ian Poulter?"

His face went serious, his putter head rested on the ground, the crowd fell into a nervous hush (well, he is still Monty, after all) and the ball duly rolled into the hole. Cue mayhem. "It gets better than that," shouted Montgomerie, this time plonking the ball down some 30 feet away. Again it rolled in. Cue more mayhem. And so on and so on, for the rest of the day.

By the time the K Club gates swung open in mid-afternoon to say "that's all, folks", the talk was all Montgomerie. The man, himself, made a wisecrack about the fame of Tiger Woods hijacking proceedings - "when he finished we actually got a few people watching us play" - but this was nothing more than a futile exercise in self-effacement. For even the Americans, eyes were on the burly Scot. And there they will stay; through the next two days of practice, through Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In fact, one of their number admitted as much when talking about Europe's traditional targeting of Woods. "They see him as the head of the dragon and if they cut off a dragon's head... well," said Stewart Cink. "And although we will target all of the Europeans, Monty is the guy who's put the biggest dent in us over the years. We'd have to single him out."

Later, when told about Cink's comments, Montgomerie flashed that self-satisfied grin of his and said he would "take that as the highest compliment", although again this was surely phoney modesty. Ryder Cup statistics do not lie, Woods would testify to it, and Montgomerie's total of two defeats in his last 18 games betters the world No 1's by seven. Furthermore, should Montgomerie put four more points to the European cause here this week he will replace Nick Faldo as Europe's all-time leading scorer with 25 1/ 2 points. Faldo did it in 11 appearances: Montgomerie in eight. Faldo won six majors: Montgomerie has won none.

Of course, therein lies the great paradox of Montgomerie, although it is by no means the only one when it comes to Europe's great fighter at the biennial tear-up. For a few seconds forget the age-old question - "Why can Monty beat anyone in the Ryder Cup but not in a major?" - and concentrate on a few of the more baffling posers.

What is it about this event that transforms this strange and often aloof individual into perhaps the finest team player in world golf? Why does the pressure that almost always cripples him when he is on his own in the cauldron have the complete opposite effect when there are those in there with him? How does one of the most muttered-about characters on the European Tour suddenly become the most popular one for three days every two years? For his part, Montgomerie does not seem at all certain of any of the answers, although, as ever, that does not prevent this most compliant of interviewees from providing them. When asked yesterday about how he handles the responsibility of being the team's inspiration, about being the Tiger of the blue and gold flag, he simply shrugged his shoulders before letting forth.

"I don't know because I don't look on it as how I perform, I really don't," he said. "My personal record goes flying out the window and I'm here for the team. Sure Woosie [Ian Woosnam, the European captain] and I have spoken at length about my position as an on-course leader and I suppose because of me being the oldest I do have an important role, especially if things go slightly awry out there. But I don't believe it's the same with me as it was with the [Phil] Mickelson-Woods partnership two years ago.

"At Oakland Hills, I do believe that all of America's eggs were in this one basket because when the rest of their team saw them losing it was far more than one point. Padraig [Harrington] and I knew that and it inspired us to beat them. But our team doesn't have that. All our eggs being in one basket would mean all 12 being in there, because we've got 12 great players. You could almost draw us out of a bucket and say, 'You play with him, you play with him'. Our strength in depth really is that good and so is our closeness. Does that explain why I don't feel that all the responsibility is on my shoulders?"

Well, yes and no, because while his team-mates are indeed as adept as he thinks they are, if he was not here the defending champions would not look as nearly as commanding as they head for an unprecedented third consecutive victory. Not only is he their best matchplay player, but he is also their pied piper. Where he leads by example they invariably follow.

An insight into his placing within this group dynamic came on Monday, in that all-important first night in the team hotel when Woosnam set out the agenda and the bonding began. Jamil Qureshi, Europe's resident sports psychologist, was on stage showing off his mind-boggling repertoire from his other occupation as professional magician.

Looking for a trick that included everybody, Qureshi asked the assembled players, wives, girlfriends and officials for a 20-second sketch of Montgomerie. From the pile of 40 or so, he randomly chose four and worked out who had drawn them. Qureshi correctly named Sergio Garcia, Paul McGinley, Peter Baker and Padraig Harrington as the guilty men, but admitted it had been difficult because almost everyone had done the same thing and featured Monty with a big, curly Afro and a scowl. The room fell about laughing, including Montgomerie and so the unit grew tighter. At Montgomerie's expense.

"He took it brilliantly," said Qureshi. "Next to Woosie's great team talk, it made the night." "It was fun," agreed Montgomerie. "But I knew it would be, just like it was in 2002, just like it was in 2004. It's what makes our team. And I'm just a part of it."

But there is an individual in there and when he does consent to let his guard drop, his own feelings for the competition he will always be synonymous with do shine through. "This is the week of the year I enjoy more than any other," he said. "In fact, I owe this tournament an awful lot. The wild-card selection by Bernhard Langer two years was vital for my career. I was 41 at the time and it was not looking good. The last few years, both on and off the course, were not good at all. That Ryder Cup saved me in many, many ways. It rejuvenated me and my career. It was a very important captain's pick, one of the most important ones for someone's career that there's ever been. I'm not sure what I would have done without it."

Monty without the Ryder Cup and the Ryder Cup without Monty? It would not seem right. For either of them.

Monty's three most memorable days: European veteran's Ryder Cup highlights

1993 THE BELFRY

Montgomerie feels he has arrived when Nick Faldo asks the captain Bernard Gallacher if he can partner the 30-year-old over the first two days

"A lot of what I've achieved in golf stems from watching people like Seve, Langer, and Faldo in action at the Ryder Cup. By the second match they were so helpful I really felt part of the team. Nick asked if he could be my partner and I can't tell you what a boost it was to have the world's best player player say that. I felt he was telling me: 'I'm around, there's no need to worry'."

2002 THE BELFRY

Beats Scott Hoch 5&4 in first of the final-day singles to lead European comeback

"This is probably the highlight of my Ryder Cup career. On Saturday night, Sam told me he had a plan and when I knew what it was [Torrance put him out first to lead the European fightback] I replied: 'You bastard'. I never slept at all that night. Sam placed a lot of responsibility on my shoulders and I can't tell you how proud I was. It was certainly the best I have played in the Ryder Cup."

2004 OAKLAND HILLS

Holes putt on final hole to win singles and seal Europe's crushing victory

"I've always said that one of the 24 guys in the Ryder is going to hole the winning putt and on this occasion lady fortune played her part and it was me who was given the opportunity and I took it. That singles win over David Toms, in fact that whole week, rejuvenated me and my career and I went on to win the Order of Merit the following year. It's funny how things work out, but that in turn helped me qualify for this team."

James Corrigan

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