James Lawton: Montgomerie discovers new conviction after another journey to catastrophe

You expect Colin Montgomerie sour, maybe even beaten, in the soft spring sunshine, at least a little, as he was here two years ago. Then, he was seen walking alone, and plainly distraught, along the sidewalks of this place which over 14 years has been most resistant to the wiles and the imagination of the game he had inflicted so brilliantly and for so long in Europe.

It seemed like the end of so many things for Monty. Even the cruellest of his American detractors were hinting that they had lost some of their appetite for the taunting and the ridicule.

The break-up of his marriage had been noisily advertised. His golf was in small pieces as he missed the cut for a second successive year - a fate which helped to shape his absence here last year.

Now, despite his extraordinary renaissance in his old hunting ground and the winning of an eighth European Order of Merit, there are haunting parallels with the professional crack-up of 2004.

His relationship with Jo Baldwin, whom he met in the wake of his divorce, is over, officially from his own lips, and before he withdrew from last week's BellSouth classic his form had been catastrophic. He had missed four cuts in a row - unprecedented futility.

Yet - and this may be the most astonishing turn in a career of extreme volatility - Montgomerie is as relaxed as some old-timer whittling on his porch on the other side of the plantation. He may not be smelling the flowers, but the suggestion is strong that he is at least aware of them.

Two years ago, certainly, the guess had to be that he wouldn't have known a dogwood blossom from deadly nightshade. Then, the curtains were coming down; now, just maybe, he sees a chink of light before one of his last chances, at 42, to soothe the ache which comes whenever he thinks of the major titles.

He even makes a joke that he says is not as bitter as it sounds. "I'd like to be the first player to finish runner-up in every major and never win one," he says. "I've got three of them, so why not complete the set?"

A Monty Slam? "You could call it what you like." Another ambition, he says, is to win the crystal goblets that are given to anyone who makes an eagle on a par five. "Believe it or not, I've never won the crystal... I've made two eagles on the par four, one a fluke, one a good shot. It's about time I got one on the long holes..." About time, for so many things, when he thinks about it, and the most pressing no doubt is to do justice here to a game that just 18 months ago overwhelmed the resident giants, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, in Ryder Cup action in Michigan.

"I'm single now. I don't mind you printing that," he says. "Jo and I split up and I'm free to meet and date other women. I think the break-up with Jo did hurt my game. These things are never easy, are they? But now I'm single again it's time to concentrate on my golf - and my children, give them both more time and that can only be beneficial on and off the course."

He has been buoyed by his decision to withdraw from the BellSouth tournament, which would have perhaps burdened him with the sight of his old foe Mickelson reaching out for some of the most withering form of his career. Montgomerie reports: "My golf's OK... I'm looking for some form, obviously, but I've enjoyed playing here since I arrived at the weekend.

"I'm relaxed. It was a good idea to take last week off. I stayed at Sawgrass [his game unravelled disturbingly in the second round of The Players Championship tournament] for a couple of days and then went south. I played Seminole [an exclusive course near Miami] for the first time and they had quicker greens there than here, so that was good preparation. I'm trying to stay in the switch-off mode and not think about the Masters until Wednesday night.

"I've seen the course now and I know I can play it. That is a boost to me because everyone's been talking about the changes and the lengthening of it and you do worry that it will be too long for the likes of me. But there's no real problem with the length.

"It's great to be back. There was part of me that enjoyed watching it on television last year because it was an exciting finish, but deep down there is no fun watching a major when you know you can compete."

The certainty of that knowledge has been elusive here over the years. In 13 attempts he has beaten par just three times, and his best finish was 1998 when he tied for eighth. He insists, however, there are inklings of a new confidence, and a growth of affection for the course. That, and some hard work on the famously slick greens, tells him that he can make his best effort so far.

"The truth is that I have started to enjoy this course," Montgomerie says. "When I first came here I faded a lot, much more than I do now. In fact, if I'm honest, I would say I was a very one-dimensional golfer. Now I can visualise shots a lot better, and I've got a lot more shots." Strangely, he says that 1997 was the year which first told him he could have some impact here. "All right, I got blown away by Tiger at the end like everybody else but I shot 67 and that showed me that I could play the course."

Two years ago that conviction, like much else in his life, was disappearing before his eyes. Now it stirs like the breeze in the dogwoods. He says that he might just turn it into a gust. The goblet is not quite empty, he insists, and who knows, it might just turn into crystal.

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