Looking back with Colin Montgomerie: 'It gave me the belief I wasn't washed up '

The golfer's revival year included 'Jakartagate', a magical Open, and an eighth Order of Merit victory. James Corrigan continues our series of interviews with key sporting figures of 2005
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The Independent Online

After reaching the end of 12 months of travels that would have had Gulliver ripping up his passport, Colin Montgomerie plonked himself in his armchair last week with a sigh big enough to loosen the tension of Surrey's stockbroker belt by at least two notches. A new three-piece in a new pad might be an irresistible place from which to dream of the brave new year, but, for Montgomerie, 2005 was still refusing to let go. "Crikey," he said in his freshly painted abode near Weybridge, "what a bloody year that was."

A 65 to take a three-shot lead in Singapore on 27 January was finished off with a 71 to tie with Tiger Woods in Los Angeles on 11 December, but if that suggests a smooth journey of fairway-splitting drives, pin-dancing irons and cup-filling putts then think of Sherpa Tensing's as taking nothing more than a gentle stroll, uphill. In that time, Montgomerie has played 34 tournaments, 111 rounds, 1,877 holes, during which he has seen his world ranking rise from 83 to eight, watched in amazement as an eighth Order of Merit title arrived on his mantelpiece and witnessed in horror as a controversy unfolded that threatened to ruin his reputation. And all this at an age three years older than the current leader of the Conservative Party.

"It's to be expected as, more than any other sport, golf is a roller-coaster sort of game and it's rarely kind," the 42-year-old tells you, his smile revealing the metaphorical cracks of a lifetime of teeth-kicking. "But then my whole bloomin' existence has been a roller-coaster - here come the ups, there go the downs."

With Montgomerie, it is always wise to reveal the downs first, if not merely to satisfy the natural order of things then, more pressingly, the newspaper editors who continue to show an unhealthy obsession in all things Monty (his golf withstanding, of course). A divorce that has rewritten the words "messy", "painful" and "costly" in the lawyers' dictionary has been a mainstay of the gossip columns, but in Indonesia in March erupted a split of a different kind - Montgomerie versus the rest of the European Tour.

Whatever the defendant claims, "Jakartagate" is still spoken of in hushed tones in the locker-rooms and will carry on harmonising with the air-conditioning units for a good while yet. As anyone with clubs lovingly left in their car boot will testify, mud sticks so firmly in golf it can sometimes never be removed. But while Montgomerie admits, "I regret it and wish it never happened" he has never, and will never, concede it was anything more than "an honest mistake". "Nobody can tell me it wasn't, as I know, I was there," he says. "And since then I've never hidden from it, never ducked the issue. I can answer any questions anyone wants to ask."

While that is not strictly true - more than one journalist's tape recorder contains a "stony silence" to prove it - Montgomerie can be forgiven his exasperation over a row with more legs than a millipede relay team. In short - and it is like reducing "Watergate" to an "And finally..." - what happened on that fateful Saturday afternoon was that Montgomerie replaced his ball in an undeniably advantageous position after it had been swiped during an overnight storm break. "Look, I held my hands up and tried to make the best of it," Montgomerie says, referring to the £24,000 fourth prize he passed on to charity. "And although my integrity being questioned hurt, I never got really low about it as I knew exactly what I'd done and that it was nothing more than that. And, anyway, what you read in the press [about the continual rumblings] is all very different to what's really happening. There's no problem now, no problem at all."

Since this interview took, place two leading European players have confirmed the opposite to be so and spoke of "giant question marks" and so forth, but both agree that Montgomerie's remarkable deeds since had removed any doubts concerning his ability and competitive instinct. Indeed, to look back and recall how Montgomerie performed in the midst of Jakartagate - a period, do not forget, when his divorce was still raging - is to see the mark of a man who has found salvation in his legendary focus. "I've always managed to blot things out on the course," he says. "A round is only five hours long and that's not bad out of 24. You can concentrate on the other horrible stuff for the other 19. In fact, it's actually nice to be out there when the bad times are happening. It's a relief. The feeling that there's no mobile phone about to ring. The bad news can wait till the end of the round."

Never was it awaiting more eagerly than after the final round at the PGA Championship in May. Then a throng assembled at the Wentworth recorder's hut, not to congratulate him on a 66 that hurtled him up to 11th place but to ask his response to that morning's outburst from a fellow professional about, yes, that rules rumpus. Head bowed, Montgomerie appeared deeply wounded that day, although perhaps not purely because of Gary Evans' broadside. "I know it [his six-under-par round] didn't figure in most people's eyes but in mine it sure did. That 66 was probably my best round of the year for what it represented and the pressure I was under. It came down to me needing to get up and down from 100 yards to get into the world's top 50 and the US Open. That was the milestone reached, to be back assured of my place in a major. You know, if I'd shot 70 or something that day, who knows what would have happened for the rest of the year."

Almost certainly he would have been absent from Pinehurst and his second successive major, after missing his first Masters in 14 years. The start of the season had seen Montgomerie embark on a frantic hemisphere-hop in his mission to qualify for Augusta, but the win he needed never came and even a rash of top 10s was no consolation when the dripping pines appeared before him only on his television.

"No, it wasn't easy watching it from the sofa, despite the fact that I love sport on TV, watching my rivals under pressure, how they respond to it - slow down, quicken up, etc," he says. "But here I was thinking, 'For Christ's sake, the last round I shot was a 60; I can still play this game, I should be there'. I couldn't wait to get back in there with them."

An also-ran placing in North Carolina was something of a let-down, therefore, although his appetite had been whetted sufficiently to believe his stated year's goal of reaching the world's top 25 was not as far-fetched as it had seemed. A fast-finishing runner-up's berth at the European Open nudged his confidence still further, although coming into The Open proper it was still hope rather than conviction raising his goose pimples. "I could still see it, but wasn't sure whether I could still touch it," is the way he puts it, although St Andrews was about to change all that.

"It really was the most magical of weeks," he says. "As soon as I got there and Dennis [Pugh, his coach] told me he had something to work on with my putting, it all started to come together." By an unforgettable Saturday afternoon, all of Scotland had come together as Monty's Army drove sport's most immovable psyche to the very point of distraction. "There was an unbelievable atmosphere surrounding that final group, there really was. It even affected Tiger [Woods], for the first couple of hours anyway. I don't think he was expecting it. There was a lot more blue than there was red.

"The crowd's reaction was superb and really willed me on. They were worth at least a couple of shots, I'm sure. Walking on to the greens, on to the tees, into the gorse ... wherever, it was electric. Playing with Tiger and actually beating his score that day was one of the best, if not the best day, I've had on a course.

"It was definitely my favourite week in golf, honestly. You can't beat that. To have that level of warmth of support for one person... Well, I've never had anything like that. Sure, the Ryder Cup is amazing and all that, but the fans there are cheering on a team, a continent. Here it was just all for one person and it was incredible."

It was not incredible enough, of course, but then some glaring realities can withstand the most intoxicating of fantasies. "Tiger was on form and on form round there he's going to win," says Montgomerie. "But by the ninth on Sunday I got within one and even though it was Tiger and this was his No 1 place on earth, I really believed, 'This is it, what a place to do it.' But if you finish runner-up to the player of our generation, and probably the next as well, that's OK. Just to have beaten the rest of the world was a huge boost for my self-esteem. I felt like I was back where I really belonged. I wasn't at all comfortable down in 83rd in the world, being 'the 28th best player in Europe'. It gave me the belief that I wasn't washed up as parts of me believed I was the year before."

Nevertheless, it was still not "clean-up" time as an untimely hand injury threatened to derail his comeback just as his name was returning to the main timetable.

The USPGA came and went in pain and frustration, and so too the World Match Play, but just as the campaign looked bound for the buffers so arrived St Andrews again. "Don't ask me what it is with that place," he says. "On the Friday at the Dunhill Links I shot a 65 in the wind, one of my finest ever. I knew that if I could win then I'd have a shout at the Order Of Merit and to come back from five behind [Kenneth Ferrie] in the last round to win my first tournament in 18 months or so was the stuff of dreams."

To Monty and the man in the street, both. "Two things made me realise how much confidence your average Joe Punter must have in me. The first was hearing that one chap was going to have £500 at 10-1 to win the Dunhill but thought, 'To hell with it' and stuck it all on me winning the Order of Merit to pick up fifty grand. The next was when I was in Madrid and one man came up and told me he'd had £30 at the same odds - 100-1 - and that the winnings would pay for his mum's eye operation. Imagine the pressure that put me under."

What pressure? By the Madrid Open, courtesy of coming third in the prestigious WGC Amex in San Francisco, Montgomerie had leapfrogged the US Open winner, Michael Campbell, at the top of the money list and with just his "home from home", Valderrama, to come he was suddenly long odds-on to lift his first Order of Merit in six years. "If someone had told me, even in July, that I was going to end up winning my eighth Harry Vardon Trophy, I would have said, 'No, that isn't going to happen.'"

Happen it did, and in Hong Kong last month came his first victory of the "new" "European Tour" season that took him back into the world's top 10 and all but ensured Montgomerie's eighth Ryder Cup appearance in September. Time to look forward, surely, although Montgomerie is ready for the inevitable when you persuade him to talk 2006. "Go on ask me about that 'missing major' as you press always do," he laughs. "In fact, I think it bothers you lot more than it does me. I mean, it wouldn't change me or my lifestyle. It would just be the icing on a very satisfactory cake. Sure, when it's major time I'll give it my best shot and all that. But if it happens, it happens. And if it doesn't? Well, sleep won't be lost." If you didn't know Monty better, you might almost believe him.